The Ravens were sitting pretty going into Week 12, battling well through their numerous injuries to ascend to the top seed position in the AFC playoffs. But after consecutive close division road losses to Pittsburgh and Cleveland, Baltimore (8-5) has lost total control of the AFC North coming out of Week 14.
Lamar Jackson, who had been huge early in the season leading big fourth-quarter comebacks, was in a passing slump before suffering an ankle injury against the Browns. Although backup Tyler Huntley nearly delivered a Jackson-like successful rally, the bottom line is the Ravens might need to play more games without their one-time MVP quarterback.
The Ravens have fallen behind the Patriots, Titans and Chiefs — who all are 9-4 after Week 14 — to the No. 4 seed. With the NFC’s 49ers winning at the Bengals (7-6), the Ravens will at least remain in first place in the division.
But that lead is the slimmest with Browns (7-6) and Bengals tied for second, only one game behind the Ravens. The Steelers (6-6-1) are only a game and a half behind despite their Week 14 opening loss to the NFC’s Vikings.
Here’s a look at how Jackson and the Ravens’ injury-related fade opens up the playoff positions for the entire AFC North:
NFL playoff picture: AFC North
Baltimore Ravens (8-5)
Remaining strength of schedule: 622
Division games left: Week 16 at Bengals, Week 18 vs. Steelers
Non-division games left: Week 15 vs. Packers, Week 17 vs Rams
The Ravens have two brutal home games left against elite NFC opponents. They also have to try to avenge their home loss to Cincinnati and road loss to Pittsburgh. They are only 1-3 in division play, only beating the Browns in Week 12.
Beating the Packers and Rams would be difficult even with Jackson. So would sweeping their final two North games given the previous results of both matchups. 2-2 is looking like best-case finishing scenario for Baltimore, or a 10-7 final record.
Cleveland Browns (7-6)
Remaining strength of schedule: .570
Division games left: Week 17 at Steelers, Week 18 vs. Bengals
Non-division games left: Week 15 vs. Raiders, Week 16 at Packers
The Browns are peaking late like they did in ending their playoff drought last season. They also beat the division-winning Steelers for a trip to the 2020 AFC divisional playoffs. The Ravens’ victory after bye didn’t just save Cleveland’s follow-up season; it put the team in a great position to ascend to division champions.
The Browns are 2-2 in the division and have a good chance to finish 4-2 with the manageable Steelers on the road and the once-routed Bengals at home in the final two weeks. The Browns also should take care of the fading Raiders at home next week. Winning at Lambeau Field in Week 16 with Green Bay having NFC seeding on the line would be a tall order. Still, the Browns should feel good about their chances to finish 3-1 and 10-7.
Cincinnati Bengals (7-6)
Remaining strength of schedule: .571
Division games left: Week 16 vs. Ravens, Week 18 at Browns
Non-division games left: Week 15 at Broncos, Week 17 vs. Chiefs
The Bengals rolled out of their Week 11 bye with two big wins over the Raiders and Steelers before losing to the Chargers at home and headed toward a similar results vs. the 49ers. The Week 15 game in Denver is critical to the wild-card chances, but getting revenge vs. Cleveland in the other game will be tougher after getting blown out the first time.
The Bengals should feel confident in a rematch with the Ravens after dominating the first one. They will need to eat the game, however, vs. Kansas City, which will be playing for something. There’s a wide range of outcomes from 3-1 to 0-4 over the final month, given they are a true “wild card” of a young, talented team. Let’s mash it up and say the Bengals are headed to 9-8.
Pittsburgh Steelers (6-6-1)
Remaining strength of schedule: .635
Division games left: Week 17 vs. Browns, Week 18 at Ravens
Non-division games left: Week 15 vs. Titans, Week 16 at Chiefs
The Steelers will be kicking themselves for their slow start in Minnesota and bad run defense that cost them in an important week. They have the roughest slate left with the AFC South-leading Titans and AFC West-best Chiefs back-to-back before finishing division play. The Browns are simply better all-around than the Steelers now and the Ravens also will be a tough sweep attempt on the road.
It’s not looking good for the Steelers to repeat in their division, either headed to 8-8-1 or 7-9-1.
Who will win the AFC North and who else will make the playoffs?
Based on final-month projections and the current state of each team, the Browns should be considered the mild favorites to edge the Ravens because of the conference-record tiebreaker. The Bengals also have a fighting chance to make it two consecutive years with three North teams in the AFC playoffs, displacing the Steelers from their previous position.
In that case, the Browns would be capped at No. 4, with the Ravens and Bengals settling for at best Nos. 6 and 7 in some order. Between those teams, the Chargers and Bills, a dangerous team will be left out.