Monday, November 30, 2020

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Contender or pretender: Sizing up the 2014 AFC wild-card race

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Luke Jones
Luke Jones
Luke Jones is the Ravens and Orioles beat reporter for WNST BaltimorePositive.com and is a PFWA member. His mind is consumed with useless sports knowledge, pro wrestler promos, and movie quotes, but he struggles to remember where he put his phone. Luke's favorite sports memories include being one of the thousands of kids who waited to get Cal Ripken's autograph after Orioles games in the summer of 1995, attending the Super Bowl XXXV victory parade with his father in the pouring rain, and watching the Terps advance to the Final Four at the Carrier Dome in 2002. Follow him on Twitter @BaltimoreLuke or email him at Luke@wnst.net.

Even as the Ravens and their fans continue to seethe over a surprising 34-33 loss to the San Diego Chargers in Week 13, head coach John Harbaugh took a more pragmatic approach when addressing reporters on Monday afternoon.
The loss certainly didn’t help, but defeats suffered by several other AFC teams left six teams with a 7-5 record as we enter the final quarter of the regular season. It won’t be easy for Baltimore as it tries to survive with the NFL’s 31st-ranked pass defense, but a reasonable schedule down the stretch leaves the Ravens in good shape if — and that’s a big if — they handle their own business.
“We wake up this morning, we look at the standings and we are right in the thick of it,” Harbaugh said. “It’s going to go down to the wire. And we have a huge game down in Miami this week, and it’ll be a lot on the line. They’ll be ready, and they’re good. We’ll have a great opportunity to make a move.”
There’s no understating how important Sunday’s game against the Dolphins will be as it represents another head-to-head tiebreaker scenario after the Ravens dropped one to San Diego this past week. A win pushes Baltimore to 8-5 and knocks Miami down a peg in the standings while a defeat all but guarantees the need to win out and to hope for assistance from other teams in the playoff race.
The Ravens still hold out hope for a chance to win the AFC North, but Cincinnati currently leads by 1 1/2 games over the other three teams in the division. With the Bengals playing the Steelers twice and the Browns once in the final month, the division race is far from over, but Cincinnati has firm control of its path as we enter Week 14.
Below is a look at the current wild-card field — with numbers indicating each team’s current place in the conference — as we determine who the contenders and the pretenders are:
5. SAN DIEGO (8-4) – CONTENDER
Conference record: 6-3
Remaining schedule: New England, Denver, at San Francisco, at Kansas City
Skinny: How big was Sunday’s win in Baltimore for Mike McCoy’s team? All you have to do is take a look at the Chargers’ remaining schedule and realize you wouldn’t have liked their chances at all had they fallen to 7-5. Instead, they own a one-game lead over the 7-5 teams in the AFC and remain in excellent shape if they can go 2-2 in their final four. A year ago at this time, the Chargers were 5-7 and looked all but dead before running the table — including wins over Denver and Kansas City — and receiving lots of help to sneak into the postseason. They’ll need another good finish, but they have some margin for error this year.

6. MIAMI (7-5) – CONTENDER
Conference record: 6-3
Remaining schedule: Baltimore, at New England, Minnesota, New York Jets
Skinny: It wasn’t pretty, but the Dolphins’ Monday night win over the Jets kept them in prime position to secure a playoff spot with a strong finish in the final month. A Week 15 trip to Foxborough won’t be easy, but their final two home games are very winnable against two teams with a combined seven wins. Anything can happen considering the Ravens and the Dolphins both lost their final two games in 2013, but it certainly looks like Sunday’s game in Miami could go a long way in determining who secures a wild-card spot in the AFC playoff race.

7. KANSAS CITY (7-5) – PRETENDER
Conference record: 5-4
Remaining schedule: at Arizona, Oakland, at Pittsburgh, San Diego
Skinny: The Chiefs were feeling really good about themselves a few weeks ago, but consecutive losses to woeful Oakland and powerful Denver have brought them back to the rest of the pack. Kansas City can’t throw the ball and the run defense has been gashed in recent weeks, which doesn’t make for a good combination entering the season’s final month. With three games remaining on the schedule against teams with winning records — two of them on the road — it’s hard to envision the Chiefs playing well enough down the stretch to secure one of the two wild-card spots.

8. BUFFALO (7-5) – PRETENDER
Conference record: 4-5
Remaining schedule: at Denver, Green Bay, at Oakland, at New England
Skinny: The Bills continue to hang tough in the AFC playoff race after a nice win over the Browns on Sunday. However, remaining games against the Broncos, the Packers, and the Patriots should end any serious discussion about Buffalo qualifying for the postseason. With their other game being a cross-country trip to Oakland, the Bills might be fortunate just to win one more game in the final month of the regular season. It’d be interesting to see what the Bills could do with a real quarterback even if veteran Kyle Orton has done a respectable job since taking over for E.J. Manuel. Injuries at running back haven’t helped, either.
9. BALTIMORE (7-5) – CONTENDER
Conference record: 3-5
Remaining schedule: at Miami, Jacksonville, at Houston, Cleveland
Skinny: Sunday’s loss to San Diego was brutal as it gives the Ravens little wiggle room the rest of the way as they really need to beat the Dolphins on the road. The remaining schedule is reasonable, but how do you trust a secondary that continues to be toasted by any opposing passing games with a pulse? Even a road trip against the Texans is concerning with talented receivers Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins waiting. A lousy 3-5 conference mark doesn’t help matters for the Ravens, but we’ll see what Harbaugh’s team is made of in the next three weeks. The running game and the offense will need to come up huge.
10. PITTSBURGH (7-5) – CONTENDER
Conference record: 6-3
Remaining schedule: at Cincinnati, at Atlanta, Kansas City, Cincinnati
Skinny: The Steelers continue to be one of the most bipolar teams in the NFL as they stubbed their toe Sunday against New Orleans, who was coming off three straight losses. When at their best, the Steelers have one of the most balanced offenses in the league, but the defense doesn’t scare anyone and could easily be exploited down the stretch. The biggest factors working in the Steelers’ favor are a 6-3 conference record and two games with the Bengals, which could catapult them into the AFC North lead. Given how unpredictable they’ve been, the Steelers could win out or lose out and no one should be surprised with either outcome.

11. CLEVELAND (7-5) – PRETENDER
Conference record: 4-5
Remaining schedule: Indianapolis, Cincinnati, at Carolina, at Baltimore
Skinny: Quarterback Brian Hoyer has really struggled in recent weeks, but a change at quarterback isn’t exactly what you’re looking for while in the playoff hunt and that’s exactly where the Browns find themselves. Maybe rookie Johnny Manziel is the spark to light the fire for Cleveland down the stretch, but nothing else about the Browns’ final month of the schedule makes you think they’re going to do enough to sneak into the playoffs. They’ll need to beat either the Colts or the Bengals at home to give themselves any decent chance at all in the final two weeks.
12. HOUSTON (6-6) – PRETENDER
Conference record: 5-3
Remaining schedule: at Jacksonville, at Indianapolis, Baltimore, Jacksonville
Skinny: Why even include the Texans on the list considering they have the worst record of the bunch? Two of four remaining games coming against Jacksonville certainly helps, and a home game against the Ravens looks more and more reasonable given Baltimore’s pass defense woes. Of course, Houston isn’t a real contender, but no one thought the Chargers were at this time last year, either. If you’re looking for that deep sleeper to finish strong — three out of four wouldn’t be out of the question — and take advantage of a slew of other teams being mediocre down the stretch, Houston is your team. A good conference record also helps.

2 COMMENTS

  1. I agree with your assessment as to who is a contender and who is a pretender. However based on the Ravens’ conference record I truly believe that they need to run the table to get into the playoffs. 10-6 isn’t gonna cut it in my opinion. Every game from here on out is a playoff game for them. Should be an exciting last month of the season.
    (L.J. — They still have a chance if they finish 10-6, but if that sixth loss comes to Miami, it would not bode well losing head-to-head tiebreakers with San Diego and the Dolphins. The Ravens definitely have to treat it as though every week is a playoff game.)

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