After What I Saw Last Night, Monday Night in Green Bay is Now Critical

Yes, it was ugly, and it was far closer than it should have been, considering who didn’t play. Yes, at times the Ravens looked like a team that has no business having playoff aspirations. And yet, there the Ravens sit at 6-5, in the thick of the Wild Card chase.

But after what I saw last night, just don’t expect them to do it again on December 27th at Heinz Field.

Still, with five games to play, there is at least a reasonable chance that the Ravens will qualify for the postseason, and isn’t that why we play the games? And remember, every year a team sneaks into the playoffs and makes a surprising run. Why not the Ravens?

So, even though we’ve had to endure (fill in the blank with: Mark Clayton’s drop, Ray Lewis’ penalty, Steve Hauschka’s miss,  Joe Flacco’s interception), the dream lives on.

Here’s how the dream breaks out now:

The NY Jets, Miami, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Jacksonville, Houston, Tennessee and Denver are all still mathematically alive. The Titans, Jets, Dolphins and Texans already have six losses and thus must finish 5-0 to have a chance of making the playoffs. I don’t see any of those teams having a 5-0 finish in them, and so can be safely dismissed.

That leaves Jacksonville at 6-5 and facing games against Houston, Miami, Indianapolis and New England. I think there’s at least one loss in there somewhere, probably two. Look for them to finish no better than 10-6, but more likely 9-7.

Denver, at 7-4, still must travel to Kansas City, Indianapolis and Philadelphia. They also will probably finish no better than 10-6 and the Ravens, having beaten them, will have the first tiebreaker.

The 6-5 Steelers, locker room dissension notwithstanding, are still in the best position of all, with few real difficult games ahead. The only challenges for Pittsburgh are at home to Green Bay and Baltimore and at Miami. Expect the Steelers to finish at least 10-6, maybe 11-5. (All of this presumes Ben Roethlisberger returns to the lineup Sunday and finishes the year.)

The Ravens, another 6-5 team, should be able to win against Chicago, Detroit and Oakland. If they can steal one at 7-4 Green Bay on Monday night, 10-6 becomes very possible. If they lose, the game at Pittsburgh becomes a must-win, which, after watching Dennis Dixon move the ball effectively last night, seems like a bridge too far. If the Ravens lose both games, they’ll need lots of help to make the playoffs, and are likely left on the outside looking in.

But again, if they beat the Packers Monday Night, the Ravens can lose to Pittsburgh on the 27th and probably still make the playoffs. While taking one from Green Bay at Lambeau on national television seems, at first glance, to be an impossible task, it’s not. Aaron Rodgers is inconsistent, and the Packers have really only beaten one quality team this season (Dallas at home); the rest of their schedule has been filled up with the likes of Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland and St. Louis. In any event, this challenge seems to me to be far simpler than being in a must-win situation in Pittsburgh. Bring on the Packers, baby.

(This is going to be a long, long week.)

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It’s Not Going To Be Easy, But Here’s How The Ravens Make The Playoffs

After watching the Bengals sweep Pittsburgh yesterday, it occurred to me that the Ravens losses have been to Cincinnati, and at New England and Minnesota. Maybe they’re not really that bad, they’re just not elite. And we’ve all seen teams that were not considered elite sneaking into the playoffs and then going deep into January (actually, that would include last season’s Ravens). Having given it due consideration, the Ravens still have a path to the postseason, but it’s a narrow path. Here’s the way I see it:

These things are a given: The Patriots will win the AFC East, the Bengals will win the AFC North  and the Colts will win the AFC South. Either the Broncos or the Chargers will win the AFC West.

What’s still fuzzy are the two Wild Cards. Here are the teams still in the picture: NY Jets, Miami, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Jacksonville, Houston and the loser of the AFC West race. Of those seven, I’m going to dismiss the Jets and the Dolphins out of hand. [Rex Ryan & Tony Sparano quietly leave through the door in the back of the room.]

Jacksonville and Houston, both 5-3, are facing games against San Francisco, New England, Indianapolis and each other. Both are unexpectedly in contention, and I suspect that at least one of them will succumb under the weight of late-season pressure. However, I also expect the AFC South survivor to earn one of the two Wild Card berths.

The loser of the AFC West race, either Denver or San Diego, each now with three losses, will very probably finish with six or seven. The Ravens have beaten both of these teams, and so have the first tiebreaker, effectively eliminating a threat from the AFC West.

This leaves the real threat to the Ravens’ Wild Card chances, the detested Steelers. The two haven’t met yet, and if one team sweeps the other, that will likely be enough to get that team into the playoffs. This is obviously true of Pittsburgh, which only has three losses, but it is also true of the Ravens, and here’s why:

If the Ravens win the games they’ll be expected to (Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, Oakland) that’s eight wins. That leaves two games against Pittsburgh, plus Indy and a visit to Green Bay. Baltimore needs to win at least two of these games, in addition to the others. Of these four, because of the power of the tiebreaker, the two games against the Steelers mean more than matchups with the Colts and the Packers. In other words, beating the Colts and Packers will not mean as much to the playoff math as will the Steelers’ games.

(Of course, if the Ravens lose to the Browns tonight, I will quickly and politely escort them to that door in the back of the room.)

It must be galling to Rex Ryan to have lost to Jacksonville in the way he did. Rex has spent every minute since he arrived in New York talking about a new culture epitomized by defensive toughness. The defensive “genius” imported Bart Scott and Jim Leonhard to jump start that new culture, and now, a defense that looked so good early on is costing him games the Jets should have won. I guess getting away from football for a week didn’t solve all of the Jets’ problems, and now the rookie head coach will have to try and get inside the heads of the head cases he encouraged. I suspect Ryan will become less and less mouthy as the season wears him down. Lesson: Don’t make yourself a target until you’re sure you can deflect the arrows. Didn’t Rex learn anything from watching his Dad’s example?

Isn’t it amazing how excellent Ravens’ linebackers fade into obscurity once they leave the team? And we’re talking about players who were supposed to be game-changers with their new teams. Let’s see, there’s Jamie Sharper, Edgerton Hartwell, Adalius Thomas and now Bart Scott. Am I forgetting anyone?

Watching Tom Brady take apart the Colts last night gave me hope for this Sunday; of course, the Ravens aren’t the Patriots. I’m also pretty sure Peyton Manning is going to light up our secondary. The Colts’ defense is so much weaker without Bob Sanders, it’s amazing. It’s kind of the way the Steelers suffer without Troy Polamalu. I’m starting to consider strong safety the most second most important position in the NFL. By the way, I put that loss entirely on Bill Belichek, the new spokesman for Bad Idea Jeans.  His decision to go for the first down on his own 30 yard-line has to be one of the riskiest moves in recent memory, and it rightfully blew up in his face. Think about this – if Mark Clayton catches that pass, the Pats might be sitting at 5-4.

Trying to handicap the NFC makes my head hurt. The Giants and Falcons  are awesome, the Giants and Falcons suck. The Cowboys are a joke, the Cowboys are pretty good, the Cowboys suck. The Cardinals and the Panthers are pathetic, the Cardinals are going to run away with their division and the Panthers are beating some pretty good teams. The Packers are average, good, terrible, beating Dallas. Come to think of it, maybe the Ravens should play in the NFC…