Although the Baltimore Ravens have clinched a playoff berth already, this may be the most important Week 17 in this young franchise's history. This may sound odd for a team that is accustomed to clinching late playoff berths, but this year has a major difference.
That difference is that this year the Ravens control their playoff destiny. If they can defeat the Cincinnati Bengals, they will win the AFC North, get a first round-bye and host their first home playoff game since 2006. Lose and they will likely be a wild-card team with no home playoff games and more importantly, no weeks off for injured players.
However, from the talk surrounding the Ravens, you would think getting a wild-card spot is as bad as being entirely eliminated from the playoffs. People complaining about the wild-card spot need only to look at recent history to see that wild-card teams can compete in the playoffs. In the last six years, three wild-card teams have won Super Bowls.
The Ravens' chances of winning the Super Bowl would admittedly be less as wild-card team, but they would not be non-existent. Winning three consecutive road games is a daunting task in the regular season, much more so in the postseason. Nevertheless, it is not an impossible task, and it might even be possible that the Ravens will be the next wild-card team to surprise in the playoffs.
Working in the Ravens' favor is the fact that they have showed up in every big game this year. Granted many of these were home games, but it is impossible to deny that wins over high-quality opponents like the Pittsburgh Steelers twice, the San Francisco 49ers and the Houston Texans aren't impressive. The Ravens have proven they have the talent to defeat any team in the NFL.
Playoff experience is another thing that makes this Ravens team very dangerous. No matter which AFC North team gets the top wild-card spot, Baltimore will still be a favored team thanks in part to their frequent postseason trips. The Ravens have won four road playoff games over the last three years, and could possibly do it again if need be.
Other advantages include Ray Rice, who when properly utilized can run the ball effectively against most defenses. Then there's the ferocious defense that has carried the team since its inception. Stars like Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs and Ed Reed have the ability to keep the Ravens in games and even make the plays to win them.
Now obviously there are also disadvantages to this Ravens team. The obvious one I'm thinking about is the Ravens' mediocre 3-4 road record. Three of the four teams that beat them will not be going to the playoffs, and only once have they had a clutch road victory (Week 8 at the Pittsburgh Steelers).
Then there's the play of quarterback Joe Flacco, a factor that I think could be the most crucial. Amazingly in their five victories, Flacco has only had one good playoff game so far. That will likely need to change for the Ravens to advance to a Super Bowl.
So can the Ravens make it to the Super Bowl even if they are a wild-card team? The wild-card round looks promising thus far as both the Oakland Raiders and the Denver Broncos have looked terrible recently in non-competitive blowouts. The AFC West champion will likely be the weakest playoff team and the Ravens would be favored to win that game.
But looking past the wild-card round, beating the New England Patriots in their stadium seems daunting. Beating the Steelers in their stadium and for a third time this season seems daunting. Beating both of them on the road in two weeks seems like a task that's too difficult for this particular Ravens team.
This is why the Ravens need to win the AFC North and play in the comforts of M&T Bank Stadium. Although that is no guarantee of a Super Bowl, it gives the Ravens a much better chance. A far better chance than the wild-card runs with the tragically predictable endings.