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The most unusual aspect of this bizarre Baltimore Ravens season is not that they gave up franchise worsts for touchdowns and points in the first game of the post-Ray Lewis era. Nor is it that newly rich Joe Flacco established a career high for interceptions in a season just 10 games into this one. It's not even that Ed Reed has suffered as many (or more) losses as a visitor to M&T Bank Stadium in 2013 as he did in any of his final five full home seasons with the Ravens.
The craziest part of all is that after generally underachieving all year - looking suspiciously like the Jacksonville Jaguars every time they hit the road - the Ravens at this moment are in complete control of their playoff destiny.
And it's not just that they're in surprisingly good shape to qualify for the postseason. The more you look around the, ahem, mediocre AFC, the more you realize they're positioned to make another serious run.
OK, first things first. They're 6-6 after beating the Steelers in what was billed as an elimination game on Thanksgiving night. (By the way, how many of the activists decrying the fact that retail stores dared to open on Thanksgiving were among the 250,000 or so fans who voluntarily abandoned family and tradition to go to Ford Field, Cowboys Stadium or M&T Bank Stadium on Thursday?)
The Ravens will likely need three wins in their final four games to make the playoffs. Next week against Minnesota is a gimme. The Vikings are bad and the one thing they do well (running the ball) is something the Ravens stop well.
After that, Baltimore appears to have three 50-50 propositions: at Detroit, home against New England, and at Cincinnati. But the Ravens will have a tremendous edge in coaching ability against the Lions, they'll have one of the strongest home-field advantages in all of pro sports against the Patriots, and they'll have the confidence that comes from already beating their opponent once when they get their rematch with the Bengals.
In fact, if they find a way to win all four, they'll almost certainly be division champions. (So much for those "must-win" games they lost in Cleveland and Chicago, huh?)
If they win three out of four, depending on how the Bengals do, they could still win the division, but they would be all-but assured of the second AFC wild card because they're in such good shape on tie-breakers in a big-time down year for the AFC. They already own wins over the Dolphins and Jets, two of their main wild-card competitors, and they have the best AFC mark of any team not currently leading a division.
There are exactly five teams in the conference with a winning record. Who among them should the Ravens be particularly afraid of?
The Colts? They've been blown out by the mighty Rams and Cardinals in two of their past three games. The Bengals? They looked as bad as any team I've ever seen during the first-half of their Week 10 loss in Baltimore. The Chiefs? They rank 26th in the league in passing, and passing is all that matters on offense these days. The Patriots? They're doing it with mirrors in Tom Brady's worst season, with turnover problems on offense and injury problems on defense. The Broncos? Peyton Manning seems to lose about 5 mph off his fastball for every 10-degree drop in temperature - I'll take Flacco over Manning if I need a 20-yard completion outdoors in January (see last season's game at Denver).
The Ravens are playing quite well on defense, among the NFL leaders in key categories like run defense, points allowed, sacks, and getting off the field on third down. They've also begun showing some life on offense since Jacoby Jones got healthy and added another deep threat. (Flacco may not be particularly accurate at short range, but he throws as good a deep ball as anyone). They had six scoring drives against the Steelers. If they can find a way to start getting touchdowns instead of field goals, watch out.
I'm not always particularly bullish on the Ravens. It's quite possible I said they were "done" a year ago during their three-game losing streak in December. And, to be sure, it wouldn't be a big surprise if they wound up 8-8 and watching the playoffs.
It would be less of a surprise, however, to see the John Harbaugh/Joe Flacco streaks of reaching the postseason and winning at least one game extended. At this point, even another Super Bowl run is not out of the question.
It hasn't been a banner year for Baltimore. Strangely enough, though, it still can be.

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