The Baltimore Ravens still have statistical control of the AFC North and are just one win away from clinching it, and with it a playoff berth. However, that win will be hard to get this week, with the Denver Broncos coming to town on Sunday and two other teams in the division breathing down their necks.
The Ravens are on a two-game slide, something they haven't experienced since 2009, when they lost three in a row in Weeks 4 through 6. A loss this week, combined with wins by both the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals, makes the playoff picture murkier for Baltimore and could push them from being contenders to win the division to fighting for a wild-card berth.
Baltimore controls its own destiny, but to win its final three games will be a test. First up is the Broncos, with their high-powered offense headed by quarterback Peyton Manning and their excellent pass-rushing defense. Denver is currently on an eight-game win streak and have clinched the AFC West, but that doesn't mean they'll take it easy on the Ravens now that they've less to fight for.
The Ravens are in a transition of sorts, having fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron earlier this week and replacing him with quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell. This move will need to pay big dividends quickly, with Baltimore's offense likely going to have to outscore Manning on Sunday.
The defensive injuries and attendance inconsistency may not result in the Ravens keeping Manning under control, putting the pressure back on Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco and running back Ray Rice to keep pace with a Denver offense that has had no trouble putting up 30 or more points this season.
If Baltimore is to prove it deserves to be counted among the AFC's best teams, then beating a powerhouse like the Broncos is necessary. And if the team wants to make the path to the postseason that much easier, then a win this week is how they can do it.
If they don't, however, their playoff hopes are nowhere near lost, but things do get more stressful and down-to-the-wire. All the Steelers and Bengals need to do to get in is to win out—and with the two teams facing each other in Week 16, one will likely be knocked out of wild-card contention.
However, should that winning team be the Bengals, and should the Bengals defeat the Philadelphia Eagles on Thursday, then the division could come down to Week 17's meeting between Baltimore and Cincinnati, especially if the Ravens drop yet another game next week when they host the New York Giants.
In fact, should the Ravens lose their final three games, they could find themselves out of the playoffs altogether. During the next three weeks, if the Bengals or Steelers win all three of their remaining contests (with the only loss by one of them their Week 16 meeting) while the Ravens lose theirs, the one that wins out will get the division, the other likely grabs a wild-card berth and Baltimore stays home.
Considering how the Ravens' season has gone—they had only two losses prior to their current two-game slide—despite injuries and inconsistent play on both offense and defense, it would be a devastating turn of events. The last thing the Ravens want to have happen is to have the AFC North title within their grasp and let it slip through their fingers, so these final three games must be played with a do-or-die attitude.
Winning on Sunday is the Ravens' best bet when it comes to winning the division and securing themselves a spot in the postseason. Postponing it until Week 16 or later makes their footing less sure and more unstable, giving their two divisional rivals a window through which they can pull the playoffs out from under Baltimore.
The Ravens need to prove they can hang with the conference's sure-thing playoff teams, and a win makes the path to January all that much easier and shorter.