The Baltimore Ravens are streaking toward the postseason with a gaudy 8-2 mark with six games left to play. Barring a historical collapse, they will hit the postseason for the fifth consecutive year under coach John Harbaugh.
Though there is still plenty of time for things to go wrong, this guy prefers to look at his Ravens glass half-full and also start counting his chickens just before they are hatched.
The playoff picture is starting to come into focus after 10 games have been played by each team. There are fairly definitive leaders in three of four divisions, though it's hard to imagine that the Broncos will be tested by the collection of dumpster fires in their AFC West.
So let's take a look ahead at potential opponents for the Ravens as they head down the final six games of the season. The road to the postseason travels through sunny (and classy) San Diego this weekend, but let's see what potential playoff pitfalls await. Enjoy now!
Head-to-Head Record Since 2008: 1-3 (0-1 playoffs)
The Indianapolis Colts are surprising a lot of people, but honestly should they really be considered a "surprise"? Only a year removed from a two-win season, the Colts replaced an iconic quarterback (no, not Curtis Painter) with a No. 1 overall draft pick (Andrew Luck).
The Colts have also rallied around the their coach, Chuck Pagano, who was diagnosed with leukemia earlier in the year. Interim coach Bruce Arians has done a remarkable job keeping the team focused and has the Colts back in the playoff hunt.
There will be no Indianapolis-Baltimore matchup in the regular season, but the Ravens would probably be happy not to see No. 18 under center if they meet in the playoffs. That said, Andrew Luck could pose an equal number of problems for the Baltimore defense. He has shown that he is not afraid to make any throw and has led the Colts to come-from-behind victories over Green Bay and Tennessee earlier this year.
For all of the Colts offense, the defense has shown that it is prone to the big play. The Colts currently rank 20th in overall defense, 22nd in scoring defense. A high-scoring shootout with Baltimore probably wouldn't favor the Colts since the Raven's scoring defense sits eighth overall in the NFL, despite giving up a ton of yardage.
With the Texans likely to win the AFC South, the Colts would have to take their improbable playoff run on the road.
Head-to-Head Record Since 2008: 6-3 (have not met in playoffs)
Head coach Marvin Lewis knows Baltimore and its personnel as well as anyone. Lewis seems to have finally turned the corner with the traditionally awful Bengals. They have an extremely talented roster capable of beating any team in the league (see dominant win vs. Giants). Unfortunately they have been prone to mental lapses and can lose to any team in the league (see bad home loss to Miami).
Baltimore has led the series since John Harbaugh took over the coaching duties, including a blowout win in the season opener this year. Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton looks as if he has managed to avoid a sophomore slump and has been impressive since opening day in Baltimore. He leans heavily on A.J. Green and tight end Jermaine Gresham, who account for almost half of Dalton's targets through 10 games.
The Bengals defense has been hit or miss this season, though it has tightened up in the last couple of weeks. The Bengals don't have a matchup against a team with a winning record until they host the Steelers in Week 16.
Cincinnati hosts the Ravens in the regular-season finale in what could have crucial playoff implications for both teams.
Head-to-Head Record Since 2008: 2-2 (1-1 in playoffs)
The New England Patriots hold a particularly special place in the Ravens' heart, particularly come playoff time. Last season, Baltimore effectively controlled Tom Brady and had positioned itself for a tying field goal late in the fourth quarter. Unfortunately, kicker Billy Cundiff butchered his 32-yard attempt, allowing the Patriots to eke out a 23-20 decision.
Baltimore exacted a certain measure of revenge earlier this season at M&T Bank Stadium with a game that played out very much like the game nine months earlier. Obviously the stakes weren't nearly as high, and the result was much more favorable for the Ravens. New kicker Justin Tucker provided the difference with a 27-yarder as time expired.
New England has been cruising along since that loss, putting a gap between itself and the rest of their division. As usual the Patriots are blowing people away with offense. Stevan Ridley leads a legitimate rushing attack, with Tom Brady distributing passes to his usual collection of small speedy receivers. All-World tight end Rob Gronkowski will be on the shelf for the next six to eight weeks with a broken arm but will be back for the playoffs.
The silver lining to Gronkowski's injury is that the rest of his body will be fresh come playoff time. He poses a matchup nightmare for just about every team in the NFL. If the Ravens are lucky enough to get Ray Lewis and corner Jimmy Smith back for the playoffs it would certainly add a spark to a semi-permeable defense.
Head-to-Head Record Since 2008: 3-1 (1-0 in playoffs)
The Houston Texans have been riding the "potential" wave for a few years before finally breaking through last season for their inaugural playoff visit. Unfortunately for the Texans, by the time they broke the seal to the postseason, they were running with their third-string quarterback, T.J. Yates.
The Texans ran past the Cincinnati Bengals, literally, behind Arian Foster and Ben Tate for almost 200 yards rushing. Their good fortune ran out the following week against Baltimore as four turnovers doomed their chances for an upset.
The Texans have put together a total team effort this year and are off to a league best 10-1 record that includes a 43-13 beat down of the Ravens in Houston earlier this year. The 30-point margin of victory is the largest defeat in the Harbaugh era, and the Ravens are itching for an opportunity at redemption.
The Texans still have one of the top offenses in the league. A balance of Arian Foster and precision passing from Matt Schaub can keep opposing defenses on their heels all afternoon. Andre Johnson is a matchup nightmare on the outside with his size, speed and strength.
Houston also boasts one of the most ferocious front sevens in the league. Led by J.J. Watt, the Texans pass rush can make offensive coordinators squirm. The secondary has proven to be the soft spot in the Texans defense, getting exposed in the last two weeks by both Detroit and lowly Jacksonville.
If Houston keeps winning, it would own home-field advantage, meaning Baltimore will have the opportunity to return to its house of horrors from Week 7.
Head-to-Head Record Since 2008: 2-0 (have not met in playoffs)
The Denver Broncos qualify now as the team that employs Peyton Manning, which is bad news for Baltimore. The Ravens will get a good look at the four-time MVP in four weeks on December 16 when Manning brings his band of Broncos to Baltimore.
While he was in Indianapolis, Manning made the Ravens vaunted defense look ordinary in the regular season and in the playoffs with a 3-0 head-to-head record. The Colts eliminated the Ravens in 2009 with a decisive 20-3 divisional playoff win on their way to a Super Bowl appearance against New Orleans.
The Broncos have righted their collective ship after a lukewarm start. Manning has taken over the offense and has made the Broncos wideouts an elite receiving unit. Willis McGahee was placed on IR this past week, effectively ending his season in Denver.
Denver still has a few options at running back, including Knowshon Moreno, Lance Ball and Ronnie Hillman who is the Broncos second-leading rusher this year. If those three can't move the ball effectively, look for Manning to revert to his gunslinging days in Indianapolis.
The Broncos have a fairly easy schedule remaining and could challenge for home field advantage if anyone above them in the standings stumbles.
Head-to-Head Record Since 2008: 5-6 (0-2 in playoffs)
They say that familiarity breeds contempt, and the Ravens are all too familiar with their hated division rivals. The road to the Super Bowl tends to go through three places: Pittsburgh, New England and whomever Peyton Manning is playing for.
The regular-season matchups between Baltimore and Pittsburgh seem to take on an extra level of intensity. Whether it is the close geographic proximity or simply bragging rights, these two teams leave nothing on the field when the final whistle sounds. The first regular-season meeting last week was no different with Baltimore sneaking past the Steelers 13-10 in another rugged defensive battle.
It's pretty safe to say that the Steelers are a different club when Ben Roethlisberger is taking the snaps. They are 6-2 with No. 7 behind center against Baltimore since 2008, including 2-0 in the playoffs. Against an aggressive defense like Baltimore, Roethlisberger's ability to extend plays is absolutely deadly. His current injury, a dislocated rib, might keep him out of the next regular season matchup against Baltimore.
Besides "Big Ben" the Steelers have shown a three-headed monster in their rushing attack. Current leader Jonathan Dwyer has been a little bowling ball, plowing for 4.6 yards per carry. Isaac Redman and last year's starter Rashard Mendenhall round out the triple threat. Speedsters Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown will give the secondary nightmares, though Brown has been nicked up since the win against the New York Giants.
The defense in Pittsburgh is the real fear factor. Ranked No. 1 overall, the Steelers welcomed back Troy Polamalu to practice this week after a calf injury had sidelined him for most of the season. The hard hitting defensive unit is ranked No. 1 in passing and fifth against the run.
The Raven's offense looked pedestrian last week against them. A special teams touchdown saved Baltimore from an ugly loss. We'll see what type of adjustments are made for the Week 11 meeting in Maryland.