NFL Playoff Projections: Baltimore’s Survival Skills Stay On Display

The Baltimore Ravens keep finding ways to survive, and on Sunday in San Diego, they took their survival instinct to new heights. After playing poorly against a subpar opponent—again—the Ravens trailed by 10 in the fourth quarter, still trailed 13-10 in the closing minutes and faced a 4th-and-29. A simple dump-off pass to Ray Rice got them the first down, eventually the tying field goal and ultimately the win.

It isn’t often TheSportsNotebook’s pregame analysis is vindicated this thoroughly, but the take on this game was a sluggish effort by Baltimore, that San Diego would cover the 7.5 point line, but in the end this was one team with an art for winning games and another with an art for losing them. And it’s that Baltimore knack for pulling these games out that has them situated high in the first round of our NFL playoff projections that will now run early each week between now and the end of the regular season. Normally this will be a Tuesday feature, but I trust no one will think I’m jumping the gun if I ignore tonight’s Carolina-Philadelphia game.

Baltimore is an ugly 9-2. They have two narrow escapes against Cleveland. They beat Kansas City without scoring a touchdown. They barely escaped Dallas at home. Their win over Pittsburgh came without Ben Roethlisberger and still required a special teams touchdown. And now this escape in San Diego. John Harbaugh’s team has nothing to suggest its Super Bowl-caliber, yet they are the #2 seed based on current standings and with most of their key games of December at home,

TheSportsNotebook’s exit polling suggests they will hold on to that status. Here’s how I’d see the AFC playoffs shaking out. Please note these are not what currently holds, but as the title of the article suggests, they are projections…

AFC East: New England
AFC North: Baltimore
AFC South: Houston
AFC West: Denver
Wild-Cards: Indianapolis, Cincinnati
1st Round Byes: Houston, Baltimore

The division winners are pretty straight forward and the battle between these four teams is all about positioning, making the Ravens’ win so important. They are a game up on both New England and Denver for the first-round bye that comes with the #2 seed, with a head-to-head win over the Patriots and a home game with Denver ahead.  While the Patriots played very well on Thursday night without Rob Gronkowski, that was against the Jets. It’s tougher to envision New England sweeping a remaining schedule that includes Houston and San Francisco without Gronk on hand.

Conversely, Baltimore trails Houston by a game and has lost head-to-head. And the Texans show no signs of letting up, as Matt Schaub has been locked in on Andre Johnson for two straight weeks (188 yards worth of receiving for Johnson in the Thanksgiving win at Detroit). The pass protection is solid, and J.J. Watt solidified his Defensive Player of the Year case with three sacks and five QB hits against Matthew Stafford.

Denver did not play well on Sunday, but they still beat Kansas City, and unlike the Ravens, Peyton Manning’s team isn’t making a habit of narrow escapes, so I think they’re entitled to this one without a lot of questioning. The Broncos’ path to the two-seed is there, with a manageable schedule. But also remember, Denver lost to New England, so if the Broncos beat Baltimore, we could end up in a three-way tie that goes deep into the tiebreakers. Overall though, like Denver to end up as the #3 seed.

Indianapolis won a big game against Buffalo, the latter being the team that never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Ryan Fitzpatrick was horrible in a game that would have put the Bills—and a few others—back in the AFC wild-card race and the 7-4 Colts look like a good bet to win ten games right now. That likely puts them in the 5-seed spot.

I’ve got Cincinnati edging out Pittsburgh for the final spot. I know Ben Roethlisberger probably returns Sunday in Baltimore, but that’s still a road game the Steelers will have a tough time winning. I think Big Ben can get Pittsburgh to 9-7, but I don’t know that will be enough. The fact Pittsburgh’s backs fumbled five times in Cleveland—a game they knew they had to protect the ball, with Charlie Batch at quarterback—speaks volumes. Meanwhile the Bengals pounded the Raiders with BenJarvus Green-Ellis and then whipped them in the trenches on the other side of the ball, as defensive tackle Geno Atkins led a pass rush that made Carson Palmer’s homecoming to the Queen City as miserable as the locals hoped it would be.

So that leads to AFC playoff matchups of…
1st Round: (5)Indy at (4) New England & (6)Cincy at (3)Denver)
Byes: (1)Houston, (2)Baltimore

The NFC has five teams that are stable to make the playoffs, and three of them—San Francisco, Atlanta and NY Giants to do so as division champs, with Green Bay/Chicago sorting out the division winner/wild-card slot. The Giants regained control of the NFC East by physically dominating a wounded Packer team, not giving Aaron Rodgers any time to throw and taking away a mediocre Green Bay running game.

New York’s win kept Washington & Dallas at two games back, though the Redskins host the Giants in this coming Monday Night Game. Washington, now 5-6, has an outside shot at the NFC East and a legitimate shot at the last wild-card. As a Redskins fan, I’m excited beyond all belief and in the aftermath of the Thanksgiving win in Dallas, I was touting RG3 to be anointed the first American monarch. Admit it—can’t you see future history books titled “From King George III to Robert Griffin III: The Story of American Democracy”? But I digress.

I digress because the Washington offensive line still did a lousy job in pass protection and only this defense could take a 28-3 halftime lead, allow the opponent to make a game of it and leave me completely unsurprised that it happened. So while my emotions are smelling playoffs, my head is telling me something else.

New Orleans’ loss to San Francisco—thanks to a pair of Pick-6’s by the Niner defense against Drew Brees—hurt their chances, but the three teams leading the race for the final playoff berth all lost. Seattle, Minnesota and Tampa Bay all dropped to 6-5, so that leaves all the 5-6 teams—the Saints, Redskins and Cowboys, very much in the hunt.

But in Seattle’s loss, I see the reasons why I’m staying with them at the #6 seed. The Seahawks did not run the ball, nor could they stop the run in a 24-21 loss at Miami. But Russell Wilson continues to show how much he’s growing as an NFL quarterback, playing well against a good defense in a road environment and it came down to a last-play field goal for the Dolphins to win. It’s going down to the end and in all likelihood 9-7 will take this berth, but I’m sticking with Seattle.

Here’s how the NFC projects out…

NFC East: NY Giants
NFC North: Green Bay
NFC South: Atlanta
NFC West: San Francisco
Wild-Cards: Chicago, Seattle

The projection of the Packers is predicated on Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson getting healthy defensively, which looks on schedule right now. While the Green Bay offensive line isn’t going to magically get better, Chicago has the same problem, so even though the Pack is a game out today, I see them taking this  division. I also see them moving past New York for the #3 seed. The reason is schedule—the Giants still play at Atlanta and at Baltimore, whereas Green Bay’s difficult road games are Chicago and Minnesota.

Both the Packers and Giants are 7-4 and New York obviously has the tiebreaker after last night, but I believe the schedule allows Green Bay to take this spot outright. Both teams are in a tough spot when it comes to catching Atlanta (10-1) or San Francisco (8-2-1) for a bye.

So that leads to NFC playoff matchups of…
1st Round: (6)Seattle at (3) Green Bay, (5)Chicago at (4)NY Giants
Byes: Atlanta (1), San Francisco (2)

Admit it—you’d love to the Seahawks & Packers re-do their infamous Monday Night Game earlier this year and to see what kind of reception Seattle would get coming through the tunnel of Lambeau Field? My only regret is that the projections in the AFC deny us the Indianapolis-Denver matchup with Luck and Peyton Manning. Hopefully events can change and let both games become highlights of the first round in January.