AFC wild-card playoff reset: Ravens gain ground on Steelers, separate from Colts

Goodbye, Cincinnati Bengals. Hello, Pittsburgh Steelers. On Sunday, the AFC’s wild-card chase effectively bid farewell to one struggling contender and saw another division leader fall back to within touching distance.

The Ravens couldn’t complain much about Week 13. A win Sunday over the Atlanta Falcons, their third straight, strengthened their hold on the second wild-card spot, and the Indianapolis Colts’ shutout loss afforded them a little breathing room.


It didn’t matter that the Ravens couldn’t make up any ground on the fifth-seeded Los Angeles Chargers, either. That was for the best in Baltimore. The Steelers’ second-half collapse against the Chargers narrowed their lead in the AFC North to just a half-game. Given the choice, the Ravens would rather be the conference’s worst division winner and earn a No. 4 seed and home playoff game than finish as the top wild-card team and get sent on the road in early January.

Here’s where things stand with four games remaining.


4. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-4-1)

Conference record: 4-4-1

AFC North record: 3-1-1

Schedule: at Raiders (2-10), vs. Patriots (9-3), at Saints (10-2), vs. Bengals (5-7)

Suddenly, the Steelers find themselves mired in a losing streak for the first time this season. A visit to Oakland should be a nice balm, and their regular-season finale against the Bengals figures to be easier than their 28-21 road win in Week 6. But in between those games are two nasty matchups. Pittsburgh’s one tie this season means it’s unlikely to need a tiebreaker, whether it’s against the Ravens or some other team.

5. Los Angeles Chargers (9-3)

Conference record: 6-2

AFC West record: 2-2

Schedule: vs. Bengals (5-7), at Chiefs (10-2), vs. Ravens (7-5), at Broncos (6-6)

After an unlikely comeback victory Sunday night, the Chargers now have better postseason odds than the team they beat, according to The New York Times’ simulator. The question should not be whether the Chargers can make the playoffs but whether they can catch the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC West.

From the Ravens achieving their finest defensive hour to resurgent efforts by Terrell Suggs and C.J. Mosley, here are five things we learned from their 26-16 win over the Atlanta Falcons.

6. Ravens (7-5)

Conference record: 6-3

AFC North record: 2-3

Schedule: at Chiefs (10-2), vs. Buccaneers (5-7), at Chargers (9-3), vs. Browns (4-7-1)

Good news for the Ravens: In its first game without Kareem Hunt, Kansas City needed a late touchdown to put away the same Oakland Raiders team that the Ravens handled easily a week earlier. Bad news for the Ravens: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers won their second straight game Sunday, beating a Carolina Panthers team that easily handled the Ravens over a month ago. Of course, the Ravens started Lamar Jackson at quarterback in only one of those games.


7. Miami Dolphins (6-6)

Conference record: 5-4

AFC East record: 3-1

Schedule: vs. Patriots (9-3), at Vikings (6-5-1), vs. Jaguars (4-8), at Bills (4-8)

The Dolphins still have a posteason pulse after a win Sunday over the Buffalo Bills, but it’s faint. Bill Belichick could be the undertaker next week; with a loss to the New England Patriots, Miami’s chances drop to 2 percent, according to the Times’ playoff simulator.

8. Indianapolis Colts (6-6)

Conference record: 5-5

AFC South record: 2-2

Schedule: at Texans (9-3), vs. Cowboys (6-5), vs. Giants (4-8), at Titans (6-6)

All the Colts had to do Sunday was extend their five-game winning streak against a team with a seven-game losing streak. But, no, the Jacksonville Jaguars won. Now Indianapolis heads to Houston for a must-win game against the Texans, winners of an NFL-best nine straight. The Colts do have a crucial head-to-head tiebreaker over the Dolphins and a manageable remaining schedule, but both of their final two conference games are on the road, where they’re 2-4 this season.

9. Denver Broncos (6-6)

Conference record: 4-5

AFC West record: 2-2

Schedule: at 49ers (2-10), vs. Browns (4-7-1), at Raiders (2-10), vs. Chargers (9-3)

The Broncos' AFC record has them stuck behind the Dolphins and Colts for now, but it’s their remaining schedule that is the envy of AFC wild-card contenders. By the time Denver gets to Week 17, it should have a six-game winning streak — and who knows what the Chargers will have to play for at that point? The importance of the Ravens’ Week 3 win as a potential tiebreaker grows with each week.

Columnist Peter Schmuck grades the Ravens' performance in Sunday's game against the Atlanta Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

10. Tennessee Titans (6-6)

Conference record: 4-6

AFC South record: 2-2

Schedule: vs. Jaguars (4-8), at Giants (4-8), vs. Redskins (6-5), vs. Colts (6-6)

After their season-saving, last-minute win Sunday, the Titans actually have better playoff odds than the Colts, according to FiveThirtyEight. But their conference record remains an albatross, as do earlier losses to the Ravens, Dolphins and Colts. Tennessee’s regular-season finale, a rematch against visiting Indianapolis, is already a must-win for both teams. The Titans can’t afford to slip up before then.

Against a high-flying Atlanta Falcons attack, it was the Ravens’ top-ranked defensive unit that again set forth the law of the land.

Recommended on Baltimore Sun