Ravens running back Buck Allen had showered and gotten dressed late Sunday afternoon for the flight back to Baltimore. The early games had long been over, and yet Allen had no idea how the Buffalo Bills or any of the other teams competing for one of the AFC wild-card spots fared.
And quite frankly, Allen, who had just rushed for 70 yards in the Ravens’ 27-10 victory over the Cleveland Browns, didn’t really care either.
“Regardless of all that, we have to take care of our business,” Allen said. “We can’t let them determine our fate. We can’t just hope these other teams lose or whatever they do. We still have to go out there and take care of our jobs.”
After enduring a bitter loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers two Sundays ago, the Ravens took solace in the fact that they just had to win their final three games and they’ll be back in the NFL playoffs. They didn’t have to depend on anybody else to lose. They needn’t spend any time sifting through myriad tiebreaker scenarios to find one that worked in their favor.
They took care of the first part Sunday, overwhelming the winless Browns behind a clean offensive effort and a dominating defensive performance. On Monday, the Ravens (8-6) immediately turned their attention to an injury-depleted Colts team that is 3-11 but hasn’t played since Thursday.
“We have to win the next game. That's how we look at it. All the other stuff, I think, is great. Write about it. Analyze it. Think about it. Discuss it. It's cool and fun, but not for us. That's not what we're thinking about,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said in his Monday news conference.
“It doesn't matter if it's easy or harder or what would be better? 'What if this happens?' That's a distraction for us. We've got to get in here Tuesday and we've got to get to work on the Colts, because we have some things that we need to understand about this team that we're playing. We need to prepare to go out there Sunday and play our best football. All the other stuff doesn't matter to us. We've got work to do.”
The results from this past weekend didn’t add much clarity to the AFC wild-card picture. The Bills beat the Dolphins on Sunday to improve to 8-6 and all but knock Miami out of playoff contention. The Tennessee Titans are also 8-6 after losing on a late field goal to the San Francisco 49ers. The Kansas City Chiefs took control of the AFC West with a victory over the Los Angeles Chargers, who are 7-7 and likely have to depend on a potential wild-card spot to make the postseason. The Oakland Raiders saw their playoff hopes all but extinguished with a late Sunday night loss to the Dallas Cowboys.
While the 6-8 Dolphins and Raiders haven’t officially been eliminated, it’s essentially become a four-team race for the two wild-card spots between the Ravens, Titans, Bills and Chargers. The Titans have the better conference record than the Ravens and Bills, and they beat the Ravens head-to-head, but they still have to play the Los Angeles Rams and the Jacksonville Jaguars, two first-place teams.
The Bills have the Ravens in the strength-of-victory tiebreaker scenario, which is why they are the sixth seed and the Ravens are seventh. However, with a win Saturday over the Colts, the Ravens would move ahead of the Bills regardless of how they fare a day later against the first-place New England Patriots. That’s because the common-opponent tiebreaker is only applicable when each team has at least four common opponents. By day’s end Saturday, the Bills and Ravens will have each played the Bengals, Raiders, Colts and Dolphins.
Under none of the scenarios can the Ravens clinch this weekend.
Given all the possibilities, you can see why the Ravens have decided to just worry about themselves over their final two games. They know that with two home wins against teams with combined records of 8-20, they’ll get where they want to be. They also know that they have precious little margin of error.
“We need to keep it about the challenge that's in front of us and play our best football,” Harbaugh said.
Veteran safety Eric Weddle offered the sobering reminder after Sunday’s game that the Ravens were 8-6 at this time last year and lost the final two games.
“Let that drive us. Let that drive our focus and our attention to detail even more that we’re in this position and we have an opportunity at home the last two games that, if we play well, we’ll have a shot,” Weddle said. “It’s a great spot to be in. Everyone is all working in the same direction.”
The Ravens, who have won four of their past five games and will be heavily favored to win their final two regular-season contests, remain very much a work in progress. However, their offensive improvements in recent weeks hint that they are a team that could be a tough out in the playoffs.
Defensively, the Ravens can stop the run and make teams one-dimensional. Their 33 takeaways lead the league. Their special teams units have been splendid all season, and the battery of kicker Justin Tucker and punter Sam Koch is playing a significant part of every win.
The question, though, has been the same all season for the Ravens. Can their offense perform well enough for the team to make it to the postseason and then perhaps go on a run once they are there?
For much of this season, even the most optimistic Ravens fan would have a hard time answering that affirmatively. However, since their Week 10 bye, the Ravens are averaging 31 points in five games. They have run the ball effectively, their offensive line has exceeded all expectations despite a spate of injuries, and the Joe Flacco-led passing attack has gained traction.
“The reports of our demise, I guess, were greatly exaggerated,” Harbaugh said. “But we have a long way to go, and it runs through M&T Bank Stadium.”