If the Ravens can bounce back from their Houston debacle and beat the Cleveland Browns Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium, they would finish the 2014 regular season with a 10-6 record. It would mark the ninth time that they've registered a double-digit win total in a season, a nice stat for a team with a 19-year history.
Every prior time they posted double-digit wins, they qualified for the playoffs. Two years ago, they went 10-6 and won the Super Bowl. This time, though, they need help just to get to the postseason. To gain possession of the one AFC playoff berth still up for grabs, they need the Kansas City Chiefs to beat the San Diego Chargers while they're beating Cleveland.
The Chiefs and Chargers are playing in Kansas City, which helps the Ravens' cause, but the Chargers have more to play for and Philip Rivers is under center. It's an uneasy set of circumstances, to say the least. The Ravens could easily experience a franchise-first and miss the playoffs despite going 10-6.
It would be a tough pill to swallow. The odds of going 10-6 and missing the playoffs are extremely slim. Since the NFL realigned into eight four-team divisions in 2002, 35 of 42 teams that went 10-6 have made the playoffs. According to my abacus, that means you have an 83 percent shot of getting in. Among wild-card contenders (non-division winners), 16 of 23 teams (69.5 percent) that went 10-6 qualified for the postseason.
But as those numbers indicate, 10-6 doesn't work every single time. Just last year, the Arizona Cardinals watched the postseason from their couches after going 10-6. So did the Chicago Bears the year before.
Welcome to the NFL. Every year brings a different playoff scenario with a million moving parts, producing wildly unpredictable fluctuations. Some years, you have to win a lot of games to get in; other years are more forgiving. The New England Patriots went 11-5 and missed the playoffs in 2008. The Ravens qualified with two fewer wins in 2010.
A year ago, the Ravens were in contention to the final minutes of their season despite finishing with an 8-8 record. A 9-7 record was enough to grab the AFC's No. 6 seed. The Ravens would love for that to be the case again this year, but things are tougher. Eleven AFC teams currently sport winning records, and seven are at least three games over .500. The bar is higher, and the Ravens have known for awhile that they probably needed at least double-digit wins to get to the postseason.
They certainly have had their chances. Twice in recent weeks, they had accumulated enough wins to boil their prospects down to the simplest of equations: win and you're in. They controlled their own destiny, as the saying goes, didn't need help from anyone – a great place to be.
But they lost control of their fate when Rivers and the Chargers rallied to beat them at M&T Bank Stadium on Nov. 30, and then, after they regained that control, they lost it again Sunday when Houston gave them a sound drubbing.
You only get so many chances, and frankly, two is a lot.
Meanwhile, with their seasons also on the line this past weekend, the Ravens' main competition for playoff spots didn't falter. The Cincinnati Bengals intercepted Peyton Manning four times and whupped Denver, likely the AFC's No. 2 seed. The Chargers staged another massive rally on the road, coming from three touchdowns down to beat the San Francisco 49ers in overtime.
There's still a decent chance of the Ravens ending up with that No. 6 seed. Kansas City is a three-point favorite at home against the Chargers. But if the Chargers win, you have to say they earned that playoff spot with those two comeback wins away from home over Harbaugh-coached teams, followed by a clincher also on the road.
If the Ravens go 10-6 and miss the playoffs, they could take solace in the fact that they were a quality team, improved from a year ago. You can't get to 10 wins by accident. They could bemoan succumbing to the long-odds proposition of winning that many games and not making the playoffs.
But they knew what they had to do to get in, and they couldn't protect a sizable lead at home against San Diego or get anything going offensively in Houston with a ton on the line.
They would have no one to blame but themselves.