With one more week left to go in the 2010 NFL regular season, the playoff picture in the AFC is beginning to come into focus, and will likely remain the same throughout the slate of Week 17 contests, as the New York Jets, Kansas City Chiefs and Indianapolis Colts meet up with fairly weak opponents.
At this point in the race to the playoffs, the Baltimore Ravens (11-4) can’t finish any worse than a number five seed, thanks in part to a Jets loss in Chicago last Sunday. In addition, the AFC North is still up for grabs, and Baltimore can walk away division champions by virtue of a win next week against Cincinnati and a Pittsburgh loss in Cleveland.
Using the “If the season ended today” scenario, the Ravens would remain on the road throughout the playoff season, taking the team to Indianapolis in the wild-card round and Pittsburgh in the divisional round—two cities in which the Ravens have had little success in the past.
If Baltimore were fortunate enough to advance to the AFC championship, they would likely face their toughest test of the season, a trip to New England to mingle with the NFL’s hottest team, the Patriots.
Even if the Ravens wind up winning their division on Sunday, one home game in the divisional round is all they will likely reap over the course of the playoffs. The teams they will tango with should remain the same, with Indianapolis or Pittsburgh making the trip to Baltimore instead.
When asked about the Ravens likely path through the playoffs during a press conference, head coach John Harbaugh alluded to the fact he would rather see his team play the tough games on the road, believing Baltimore can beat anyone, anywhere.
Harbaugh’s statements do hold some truth, as the Ravens have won away from home in the wild-card round in each of the last two seasons—most notably, Baltimore’s 33-14 victory in New England during the 2009 wild-card contest.
Thankfully, for Baltimore fans, the Ravens have rediscovered their identity in the running game that brought so much success to the team in recent years. The recent problems Baltimore has encountered running the football had nothing to do with lack of rush attempts. Instead, the offensive line has finally improved on opening up running lanes, allowing the Ravens to rely less on QB Joe Flacco and more on their running backs.
If the Ravens can duplicate their recent efforts against the New Orleans Saints and Cleveland Browns, which resulted in convincing wins, this will be a wild-card team no one will want to face in the playoffs—that is, if Baltimore fails to clinch the division on Sunday.
For the Ravens, playing a shaky Jaguars team in either the wild-card round, or divisional round, will bode much better for Baltimore than the current scenario.
Regardless of where the Ravens finish in the final playoff seeding, they should be able to build on the improvements they’ve made on both offense and defense.
Who will win the AFC North?
Safety Ed Reed has finally reached mid-season form, grabbing six interceptions in nine games. Quarterbacks Drew Brees and Colt McCoy were victimized by the perennial Pro Bowler in recent weeks, and Reed (if healthy) should play a big part in whether Baltimore reaches the Super Bowl in 2010 or not.
Just watching the Ravens level of play through the month of December leaves one to believe this is a team that could easily go all the way this year—although the road to Dallas won’t be an easy road to hoe.
Todd McGregor is a Baltimore Ravens Featured Columnist here on BleacherReport.com
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