Eisenberg: Keep Eye On Ravens' Biggest Wild-Card Threat


What do the Chicago Bears, Pittsburgh Steelers, Cleveland Browns, Buffalo Bills and Green Bay Packers have in common?

Well, they all lost this past weekend, either on Sunday or Thanksgiving. None has a winning record through Week 13 of the 2013 season. Together, they're a combined 11 games under .500.

And they all beat the Ravens this season.

I bring it up to emphasize the good fortune that has smiled on the Ravens. They've coughed up a whole handful of games to teams that, for the most part, aren't prominent in the playoff picture, losing to a rookie quarterback and two backups along the way. The Ravens don't even have a winning record themselves, as their two recent wins just got them back to .500. Yet they're still in complete control of their playoff destiny. With four games left, they're holding a wild-card ticket to the AFC playoffs as the No. 6 seed. They don't have to fret about what anyone else does.

You can't ask for anything more after what's happened this season.

Their competition for that No. 6 seed isn't exactly a murderer's row. Six teams were tied for the top spot in the race with 5-6 records heading into Week 13. Four of those six teams lost, and those that won (the Ravens and Miami Dolphins) beat other members of the group. In other words, the group literally couldn't have fared any worse than it did.

The Ravens took the lead in the group by eking out a win over the Steelers in what, to me, was a matchup of the group's most formidable teams. I don't think the Dolphins, San Diego Chargers, New York Jets or Tennessee Titans are in the same class (see below). But that's all of the Ravens' competition for that playoff ticket. No one else is sneaking up on the outside.

Given the group's overall mediocrity, I don't even think the Ravens need to win out to claim the playoff spot. Talk about fortunate. You would expect them to have no margin for error after finding a way to lose so many games earlier in the season, but a 3-1 record in December likely will get them in. They could well need that margin of error with the Detroit Lions, New England Patriots and Cincinnati Bengals, all likely playoff teams this season, on their remaining schedule.

Only three times in the past decade has a 9-7 record claimed the AFC's No. 6 seed. It usually takes at least 10-6. Several times, 11-5 was required.

That's not going to be the case this year.

The Ravens still have a long way to go and a lot to accomplish before they can call themselves a playoff team in 2013, but their goal is very much in sight and will continue to be, and that's something to be thankful for considering the narrative of this season to date.

For the record, among the teams the Ravens are battling for that last wild-card spot, the Steelers are the most dangerous.

The Titans have lost six of their past eight games and have Ryan Fitzpatrick playing quarterback. The Chargers have lost four of their past five and always seem to blink at the wrong time. The Jets don't have enough offense.

The Dolphins are made of sterner stuff. It is quite a feat for them to have stayed in contention with all the controversy swirling around them. But they're playing in Pittsburgh this weekend, and I expect the Steelers to make a statement. The Steelers are playing good football, having won five of their last eight. They have the best quarterback among the other contenders. Their schedule is relatively easy. Even though they're a game behind the Ravens, they could easily win out to finish 9-7.

If I'm the Ravens, I'm keeping my eyes on them as this plays out.

I came across an interesting, year-old quote from Tom Coughlin, head coach of the New York Giants.

This time last year, the Giants were the defending Super Bowl champs, locked in a fight for a playoff spot. After they lost to the Washington Redskins, 17-16, Coughlin said, "You can't win games when just about every successful possession comes to a halt and results in a field goal."

Sound familiar? The Ravens have climbed back into the playoff picture with a pair of home wins, but their offense is struggling to finish drives. In the two wins, the Ravens scored a pair of touchdowns while Justin Tucker kicked nine field goals.

It's been a problem all season. The Ravens are No. 1 in the NFL in field goals made but No. 28 in offensive touchdowns. Offensively, they've battled through a lengthy list of issues, including a struggling running game and Joe Flacco's career high in interceptions, but as they enter the stretch of the 2013 season, their struggles in the red zone are at the top of their list of concerns.

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