Costly losses give Ravens, Bears something to worry about in race
Week 13 in the NFL had its requisite amount of 16 losers -- and, yes, we know the Rams and 49ers nearly tied once again -- but nobody in the league lost more ground than the Bears and Ravens, both of whom were upset at home on Sunday by six-win teams, dropping out of the No. 2 playoff seeds in their respective conferences.
With still four weeks to go in the regular season, that's not such a big concern, is it? Well, yeah, maybe. The top two seeds equate to a first-round playoff win, not to mention the extra rest that comes with that early January bye week. In the past three seasons, eight of the 12 teams that earned one of the top two seeds advanced to at least the conference title game. So it is a valuable asset to have in your possession as the playoffs loom, and Chicago and Baltimore just surrendered it with excruciating losses that could represent the wrong kind of turning point in their 2012 seasons.
Here's why Chicago's 23-17 overtime defeat at the hands of visiting Seattle, and Baltimore's stunning 23-20 failure against outmanned Pittsburgh might matter so much as the final quarter of the regular season opens:
True, the Bears can possibly still undo the damage of the Seattle loss and re-take the division lead with a win at home against Green Bay in Week 15, but there's no margin for error now in Chicago. The Bears will likely have to beat the Packers to have a good shot to win the division and chase down San Francisco (8-3-1) for the No. 2 seed, and that's no small feat. Green Bay has beaten its historic rivals to the south five times in a row (including the playoffs) and won seven out of eight meetings since Bears quarterback Jay Cutler arrived in Chicago in 2009. The Packers are 3-1 at Solider Field in that span.
The Bears started a crisp 4-0 at home this season, but have dropped two of their past three, losing to Houston and Seattle, and beating Minnesota. They play three of their last four games on the road, where they're 3-2, but any way you cut it, Chicago's easy schedule through Week 13 raises questions about the quality of its 8-4 record. The Bears' road wins were at Dallas, Jacksonville and Tennessee. Its road losses? At Green Bay and San Francisco. See a pattern there?
Overall, Chicago is just 1-4 this season against teams that currently hold a playoff seed, and that lone win was in Week 1 at home against the Colts, before Indianapolis became the team that looks destined for an AFC wild-card berth. That's not the kind of track record that inspires confidence in January.
The Bears fattened up this season on weaker teams, and its ridiculous run of defensive touchdowns (seven) and takeaways in the season's first half led to a sterling 7-1 mark at the break. But it also tended to obscure the fact that Chicago's offense is quite mediocre outside the Cutler-to-Brandon Marshall connection.
The Bears offense begins the season's final push ranked 30th overall in yards (304 per game), 31st in passing yards (181.2), and 10th in rushing (122.8). From week to week, the Bears' offensive consistency has been lacking, and the defense can't escape blame for allowing Seattle rookie quarterback Russell Wilson to drive 97 yards for the go-ahead score late in regulation, and then 80 yards for the victory in overtime. Now that the takeaways have slowed for Chicago's defense, the Bears look considerably more beatable.
If the NFC playoffs started today, the 5th-seeded Bears would be headed to New Jersey to play the 4th-seeded Giants (7-5) in the opening round. Despite Chicago's winning mark on the road this season, the Bears are a much more confident team at Soldier Field, where they're won three of their past four games in the playoffs in the Lovie Smith coaching era. Chicago hasn't even participated in (or won) a road postseason game since 1994, when Dave Wannstedt was head coach.
Chicago's 1-3 second-half slide must look familiar to Bears fans, who watched a 7-3 start evaporate into an 8-8 non-playoff finish last year, with Cutler's broken hand being the impetus for that collapse. But there's still plenty of hope this season, especially if Chicago can find a way to beat Green Bay in Week 15. The Bears play at Minnesota (6-6) this week, then take on two losing clubs on the road to close out the season: at reeling Arizona (4-8) in Week 16, and at Detroit (4-8) in Week 17. Even splitting its last four games would be enough to push Chicago over the finish line and into the playoffs.
But even though the Ravens beat the Patriots head-to-head in Week 3 (and still face the visiting Broncos in Week 15), they lose a three-way tiebreaker to New England at the moment, dropping Baltimore to the No. 3 seed position in the AFC.
That's potentially very troubling for a Ravens team that plays so well at home (it just had its NFL-best 16-game home winning streak snapped by Pittsburgh) and so unevenly on the road. As the No. 3 seed, Baltimore would open the playoffs at home in the first round, but then face the challenge of perhaps winning two games on the road to get to the Super Bowl. With quarterback Joe Flacco continuing to look like a different player when he's away from M&T Stadium, that's not the blueprint the Ravens want to follow.
Making matters even worse, the Steelers are now very much alive in the AFC playoff race and would, as the No. 6 seed, be in line for a rematch against the Ravens in Baltimore in the first round. Having a presumably healthy Ben Roethlisberger at that point only further increases their chances of advancing.
The Ravens' 4-2 record on the road isn't remotely as impressive as it would appear. They've lost at Philadelphia and Houston, but their wins were at Kansas City (narrowly), at Cleveland (where they trailed in the fourth quarter), at Pittsburgh (without Roethlisberger playing), and at San Diego (where they needed a certain 4th-and-29 conversion to triumph).
Emulating last season's playoff positioning is what Baltimore wanted to achieve, if not surpass. The Ravens won the division at 12-4 and finished with the No. 2 seed, earning the first week of the postseason off. Then they won their divisional-round home game against Houston, and darn near pulled the upset at New England in the AFC title game. Even though Baltimore owns a 4-4 record in road playoff games in the John Harbaugh coaching era, home games in January are the key to the aging Ravens earning that long-sought-after second Super Bowl berth.
But with their air of invincibility at home punctured, playmaking outside linebacker Terrell Suggs now a question mark with a biceps injury, and team leader Ray Lewis still at least a week away from returning to the lineup after his October triceps tear, Baltimore's fate this season feels up for grabs. Especially if Flacco doesn't turn in a strong December showing.
At 9-3, it's no time to panic in Ravens-land. But Baltimore's remaining schedule is fairly brutal, with four consecutive games against teams that either hold a playoff seed or are in seriously in the hunt: at Washington (6-6), Denver (9-3), the Giants (7-5), and at Cincinnati (7-5). The alarmist among Ravens fans (which is most of them) sees that once-lofty 9-2 record turning into a disappointing 10-6 or even 9-7 finish fairly quickly if Baltimore isn't careful. Even some of the Ravens veterans seem to understand the tenuous nature of their position, and that nothing has been assured with four weeks remaining. Not even a playoff berth of any kind.
"We have a tough schedule coming up,'' Ravens safety Ed Reed said Sunday night, just after the loss to Pittsburgh. "This is far from over. That's why it's called a season. It's kind of like life. You have to be able to make adjustments and go through things, adversity, and it builds character. If it's going to be tough, we have to regroup from it. It's going to take us to not fall apart after a game like this.''