Mathematically, there are four teams still chasing the Ravens for the AFC’s second wild-card spot. Realistically, there are only two.
The Cleveland Browns (6-7-1) need not only to win their next two games but also the Ravens to lose to the Los Angeles Chargers, the Miami Dolphins to lose at least one of their next two games, the Indianapolis Colts to lose their next game, and the Tennessee Titans to lose their next game. Oh, and then they’d need the Colts and Titans to tie in their Week 17 meeting. That’s … unlikely.
The Dolphins need another two wins as well. And if even one of the Ravens, Colts or Titans — the AFC’s trio of 8-6 teams — wins two games, they’d be done. If Miami finishes the season tied at 9-7 with the Colts, it’d still lose the head-to-head tiebreaker by virtue of a Week 12 defeat in Indianapolis. Another dead team walking.
All of which leaves the Ravens with two likely opponents for the wild card — and two viable paths to the playoffs. For the No. 6 seed, the Ravens will take on Indianapolis and Tennessee, all three of which won Sunday. For the AFC North crown, the Ravens will have to catch up to the Pittsburgh Steelers, who also won Sunday.
Here’s what each team faces over the regular season’s final two weeks:
» Steelers (8-5-1): at New Orleans Saints (11-2), vs. Cincinnati Bengals (6-8)
» Ravens (8-6): at Chargers (11-3), vs. Browns (6-7-1)
» Colts (8-6): vs. New York Giants (5-9), at Titans (8-6)
» Titans (8-6): vs. Washington Redskins (7-7), vs. Colts (8-6)
No other team in the AFC is getting better than 50-50 odds from either site. The Ravens’ playoff chances are 44 percent and 41 percent, respectively; Indianapolis’ are 37 percent and 34 percent, and Tennessee’s are 39 percent and 46 percent.
After eight wins in 14 games, the Ravens have given themselves some flexibility in how they can qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 2014. But they can also be out of the picture altogether by this time next week.
Assuming the Ravens, Colts and Titans don’t tie in their final two games, here’s how the Ravens can get in. Or not get in.
Two wins (AFC North title)
To win their first division championship since 2012, the Ravens need help. With a half-game lead in the AFC North, the Steelers can be passed only if they lose at least one more game than the Ravens do over the final two weeks.
The division champion would likely finish with the AFC’s No. 4 seed, which guarantees a home game against the top wild-card seed. The Ravens have hosted only two playoff games under coach John Harbaugh, and not since the 2012 season.
Two wins (wild-card berth)
If the Ravens run the table, nothing about their grasp on the No. 6 playoff spot will change. They can’t be caught by the AFC’s two other 8-6 teams.
By virtue of their shutout win over the Titans in Week 6, the Ravens already hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over Tennessee.
The Colts, even if they were to also finish 10-6, would lose the next tiebreaker: winning percentage in conference play. Indianapolis can finish only as strong as 7-5 in the AFC; the Ravens can end a game ahead, at 8-4.
One win (AFC North title)
The 1990 Bengals were the last team to claim the division with just nine wins, but such a feat is not an impossibility for the Ravens.
If they split their remaining games, the Ravens would need the Steelers to lose to both the Saints and Bengals. According to the Times’ playoff simulator, the Ravens would have about a 17 percent chance of winning the AFC North if they finished 9-7.
One win (wild-card berth)
Just as they can’t win the AFC North if the Steelers win their last two games, the Ravens also can’t claim a wild-card berth if they win just one and either the Colts or Titans win their last two.
Given those two teams’ shoddy Week 16 opponents and their Week 17 meeting, it’s likely one will reach 10 victories. But what if the Ravens and one or both AFC South teams end the season with matching 9-7 records?
Because of the possibility of a strength-of-victory tiebreaker — more on that later — if the Ravens had to lose, they would be better served by a loss to the Cleveland Browns than to the Chargers.
The Ravens hold the all-important head-to-head tiebreaker over Tennessee, but if Indianapolis is to finish 9-7 as well, it cannot afford to lose in its Week 17 finale against the Titans. Matching the Ravens’ winning percentage in AFC play would be paramount. A loss Sunday to the Giants, while damaging, would not be fatal.
Assuming the AFC South-leading Houston Texans (10-4) win at least one more game, here’s where the Ravens would stand in several one-win scenarios:
» One Ravens win + Colts win vs. Giants + Titans win vs. Redskins + Colts win vs. Titans: Colts (10-6) win the wild card straight up.
» One Ravens win + Colts win vs. Giants + Titans win vs. Redskins + Titans win vs. Colts: Titans (10-6) win the wild card straight up.
» One Ravens win + Colts win vs. Giants + Titans loss vs. Redskins + Colts win vs. Titans: Colts (10-6) win the wild card straight up.
» One Ravens win + Colts loss vs. Giants + Titans win vs. Redskins + Titans win vs. Colts: Titans (10-6) win the wild card straight up.
» One Ravens win + Colts win vs. Giants + Titans loss vs. Redskins + Titans win vs. Colts: Ravens (9-7) win the wild card because of their head-to-head tiebreaker with Tennessee and an AFC winning percentage superior to Indianapolis’.
» One Ravens win + Colts loss vs. Giants + Titans win vs. Redskins + Colts win vs. Titans: Wild card still to be determined.
In the last scenario, it gets complicated. The Titans would be eliminated because of their winless head-to-head record against both the Ravens (0-1) and Colts (0-2), who have not met this season.
The second tiebreaker, winning percentage in conference games, would not be decisive: Both the Ravens and Colts would have finished the season 7-5 in AFC play.
The third tiebreaker, winning percentage in common games, would also produce a stalemate. In common games against the Buffalo Bills, Cincinnati Bengals, Oakland Raiders and Titans, both teams would be 4-1.
Only at the fourth tiebreaker would there likely be some relief. Strength of victory, defined as the combined winning percentage of all the opponents a team has defeated, should produce a wild-card team. Entering Week 16, the eight teams the Ravens have beaten are a combined .415; the Colts’ eight defeated opponents are a combined .464.
Those winning percentages will fluctuate over the next two weeks. As it stands, though, the combined “win total” of those eight Ravens opponents is 46.5 (thanks to the Steelers’ tie), while the Colts’ is 52 in the same number of opponent games played.
With the Colts and Titans meeting in Week 17, essentially guaranteeing one team at least a ninth win, there’s no way the Ravens could back into the playoffs at 8-8.
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The end might arrive before then: The Ravens’ season could be over before “60 Minutes” airs Sunday night. If the Ravens lose to the Chargers, the Steelers beat the Saints, the Colts beat the Giants, and the Titans beat the Redskins, there would be no path forward. An AFC North title would be out of reach, and the Colts-Titans matchup would effectively be a play-in game.