The Baltimore Ravens are in an extremely fortuitous position presently, holding the top spot in the AFC North with a two-game lead and having the second-best record in the entire AFC. However, there are six games left in the season, presenting Baltimore with six opportunities to cement its standing or six chances to lose its grip on the postseason.
There are contests both difficult and less-so ahead for Baltimore, with each one as important as the last. If the Ravens want to repeat as AFC North champions, they cannot afford many more losses. Here's how they can keep control of their division, starting with their Week 12 opponent, the San Diego Chargers.
Beating the Chargers
Last season, the Ravens were on a four-game winning streak when they traveled to San Diego to face the less-than-super Chargers. Baltimore was handed an upset loss as a result, falling 34-14. It was a textbook road loss for the Ravens, with quarterback Joe Flacco throwing two interceptions and running back Ray Rice rushing for only 57 yards. The plan this time around is to not repeat this performance, even though they yet again must face San Diego as the visiting team.
The dominant Chargers team of seasons past seems to be a faded memory, but they're still a dangerous opponent. Their quarterback, Philip Rivers, will likely be looking to take advantage of a Ravens secondary that has been ravaged by injuries, and the pressure will be on safeties Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard to keep tight end Antonio Gates covered and contained.
If Rivers does underestimate the Ravens cornerbacks, however, he could be in for a long day. Rivers has 14 interceptions this year—the most in the league—and his errant throwing of late combined with his propensity to throw the floating deep ball makes him at risk for turnovers this week.
Flacco, too, is at risk for having a down day considering how he's performed on the road this season. Typically, this could be augmented by good running by Rice, but the Chargers defense has been particularly stingy with the rushing yards this season, with opponents averaging 88 yards per game on approximately 23 carries. However, in the last four weeks, the Chargers have given up over 100 rushing yards three times and lost two of those games.
Considering the caliber of running back that did so in those games—Trent Richardson, Jamaal Charles and Willis McGahee (and later, Ronnie Hillman, after McGahee suffered a knee injury)—and the stage appears to be set for Rice to have a big game despite how the Chargers defense has been performing on average this season.
With all teams in the AFC North taking on those of the AFC West, the Ravens must pick up this win; this is a tiebreaker the Ravens cannot afford to eventually fall in the favor of the Steelers or Bengals.
Around the Division
What helps the Ravens the most, in terms of their own division, is that their biggest rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers, still have four divisional games to play. One of them comes next week, against the Ravens, with two ahead against the Browns (the first this Sunday) and one against the Cincinnati Bengals at the end of the year.
The Steelers, as we all know, are in a bit of trouble at the moment, and their season can be best described as being in limbo. Last week, in their 13-10 loss to the Ravens, backup quarterback Byron Leftwich suffered shoulder and rib injuries that has him out for at least Week 12 and perhaps longer, and the only reason he was in the game to begin with was because of rib and shoulder injuries suffered by Ben Roethlisberger in the previous week.
That means that for the known future, it's Charlie Batch under center in Pittsburgh. Add into that the fact that Steelers receiver Antonio Brown isn't yet back from his high ankle sprain and fellow receiver Jerricho Cotchery has a rib injury of his own. The once-powerful Pittsburgh offense is now in danger of being sunk under the weight of all those broken bones and strained ligaments.
This isn't to say the Steelers are going to lose all of their remaining games or that the Ravens are in no danger of dropping their lead to them, but it will take a lot of work. They are two games behind Baltimore in the division and just one game ahead of the Cincinnati Bengals. There's a real chance that, come January, the Steelers are a non-factor.
The Bengals should also concern Baltimore. After a four game losing streak mid-season, the Bengals have won their last two games in a row and take on the Oakland Raiders this Sunday. The most difficult stretches of their season are both behind and ahead of them, and the ultimate fate of the division may come down to their final two games, with the Bengals taking on first the Steelers and then the Ravens.
Baltimore's divisional lead is safe for now, but there is no room for it to let its guards down, especially with a sweep in the AFC North very much within its grasp.
Weeks 14 Through 16
The Ravens' remaining AFC North games bookend a rather rough stretch of opponents in Weeks 14 through 16, during which time they have a road game against the Washington Redskins and two home contests against the Denver Broncos and New York Giants.
These are three legitimately tough teams—the Redskins keep piling on wins thanks to their rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III, the Giants are the defending Super Bowl champions and cannot be underestimated despite their present two-game losing streak and the Broncos are nearly about to clinch the AFC West by a mile—and losses here could derail Baltimore's hopes of a divisional title.
Good teams not only play well against other good teams—they beat them—and it's something the Ravens have had mixed results with this season. They felled both the Steelers and the New England Patriots, but were handily defeated by the only team in the AFC with a better record, the Houston Texans. To the Ravens' credit, two of these games are at home, giving them a decided advantage.
The main concern in these contests is the Ravens defense. Though they performed quite well against the Steelers last week, they must continue that success. Controlling Griffin, Peyton Manning and his younger brother Eli in three straight weeks is a tall order, even for defenses that are putting up better statistics.
However, convincing wins in just two of these three contests not only helps the Ravens' win-loss record, but also sets them up for the caliber of opponent they'll see both in the postseason as well as potentially in the Super Bowl. A dress rehearsal, if you will.