As you probably know, it is not literally true that the Ravens have to beat the Cincinnati Bengals Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium to reach the AFC playoffs for the first time since 2014.
They would also qualify if the Buffalo Bills lose to the Dolphins in Miami or if the Tennessee Titans lose to the Jacksonville Jaguars. That's right, either one. I won't bother to explain why. It's a complex tiebreaker thing. Just trust me.
The situation with the other games gives the Ravens some nice fallback options if things don't work out in their game. For a team still trying to nail down a wild-card spot in Week 17, they're in a great position. Not only do they have several paths to get where they want to go, but they're playing at home, where their record over the past two years (11-4) is much better than it is on the road (6-10).
The bottom line is they could go into the postseason one of two ways, either while on a roll, or by backing in.
A win on Sunday would mean they finished the regular season by winning six of their last seven games, with the only loss by one point in Pittsburgh. That's good stuff. They haven't beaten a Murderer's Row slate of opponents, but to go from under .500 in Week 9 to 10 wins and the No. 5 seed is, by any reckoning, a nice run.
If they lose to the Bengals Sunday and still qualify via one of the fallback options, they'll certainly take it. In the end, the playoffs are a yes-no proposition; either you make it or you don't. Twelve teams do. Twenty don't. There are no asterisks. It doesn't matter* how* you get in; just that you do.
But boy, what a difference in outlook there would be if the Ravens do qualify by winning Sunday, as opposed to relying on a fallback plan.
Aside from continuing their late-season roll, nothing bolsters a team's confidence more than taking care of its own business. The Ravens would go into the postseason rightfully thinking that anything is not just possible, but entirely attainable.
I mean, the Steelers hold the AFC's No. 2 seed and the Ravens had them down and dead in Pittsburgh before letting them up. And sure, the top-seeded New England Patriots are good, but their No. 29 league ranking in total defense means they're vulnerable, if anything. The Jaguars, the No. 3 seed, battered the Ravens in September, but they haven't been in the playoffs in a decade. The Kansas City Chiefs, the No. 4 seed, have scored some impressive wins, but they run hot and cold.
These teams could all knock Baltimore out, but by the same token, the Ravens wouldn't go into any game thinking they're overmatched. They'd be as hot as anyone, and it's that kind of year. (It's also that kind of year in the NFC, by the way, with Nick Foles and Case Keenum quarterbacking the top seeds.)
The Ravens could still gin up plenty of optimism about their prospects if they go into the playoffs after losing Sunday, but let's face it, it'd be a harder sell, perhaps even internally. They would be in the field, with a puncher's chance, but they would have ended the season with an unimpressive home win over the 3-11 Indianapolis Colts, followed by a loss, also at home.
What I'm saying is even though there might be nothing on the line from a literal standpoint Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium because one of the fallback games works out for the Ravens, there's still plenty on the line, regardless.
The Bengals might be down and out this year and possibly on the verge of a regime change of some kind, but they have talent, lots of it, and shouldn't be underestimated. They just beat the Detroit Lions, another team with playoff aspirations. They've had the Ravens' number lately, winning six of the last eight games between them.
If the Ravens win, completing a sweep of their season series with Cincinnati, it would send them into a postseason of possibilities on the highest of notes. The alternative wouldn't be the worst by any means, but the positive scenario would be better, actually quite a bit better.