Officially, the Maryland high school football playoffs do not start until the weekend of Nov. 9, with the regional semifinals.
But if you ask any of the Howard County coaches still in contention — and that includes roughly half of the league — they'll tell you that the playoffs have already begun.
"If you don't (look at it that way) you're not going to be prepared to play the game," said Wilde Lake coach Mike Harrison, whose team lost to Howard Oct. 20, 14-7.
After the loss, Wilde Lake (4-4) dropped to sixth in the competitive 3A East regional playoff standings, while Howard (5-3) improved to third, leapfrogging Mt. Hebron (5-3), which lost to Glenelg, 29-12, on Oct. 22.
"I told the team before we played that this was technically a playoff game, and that we have to basically win out to make the playoffs," said Howard senior defensive back Andrew Young, who made two interceptions in the win, the Lions' first over Wilde Lake since 2007.
While Howard — which lost starting quarterback Austin Blair to a broken leg two weeks ago — would like to win out, coach Bruce Strunk thinks they could still get into the playoffs by splitting their last two games.
"We sort of found, looking at all the points, that we control our own destiny and (Wilde Lake was) in the same boat," said Strunk, an assistant at Wilde Lake before becoming head coach at Howard. "Both teams had to win two of their last three and I think you're in."
What made last week's game so crucial was that both Howard and Wilde Lake have to play undefeated defending state champion River Hill down the stretch. While 2012 has proven that there is no such thing as a sure thing , the Hawks have been as tough to beat as anyone in the state, winning their last three games — two against playoff contenders — by a combined score of 140-0. The last time River Hill earned three shutouts in a row was in 2008, the year of its first state title.
If Howard can get past Mt. Hebron — which started the season 5-0 but has lost three straight — this Friday night, the Lions could finish out the regular season hosting River Hill, and then see them again a week later in the opening round of the playoffs. The Vikings will be desperate for a win as well, though, as they currently hold a slim edge over Reservoir (4-4) for the fourth and final 3A East playoff spot.
"Our schedule was tough, and we still have two tough games left," Mt. Hebron coach Phil Zacharias said. "Now, we're back to our goal of a winning season, which can be a good accomplishment but it will not equal what we could have done."
Still clinging to its playoff hopes, Wilde Lake and its second ranked defense will visit River Hill on Friday night. While it's a daunting task, a win would put the Wildecats right back in the thick of the race.
"With the craziness of the county, who knows, maybe we'll get a chance," Harrison said. "(But) we've got to rally back and be ready to play against River Hill."
With a win, the Hawks can clinch at least a share of their ninth county title in the last 10 years. But Atholton (7-1) — which won its first outright county title last year, ending a streak of eight straight by River Hill — still has a chance to catch or even pass the Hawks, should Atholton win out and River Hill lose both of its final two games.
"We want to finish it out strong and win these last two games, and then see (what we can do in) the playoffs," said Atholton junior running back Isaac Murray, who rushed for 150 yards and a TD in a 20-18 win over Hammond Friday night. "We want it bad."
The Raiders have now won four games by three points or less, and their only loss was to Long Reach (1-6), 13-12, one month ago. Hammond (3-5), meanwhile, has lost three games by three points or less.
"It's been a hard luck season for these guys. We're 3-5 with a lot of close games, just coming up on the short end of them," coach Dan Makosy said. "It's very balanced this year. Howard County is the toughest football in the state right now."
Brandon Hopp contributed to this story.
Week 9 schedule
Friday, Oct. 26, 7 p.m.
Atholton (7-1) at Marriotts Ridge (2-6)
Hammond (3-5) at Oakland Mills (0-8)
Howard (5-3) at Mt. Hebron (5-3)
Reservoir (4-4) at Long Reach (2-6)
Wilde Lake (4-4) at River Hill (8-0)
Saturday, Oct. 27, 1:30 p.m.
Centennial (3-5) at Glenelg (5-3)