Eisenberg: Don't Dismiss A 'Way Down' Division Winner

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It happens almost every year: At least one NFL division disintegrates into a battle between teams that can't seem to beat anyone else, or very nearly.

As records plummet and a team no better than .500 grabs first place, the football nation has a good time at the division's expense, telling jokes, proclaiming disgrace and asking whether a team with a losing record should be allowed in the playoffs.

Since 2010, every division except the AFC North and AFC East has experienced at least one such "way down" year, sending a team with seven, eight or nine losses to the playoffs.

The AFC East hasn't experienced it because of the dominant New England Patriots, and the AFC North's top three teams have produced two Super Bowl titles, five AFC championship game appearances and 17 playoff berths since 2008 – quite a roll of high quality football.

But nothing is ever thus and it appears the AFC North finally is experiencing its "way down" season in 2016.

The division's four teams have a combined 13-27-1 record. They're 7-21-1 against everyone other than themselves. The Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers sit atop the division standings with 5-5 records, followed by the Cincinnati Bengals at 3-6-1 and the lamentable Cleveland Browns at 0-11.

It looks like a 9-7 record or possibly even 8-8 might take the title, quite a comedown for such a respected division.

But playoff teams with mediocre records don't start January a touchdown behind. There's no punishment. They don't compete with asterisks on their helmets.

To the contrary, they're afforded the same, clean slate every playoff qualifier gets, and some have done quite a bit with the opportunity. Before you dismiss the Ravens' battle for AFC North supremacy as doomed to provide nothing memorable, consider:

  • Of the seven teams that have made the playoffs since 2010 with seven, eight or nine losses, more than half (four) won their first-round games, and one, the 2011 New York Giants, went on to win the Super Bowl.
  • Since 2010, two teams have won their divisions with losing records, and each won their first-round playoff game. In 2010, the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks upset the New Orleans Saints, the reigning Super Bowl champions at the time. In 2014, the 7-8-1 Carolina Panthers defeated the Arizona Cardinals.

What did all those surprising results have in common? The team with the mediocre (or outright lousy) record was playing at home thanks to the NFL's seeding format, which guarantees every division winner at least one home playoff date.

Even if they finish 8-8 but win the AFC North this year, the Ravens would open the playoffs with a home game against a wild-card qualifier.

Not the worst outcome.

Given how rarely the Ravens have played at M&T Bank Stadium in the postseason (just twice out of 15 overall playoff games under Head Coach John Harbaugh), I'm sure the Ravens Flock would warmly welcome a January home game.

Last season, the Houston Texans and Washington Redskins both won their divisions with 9-7 records but were wiped out at home in the first round, so there's no guarantee the story ends well.

But after experiencing plenty of ups and downs in their first 10 games of 2016, the Ravens wouldn't complain about a January scenario in which they're playing at home with a spot in the final eight of the Super Bowl tournament on the line.

They still have to get there, of course, and Sunday's game against the Bengals, who have won five in a row against Baltimore, is absolutely critical.

"If we don't start beating the Bengals, we aren't going to win any division championships. That's especially true this year," Harbaugh said Monday.

The Ravens' chances should be helped by the absence of their nemesis, Cincinnati receiver A.J. Green, who is out with a hamstring injury. But a 5-5 team can't take anything for granted.

A win would put the Ravens 2½ games ahead of Cincinnati with five to play, pretty much paring the division race down to them and the Steelers. The Ravens defeated Pittsburgh on Nov. 6, but a rematch in Pittsburgh on Christmas Day could be telling. It might not go down as a memorable collision of dominant powers, but woe unto those who dismiss a "way down" division winner as hopelessly doomed to fail.

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