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Eisenberg: Ravens Need It More. Then Who Knows?


Can anyone out there think of an appropriate title for the race for the No. 6 seed in the AFC playoffs? I can't come up with one.

There's one week left in the regular season. Four teams are vying for the spot. None control their own destiny. They all need to win and get help.

It's an unusual situation, but is it a "Clash of the Titans?" Ah, not really. Three of the contenders, including the Ravens, have 8-7 records, while the other is 7-8. They could all wind up at .500. That's not really titanic.

Is it a "Race for the Ages?" I'm not feeling that, either. The Ravens and Miami Dolphins absorbed poundings last week. The San Diego Chargers were two games under .500 earlier this month. The Pittsburgh Steelers have never been above .500 in 2013. Those aren't classic playoff resumes.

Sorry, I just can't seem to think of a title. But just because the contenders aren't lighting things up, don't think the winner will automatically experience a "one and done" postseason. To the contrary, recent history suggests they could easily make a run.

Since 2009, seven teams with records of 9-7 or worse have reached the playoffs. With just one exception, each of those teams won their opening playoff game. Three wound up playing for their conference title. Two reached the Super Bowl. One hoisted the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

That's amazing. Just when you think you can dismiss the No. 6 seed on quality-control grounds, well, you can't.

For the record, here are the seven teams referenced above:

2008 Arizona Cardinals (9-7) - won NFC West, defeated Falcons, Panthers and Eagles to win NFC, lost to Steelers in Super Bowl.

2008 San Diego Chargers (8-8) – won AFC West, defeated Colts in first round, lost to Steelers.

2009 New York Jets (9-7) – earned wild card spot, defeated Bengals and Chargers, lost to Colts in AFC title game.

2009 Ravens (9-7) – earned wild card spot, defeated Patriots, lost to Colts.

2010 Seattle Seahawks (7-9) – won NFC West, defeated Saints, lost to Bears.

2011 Denver Broncos (8-8) – won AFC West, defeated Steelers, lost to Patriots.

2011 Cincinnati Bengals (9-7) earned wild card spot, lost to Texans.

2011 New York Giants (9-7) – won NFC East, defeated Falcons, Packers, 49ers and Patriots to win Super Bowl.

Most analysts won't expect much from the Ravens if things break right and they land that No. 6 seed. The teams currently holding the AFC's top two seeds (Broncos and Patriots) swept them by a combined 90-34 score this season.

But the lesson in the above trend is clear. It's not that you can expect the unexpected in the postseason; we all know that. It's that you SHOULD expect the unexpected when a team rolls in with a less-than-stellar record.

Logically, the Ravens should have little hope going forward after getting whipped by the Patriots last week. But they were similarly whipped at home by the Broncos in December 2012, then knocked off the Broncos on their way to winning the Super Bowl.

Shoot, the 2008 Arizona Cardinals lost 41-0 in their next-to-last game of the regular season, then almost won the Super Bowl.

But the Ravens can't wield this counterintuitive rationale yet because, of course, they haven't earned that No. 6 seed. They have to hope for a lot to go right Sunday. They have to beat the Bengals, who are undefeated at home in 2013, while hoping either the Dolphins or Chargers lose.

I think there's a real chance they get the help. Rex Ryan's Jets are out of the playoff picture, but they always play hard, and Rex is firing all sorts of motivational ammo, suggesting he might get fired. I can see the Jets beating the Dolphins. (I don't see the Chargers losing to the Chiefs, who are locked into the No. 5 seed, have nothing to play for and will rest their starters.)

The big question is whether the Ravens can beat the Bengals. I'm a big believer in the theorem that the team that needs a game more usually wins it. The Bengals have some motivation themselves, a shot at the AFC's No. 2 seed if they win and get some help. They also would surely love to knock their divisional rival out of the picture. But the Ravens trump that, needing the win just to have a shot at getting into the tournament and defending their Super Bowl title.

That's advantage, Ravens. I can see them doing it. And history says they could still be a postseason factor if they do prevail in the "Battle of the Sixes." (There, I came up with a name!)

But they'll have to play one of their best games of 2013 on Sunday if they want to earn that opportunity.

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