Baltimore Ravens

Strange Ravens win sets up even stranger AFC playoff race

It is a testament to the bizarre nature of this NFL season that it's almost as hard to make sense of what happened in the Ravens' Thanksgiving night victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers as it is to predict how it will impact the AFC playoff picture.

If you doubt that, keep in mind while you debate whether Mike Tomlin had evil intent when he nearly obstructed a pivotal kickoff return on Thursday that you likely will be rooting for the hated Steelers when they host the division-leading Cincinnati Bengals in a couple of weeks.


That won't be a tough decision if the Ravens are still in the hunt for the AFC North title — which is very possible now that they have returned to .500 and seem to be developing some offensive continuity — but it is far from clear which team Ravens fans should root for when the Bengals head out west to face the San Diego Chargers on Sunday.

In a perfect purple world, the Bengals would fall off the map over the next four weeks, or at least fall back enough for the Ravens to arrive in Cincinnati on the final weekend of the regular season with a chance to match their record and win the title based on the head-to-head tiebreaker.


So, you've got to be pulling for the Chargers, right?

That depends on whether you feel the Ravens have a big late-season run in them or are willing to settle for a wild card playoff berth.

The Ravens need some help to win the division and they will get some if Philip Rivers outduels Andy Dalton at Qualcomm Stadium, but it will come with a price. With a victory, the Chargers will greatly improve their wild card position and have, arguably, the most favorable remaining schedule with three of their last four games at home.

So, maybe it makes more sense to root for the Bengals and hope the Steelers knock them off in Week 15 to keep both playoff options open.

The only thing that's certain right now is that NFL parity makes strange bedfellows.

Of course, the reason that any of this is relevant is because the Ravens have taken advantage of their three-game homestand and knocked off a pair of their wild card rivals to re-establish themselves as a legitimate playoff contender with a very beatable Minnesota Vikings team headed here on Dec. 8.

The weird, two-point victory over the Steelers was another tightrope act, but there were enough positive developments to carry some real confidence into the final quarter of the regular-season schedule.

Joe Flacco showed again that he's at his best when the stakes are the highest. He stepped up and made some big plays to quiet the overblown wildcat controversy, driving the Ravens to scores in six of their seven full possessions. But he clearly was not satisfied with an offense that had to settle for five Justin Tucker field goals.


"We should have run those guys off the field," Flacco said in a postgame radio interview, and he was right, but there is no prize for margin of victory. Beating the Steelers is its own reward.

The thing that left Flacco so frustrated was the number of mistakes that made it harder to sustain those drives, most notably a series of false starts by tackle Michael Oher. The Ravens will have to get some things cleaned up to sustain a late-season surge, but the offense appears to be coming together at just the right time.

The league obviously has some things to clean up, too, after the entire officiating crew somehow missed Tomlin's sideline gaffe — which should have resulted in at least a half-the-distance penalty — and apparently miscalled the botched field goal attempt by the Steelers in the second quarter.

The Ravens benefitted from that one, since kicker Shaun Suisham probably should have been whistled for a false start when he jumped the snap count and moved toward the line of scrimmage before the ball was hiked. Instead of the down being replayed five yards back, the Ravens got the ball in great field position and drove for the field goal that gave them a 10-point lead.

It was that kind of game.

It has been that kind of season.


Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" at and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" on Friday mornings at 9on WBAL (1090 AM) and at