It had been laid out for Ravens coach John Harbaugh long before he had the opportunity to get on his couch and spend a rare Sunday afternoon at home watching other NFL games on television.
"I've got a big advantage because our owner, Steve Bisciotti, that's a big part of what he does," Harbaugh said Monday. "He tells me who we need to be rooting for and who we need to be rooting against. He takes all emotion out of it, so I knew exactly who to root for this weekend. I was prepared."
When play concluded Sunday, the Ravens were in an even better position than they were when they exited the field late Thanksgiving night, following a 22-20 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The six 5-6 teams have been whittled down to just two 6-6 squads, the Ravens and the Miami Dolphins. All three 4-7 squads were beaten this past week as well, resulting in only one of the teams staying in the playoff hunt.
As the Ravens returned to the team facility Monday to start preparations for the Minnesota Vikings, their path to the playoffs was certainly more clear.
"We're excited about where we're at," Harbaugh said. "You can't really look back and say, 'We wish this would have happened, or we wish that would have happened.' What has happened has happened, good and not so good. But we are in position to control our own destiny. That is what you try to accomplish going into December, so we've accomplished that."
However, with six teams within a game of the sixth and finally playoff spot which the Ravens currently hold, Harbaugh sees no reason to look beyond Sunday's game against the Vikings and what remains on the Ravens' schedule.
"The interesting thing is that everybody is playing everybody right now," he said. "… A lot of times, it helps us either way, and it hurts us both ways — it doesn't really matter. What matters to us [is] we just have to win. If we win games, things are going to work out for us. If we don't, things are going to be tough."
Statistically, the Ravens have the second toughest remaining schedule over the six contenders for the final AFC wild-card spot. Here is a look at what they're up against:
Miami Dolphins (6-6)
Games remaining: at Pittsburgh (Sunday), vs. New England (Dec.15), at Buffalo (Dec.22), vs. New York Jets (Dec.29).
Threat level to Ravens: High
Skinny: The Dolphins won their first three, lost their next four and they've now alternated wins and losses over the next five weeks. In other words, they fit in perfectly in the up-and-down and mediocre AFC.
If the Dolphins are able to win one of their next two against either the Steelers or Patriots, they would be in the driver's seat because they finish with two teams that they should handle. But the Ravens beat the Dolphins in October so Miami would be on the outside looking in if it comes down to a tiebreak between the two teams.
New York Jets (5-7)
Games remaining: vs. Oakland (Sunday), at Carolina (Dec.15), vs. Cleveland (Dec.22), at Miami (Dec.29).
Threat level to Ravens: Low
Skinny: Their record stipulates that they have to be included even though all other evidence suggests that this team has no business harboring realistic playoff hopes.
The Jets have lost three straight games by a combined 79-20 margin. They are 2-7 against AFC foes and they've lost games this season to every AFC wildcard contender except the Chargers who they haven't played. And of course, their offense is a complete mess with rookie quarterback Geno Smith regressing every week. The bigger question may be if Rex Ryan is able to keep his job for a sixth season.
Pittsburgh Steelers (5-7)
Games remaining: vs. Miami (Sunday), vs. Cincinnati (Dec.15), at Green Bay (Dec.22), vs. Cleveland (Dec.29)
Threat level to Ravens: High
Skinny: There was plenty of talk that the Steelers' postseason chances were all but finished when they lost to the Ravens on Thanksgiving night, but it would be foolish to discount Pittsburgh at this point, especially as long as Ben Roethlisberger remains under center.
After all, the Steelers play three of their final four games at Heinz Field and they can leapfrog the Dolphins with a win on Sunday. That Week 16 trip to Lambeau Field also doesn't look as imposing if Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers doesn't return from a shoulder injury and there's no certainty that he will. A case could still be made that the Steelers remain the Ravens' biggest threat.
Tennessee Titans (5-7)
Games remaining: at Denver (Sunday), vs. Cardinals (Dec.15), at Jacksonville (Dec.22), vs. Houston (Dec.29)
Threat level to Ravens: Low
Skinny: The Titans finish with the weakest schedule among any of the wild-card contenders as the Jaguars and Texans are a combined 5-19. However, they have two tough games before they get to that point and they are clearly headed in the wrong direction.
Tennessee has lost six of its past eight games with the Broncos looming, and it's very hard to have much faith in backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick leading a postseason run.
San Diego Chargers (5-7)
Games remaining: vs. New York Giants (Sunday), at Denver (Dec.12), vs. Oakland (Dec.22), vs. Kansas City (Dec.29)
Threat level to Ravens: Moderate
Skinny: One of the Chargers' trademarks over the years has been to finish strong. However, is it already too late? San Diego has dropped four of its past five games and the 28-20 combined record of its remaining opponents is the highest among any of the contenders.
One thing that could work in their favor is that the Chiefs might already be locked into the fifth playoff spot by the regular-season finale and they could choose to rest most of their starters for Week 17. Still, the Chargers have just a 3-6 conference record and they have a losing record at home, which is where they'll be for three of the final four weeks.
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