Eisenberg: Weird Year In AFC Has Ravens In Playoff Race


The Ravens came away with a win over Cincinnati Sunday, but they didn't look like a typical playoff contender – not with that struggling offense.

Justin Tucker's game-winning field goal accomplished what the Ravens needed, though, moving them from the fringes of the AFC playoff race to the thick of things.

Yes, that's exactly where they are – the thick of things, believe it or not – despite being 4-5 and tied for second with Cleveland in the AFC North. It doesn't take much to give yourself a shot at making the postseason in the AFC in 2013, and despite losing three games in a row recently, the Ravens have done enough.

They certainly haven't wowed anyone, including themselves, and they know they need to play better to make good things happen. But when you step back and put their season in context, measured against the competition, they're far from buried and gone.

It's a weird year in the AFC, especially among the ruling class. The New England Patriots are winning, but they aren't their usual, dominating selves. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Houston Texans are a combined 5-13. The supposedly ascendant Indianapolis Colts lost by 30 points at home Sunday. The Bengals, a division leader, didn't resemble a playoff team Sunday.

To use an old baseball bromide, can anyone around here play this game? Yes. The unbeaten Kansas City Chiefs and one-loss Denver Broncos stand out so far. Both will make the postseason, one as a division winner, the other as a wild card.

But the Ravens are still very much in the running for both a division title and the second AFC wild-card berth.

In the division, they're just one loss behind the Bengals, who have a tendency to self-destruct, with the Browns also in play. To say the race is open is an understatement. It's wide open.

As for the second wild-card spot, the Ravens are competing with a modest group including the New York Jets, San Diego Chargers, Tennessee Titans, and Browns; shoot, even the Miami Dolphins, engulfed in controversy, are in play. The Jets have a one-game lead over the Ravens right now but come to Baltimore on Nov. 24.

In that company, the Ravens can make serious gains if they take advantage of a home-dominated schedule and stack some wins together.

Admittedly, all they have done so far is give themselves a chance going forward, despite their up-and-down play. Their margin of error is slim, their fix-it list long.

But their prospects would have looked bleak if they had lost Sunday after yielding a last-ditch Hail Mary touchdown. Instead, they fought through, generating quite a reversal. They were almost out of it. Now, they're in the thick of it. Ah, the magic of parity.

As overtime began Sunday, I saw a tweet saying the Bengals offense had never scored a touchdown in overtime. I figured that had to be wrong. The NFL instituted overtime in 1974. Surely the Bengals had found the end zone in extra time at least once.

But I looked it up and the tweet was right. The Bengals have played 30 overtime games since 1974, winning more than half, but they have scored only one touchdown in extra time in all those years, and that was on an interception return. Their offense has never crossed the goal line. It didn't again on Sunday.

It's a somewhat misleading statistic because field-goal kickers usually settle things in overtime, as Tucker did Sunday. But the law of averages suggests your offense should score at some point in 39 years, even if by accident.

For what it's worth, the Ravens have played 19 overtime games since 1996, and their offense has reached the end zone twice – on a pass from Vinny Testaverde to Michael Jackson against St. Louis in 1996, and a pass from Stoney Case to Justin Armour against Atlanta in 1999.

Insert your own punch line here.

For those ready to (bench, cut, trade) Ray Rice for not producing as he usually does: the biggest reason for his falloff continues to be a dearth of holes to run through. He might not have his usual burst back after suffering a hip flexor injury, but on many runs Sunday he was clobbered pretty much as soon as he got the ball.

The same goes for Bernard Pierce, but Pierce did a bit more with the situation Sunday, averaging 4.3 yards on 10 touches, while Rice had 2.4 yards on 24 touches.

Rice should continue to carry a load, but maybe it's time to balance out those touches.

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