THE AFC I BATTLE FOR SEEDING: Loss, injury put Ravens in difficult playoff place

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BALTIMORE -- One by one, Ravens players said last Sunday night that their last-second, 23-20 loss to the Steelers wouldn't define their season or deter them from their regular-season goals.

However, the defeat, coupled with another significant injury to outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, has made their already daunting four-game stretch to end the regular season even more difficult.

Suggs tore his right biceps against the Steelers, leaving significant questions about whether he'll be able to help the Ravens the rest of the way. Suggs appears intent on trying to play through the injury, which wouldn't be unprecedented. Suggs, though, isn't at full strength as it is, thanks to Achilles tendon surgery in May that he returned from faster than expected.

The Ravens were happy to see inside linebacker Ray Lewis back on the practice field this past week, and he is targeting a return against the Denver Broncos next Sunday.

Lewis' return can't come soon enough for a Ravens team that has to face Robert Griffin III, the Manning brothers and Andy Dalton these final four weeks with far less margin for error than it enjoyed last week.

Now 9-3 with a road matchup against the resurgent Redskins this afternoon, the Ravens have a two-game lead for first place in the AFC North over the Steelers and the Cincinnati Bengals with four games to play.

But in losing to Pittsburgh, the Ravens took a hit in the AFC hierarchy, falling to the third seed behind the Houston Texans (11-1) and the AFC West champion Denver Broncos (10-3).

Because the Ravens, Patriots and Broncos are all even in the loss column, the tiebreaker for seeding could come down to head-to-head matchups since, in a coincidental bit of scheduling, all three teams play each other this season.

The Ravens beat the Patriots in Week 3, and the Patriots defeated the Broncos in Week 5, which means the Ravens-Broncos game next Sunday is huge. That will likely be a must-win game for both teams as they pursue the No. 2 seed, which carries a first-round bye and a second-round home playoff game.

"We're still on course," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "We have an opportunity to accomplish our first objective, and that's winning the division. That's something that we need to do. We need to get to 11 wins to do that. That hasn't changed."

Here is a look at what's ahead for the AFC's current top four teams:

No. 1: Texans

What's left: at New England (Monday); vs. Indianapolis (next Sunday); vs. Minnesota (Dec. 23); at Indianapolis (Dec. 30)

Outlook: With at least a two-game lead over everybody else, victories against both the Ravens and Broncos, and a 9-0 conference mark, the Texans are in a prime spot. Barring a late-season swoon, they'll remain the AFC's top seed and make the conference playoffs go through Reliant Stadium.

However, their final four games are all against teams with at least .500 records, including two against the surprising Colts. Also, the aura of invincibility that Houston created earlier in the year, partly by beating the Ravens, 43-13, has slipped somewhat as they needed overtime to beat the last-place Jacksonville Jaguars and Detroit Lions in recent weeks.

A loss to the Patriots in this week's most anticipated game Monday night would tighten things further. Still, the Texans couldn't be in a much better position than they're in now.

No. 2: Broncos

What's left: at Ravens (next Sunday); vs. Cleveland (Dec. 23); vs. Kansas City (Dec. 30)

Outlook: Peyton Manning's Broncos are on a surge like the Patriots, with eight consecutive wins and 30 or more points scored in six of those eight games.

With so much on the line, it's very hard to envision the Broncos stubbing their toe against the likes of the Browns and Chiefs. That means that, ultimately, their playoff seeding will probably come down to their matchup with the Ravens next Sunday.

With losses to the Texans and Patriots on their resume, the Broncos can ill afford to fall to the Ravens. But it's probably important to remember that the Ravens haven't beaten a team quarterbacked by Peyton Manning since 2001.

No. 3: Ravens

What's left: at Washington (today), vs. Denver (next Sunday); vs. New York Giants (Dec. 23); at Cincinnati (Dec. 30)

Outlook: A case certainly could be made that none of the other top AFC teams needs that first-round bye and at least one home playoff game as much as the Ravens do.

The Ravens are 4-2 on the road this season, but they've yet to come close to putting together a complete game away from M&T Bank Stadium, and quarterback Joe Flacco has been particularly underwhelming on the road.

They may also have the toughest finish. They couldn't stop third-stringer Charlie Batch last Sunday, but in their final four games, they'll face two Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks (Peyton and Eli Manning), perhaps the most exciting young quarterback in the NFL (Griffin) and Andy Dalton, who made the Pro Bowl as a rookie and has directed his team to four wins in a row.

The Ravens will need to get through that stretch with three wins, including one over the Broncos, to have a shot at that No. 2 seed and first-round bye.

No. 4: Patriots

What's left: vs. Houston (Monday), vs. San Francisco (next Sunday); at Jacksonville (Dec. 23); vs. Miami (Dec. 30)

Outlook: Through six weeks, the defending AFC champions were just 3-3 and looking vulnerable. But they haven't lost since, piling up six consecutive wins and averaging a mind-boggling 40.3 points.

Tom Brady and Co. figure to be significantly challenged over the next two weeks with games against the top-seeded Texans and the NFC's current No. 2 seed, the San Francisco 49ers. Both of those matchups are at home, as New England leaves the friendly confines of Gillette Stadium just once over the final four weeks, for a game against lowly Jacksonville.

A league-best 32-5 at home during the regular season since 2008, the Patriots still have a shot at the AFC's top seed, but a win Monday would be a must.



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