“It seems like we need help from a lot of teams,” cornerback Marlon Humphrey said Wednesday, “but I’m not really sure exactly what teams.”
As the Ravens (9-5) push for their third straight playoff appearance, they find themselves in a strange position, having only so much control over whether their season will continue past Week 17.
In 2018, the Ravens entered Week 16 in the sixth and final spot in the AFC’s six-team field. In 2019, they entered Week 16 having already clinched the AFC North title. Now, not even a victory Sunday against the New York Giants (5-9) may set up a win-and-they’re-in scenario. The eighth-place Ravens are on the outside looking in, and little could change by Week 17. They’ll need outside assistance.
“Some teams are trying to get in,” quarterback Lamar Jackson said. “Some teams are already in but still trying to fight to keep their position. And right now, we’re in the hunt, but we’re out of the playoffs, so each and every week is a playoff week for us. That’s the mindset we’ve got to have.”
Before their season opener, coach John Harbaugh had jokingly asked, “Is anything normal in 2020?” How appropriate, then, that in the first year of the NFL’s expanded, 14-team playoff field, an 11-5 record might not be enough for the Ravens. Not since the 2008 New England Patriots has a team won 11 games and missed the playoffs.
For now, all the Ravens can do is try to turn a three-game winning streak into a four-game streak, and then a four-game streak into a five-game streak. After Sunday’s regular-season home finale against the Giants, the Ravens will face the Bengals (3-10-1) in Cincinnati in Week 17.
Whether they’ll play again this season is impossible to know. Mathematically, it’s pretty likely: According to FiveThirtyEight’s projections, the Ravens enter Week 16 with 86% odds of advancing to the postseason. ESPN’s Football Power Index gives them an 84.3% chance, almost double the likelihood of a wild-card-round victory (44.2%).
The Ravens can’t be picky about where help comes from, but there is an obvious candidate. The Dolphins have only a tenuous grasp on the AFC’s seventh seed. With matching 9-5 records, Miami’s tiebreaker — a superior conference winning percentage (. 600 over .545) — is keeping the Ravens out of the playoff field.
That won’t matter if the Dolphins stumble to the finish. The Ravens’ next two opponents have a combined eight wins this season. Miami has road games left against the Las Vegas Raiders (7-7) on Saturday — a team whose playoff hopes still exist, if only mathematically — and the AFC East champion Buffalo Bills (11-3) in Week 17. With the Kansas City Chiefs (13-1) likely to secure the conference’s only bye, it’s unclear whether the Bills would rest any starters as they jockey for seeding.
If the Ravens win out, they wouldn’t need much to secure their third straight postseason appearance, just one loss from a six-game sample. There’s the Dolphins and their difficult slate. The Indianapolis Colts (10-4), who would lose a head-to-head tiebreaker with the Ravens, face the Steelers (11-3) in Pittsburgh and host the Jacksonville Jaguars (1-13) in Week 17. And the Cleveland Browns (10-4), whom the Ravens swept, have a road game against the New York Jets (1-13) before a home date with the Steelers.
If the Ravens’ wild-card competition goes a combined 6-0 — ESPN gives the three teams a 1% chance of posting a perfect record — there’s a final long-shot hope: Have the Tennessee Titans (10-4), who beat the Ravens in Week 11, lose back-to-back games to the Green Bay Packers (11-3) and Houston Texans (4-10).
“Of course, we want to get into the playoffs,” coach John Harbaugh said Monday. “So we know that we need some help, but the focus, really, for us, is going to be on taking care of our business. It doesn’t matter what anybody else does if we don’t take care of our job, and our job is to win.”
A Ravens loss Sunday wouldn’t necessarily be fatal. If the Dolphins lose one of their two final games, the Ravens would need only to beat the Bengals to surpass Miami, thanks to a strength-of-victory tiebreaker.
A Ravens win Sunday and defeat in Cincinnati, however, would ask a lot more of teams they can’t exactly trust. Unless the Browns, Colts or Dolphins lost twice, 10 wins wouldn’t get the Ravens in.
“My mentality, personally, is just attack each day individually and understand that we can only take them one game at a time,” left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. said. “So right now, my focus is on the Giants and going out there and playing the best game of my career, just like I try to approach it every week. Long term, we understand the playoffs are there and getting there is important, but it’s important that we win the next game and the next game and the next game.”
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