Battle for the AFC's byes appears to be a four-team race

The quarterbacks of the top four teams in the AFC playoff race (as it stands heading into this weekend): Houston's Matt Schaub, New England's Tom Brady, the Ravens' Joe Flacco and Denver's Peyton Manning.
The quarterbacks of the top four teams in the AFC playoff race (as it stands heading into this weekend): Houston's Matt Schaub, New England's Tom Brady, the Ravens' Joe Flacco and Denver's Peyton Manning.

One-by-one, Ravens players said Sunday night that their last-second 23-20 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers wouldn't define their season or deter them from their regular-season goals. However, the defeat, coupled by another significant injury to linebacker Terrell Suggs, has made their already daunting four-game stretch to end the regular season even more difficult.

Suggs tore his right biceps Sunday, leaving significant questions about whether he'll be able to help the Ravens the rest of the way. Suggs appears intent on trying to play through the injury, which wouldn't be unprecedented. Suggs, though, isn't at full strength as it is, thanks to Achilles' surgery in May that he returned from faster than anybody expected.


The Ravens are primed to get middle linebacker Ray Lewis back on the practice field this week, possibly as early as Wednesday, and he is targeting a Dec. 16 return against the Denver Broncos. Lewis' return can't come soon enough for a Ravens team that has to face Robert Griffin III, the Manning brothers and Andy Dalton over the final four weeks with far less margin of error than they enjoyed four days ago.

Now 9-3 with a road matchup with the resurgent Washington Redskins looming Sunday, the Ravens have a two-game lead for first place in the AFC North over the Steelers and the Cincinnati Bengals with four games to play. But in losing to Pittsburgh, the Ravens took a hit in the AFC hierarchy, falling to the third seed behind the Houston Texans (11-1) and the AFC East champion New England Patriots.


The Patriots, Ravens and Denver Broncos all have 9-3 records, but New England sits in the second spot because of its conference mark (8-1). The Ravens are 8-2 against AFC foes, while the Broncos are 6-2, making them the fourth seed at this point.

The Ravens beat the Patriots in Week 3, and the Patriots defeated the Broncos in Week 5, but head-to-head won't be acceptable tie-breaking criteria until the Ravens and Broncos meet Dec. 16.

That will likely be a must-win game for both teams if they want to secure that No. 2 seed, which carries a first-round bye and a second-round home playoff game.

"We're still on course," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Monday. "We have an opportunity to accomplish our first objective, and that's winning the division. That's something that we need to do. We need to get to 11 wins to do that. That hasn't changed. The idea of the highest seeding we can get in the playoffs is still in front of us, too, so we're going to be working hard to get those things done."

Here is a look at what's ahead for the AFC's current top four teams:

No. 1: TEXANS (11-1)

What's left: at New England (Monday); vs. Indianapolis (Dec. 16); vs. Minnesota (Dec. 23); at Indianapolis (Dec. 30)

Outlook: With at least a two-game lead over everybody else, victories over both the Ravens and Broncos and a perfect 9-0 conference mark, the Texans are in a prime spot. Barring a late-season swoon, they'll remain the AFC's top seed and make the conference playoffs go through Reliant Stadium.

However, their final four games are all against teams with at least a .500 record, including two against the surprising Colts. Also, the aura of invincibility that Houston created earlier in the year, partly by beating the Ravens 43-13, has slipped somewhat as they needed overtime to beat the Jacksonville Jaguars and Detroit Lions in recent weeks.

A loss to the Patriots in this week's most-anticipated game Monday night would tighten things further. Still, the Texans couldn't be in much better position than they're in now.


What's left: vs. Houston (Monday), vs. San Francisco (Dec. 16); at Jacksonville (Dec. 23); vs. Miami (Dec. 30)


Outlook: Through six weeks, the defending AFC champs were just 3-3 and looking vulnerable. But they haven't lost since, piling up six straight wins and averaging a mind-boggling 40.3 points per game.

Tom Brady and company figure to be significantly challenged over the next two weeks with games against the top-seeded Texans and the NFC's current No. 2 seed, the San Francisco 49ers. Both of those matchups are at home, as New England leaves the friendly confines of Gillette Stadium just once over the final four weeks for a game against lowly Jacksonville.

A league-best 32-5 at home during the regular season since 2008, the Patriots still have a shot at the AFC's top seed but a win Monday would be a must.


What's left: at Washington (Sunday), vs. Denver (Dec. 16); vs. New York Giants (Dec. 23); at Cincinnati (Dec. 30)

Outlook: A case certainly could be made that none of the top AFC teams need that first-round bye and at least one home playoff game as much as the Ravens do.

The Ravens are 4-2 on the road this season, but they've yet to come close to putting together a complete game away from M&T Bank Stadium, and quarterback Joe Flacco has been particularly underwhelming on the road.

They may also have the toughest finish. They couldn't stop third-stringer Charlie Batch on Sunday, yet in their final four games, they'll face two Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks (Peyton and Eli Manning), arguably the most exciting young quarterback in the NFL (Griffin III), and Andy Dalton, who made the Pro Bowl as a rookie and has directed his team to four straight wins.

The Ravens will need to get through that stretch with three wins, one being over the Broncos, to have a shot at that No. 2 seed and first-round bye.


What's left: at Oakland (Thursday); at Baltimore (Dec. 16); vs. Cleveland (Dec. 23); vs. Kansas City (Dec. 30)

Outlook: Peyton's Manning's Broncos are on a similar surge as the Patriots, with seven straight wins and 30 or more points scored in six of those seven games.

With so much on the line, it's very hard to envision the Broncos stubbing their toe against the likes of the Raiders, Browns and Chiefs. That means that, ultimately, their playoff seeding will probably come down to their matchup with the Ravens in two weeks.

With losses already on their resume to the Texans and Patriots, the Broncos can ill afford a loss to the Ravens. But it's probably important to remember that the Ravens haven't beaten a Peyton Manning-quarterbacked team since 2001.


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