Now that the Ravens have assured themselves of the smoothest path through the playoffs, all that’s left is to ponder their possible opponents for the AFC divisional round in three weeks at M&T Bank Stadium.
Of course, their Week 17 matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers could be a possible divisional round preview. The Steelers (8-7) need a win Sunday and a loss by the Tennessee Titans (8-7) against the Houston Texans (10-5) to get into the playoffs.
That all depends on how careful the Texans and Ravens are with their key players.
No doubt, the status of Ravens star Lamar Jackson will be a hot topic when coach John Harbaugh holds his Monday press conference at the Under Armour Performance Center.
It’s also fair to assume that running back Mark Ingram II and tight end Mark Andrews will play very little, if at all, after both left Sunday’s victory over the Browns with leg injuries.
The Titans have a win-and-in scenario against the Texans, and the Oakland Raiders (7-8) are even hanging around, though they’ll need a win over the Denver Broncos, a Steelers loss to the Ravens, a Titans loss to the Texans and an Indianapolis Colts win against the Jacksonville Jaguars to sneak in.
So, which team should Ravens fans hope will be the lowest seed still standing after the wild-card round?
It most likely will be the winner of the game between the AFC South champion Texans and the No. 5 seed Buffalo Bills (10-5).
The wounded Steelers might be a more attractive matchup, but they look like an even bigger longshot after looking anemic against the Jets on Sunday.
For the Steelers or any other remaining AFC candidates to show up at M&T Bank Stadium, they would have to pull an upset over the top-seeded division champion without a wild-card bye. That would appear to be the Chiefs (11-4), though they can move up into the No. 2 seed and trade places with Patriots (12-3) if Kansas City beats the Denver Broncos and New England loses the Miami Dolphins.
Among the most likely scenarios, the Ravens might prefer to play the Texans, who they trounced by 34 points in their Week 11 home matchup. They beat the Bills by just a touchdown two weeks ago in Buffalo and might not be quite as keen on a rematch, especially after what happened when they beat the Los Angeles Chargers on the road late last season and drew them again in their first (and last) playoff game.
NFC field is nearly set
The Philadelphia Eagles sent the Dallas Cowboys home to a world of institutional second-guessing and took the driver’s seat in the NFC East race.
There could be five 12-win teams in the NFC, but it’s far more likely that the Saints and 49ers get their 13th victories next week and claim the two playoff byes.
There are a couple of great regular-season matchups left. The Seattle Seahawks suffered a surprising home loss to the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, but they still can win the NFC West with a victory over the 49ers at CenturyLink Field by virtue of identical 12-4 records and winning both head-to-head matchups.
Strangely, the Arizona game could have wild-card seeding implications, but wouldn’t have made any difference in the Week 17 scenario. If the Seahawks had won, they still would have had to beat the 49ers to win the division title and push San Francisco into a likely wild-card tie with at least one other 12-win team.
In this week’s “Monday Night Football” matchup, the Green Bay Packers will take on the Minnesota Vikings in a game that could leave both teams with an 11-4 record. The Packers can wrap up the division title with a victory, but — based on the division record tie-breaker — would still be able to lose and determine their divisional destiny in a very winnable game against the three-win Lions next week.
Big game for a different reason
At the other end of the NFL power rankings, the Cincinnati Bengals played into the final seconds of overtime Sunday before losing to the Miami Dolphins, 38-35, to clinch the worst record in the NFL and the first choice in the 2020 draft.
What a proud moment for a franchise that hasn’t won a playoff game since 1990.