Crunch time arrives for Ravens’ playoff hopes

The AFC’s muddled playoff picture will gain some much-needed clarity this week, making the Ravens’ already important visit from the New York Jets all the more integral.

Let’s start with explaining what’s at stake. One AFC wild card is within reasonable reach and nine teams are still in the race for that spot, all within 1 1/2 games of the conference’s sixth postseason position. Six of those teams are currently 4-6.

The majority of that group faces each other this week, starting with the Ravens (4-6) hosting the Jets, who are the current frontrunner for the AFC’s second wild card at 5-5.

The Steelers and Browns also meet in a critical matchup for both the AFC North and wild card races. Both teams are 4-6 heading into the contest at Cleveland, tied with the Ravens for second in the division and eighth in the conference.

Two more 4-6 teams also meet, as the Titans travel to Oakland to take on the Raiders. The sixth 4-6 squad, the Chargers, are at 9-1 Kansas City.

The Dolphins, who enter the week tied with the Jets at 5-5, host the Panthers, winners of six in a row.

The Bills (4-7) are off for their bye.

So this could be separation week. Or it could be just the opposite.

While scattered results could clear some things up, the right confluence of events could forge a six-way tie for the AFC’s second wild card because so many teams involved play each other.

If the Ravens and Chargers win, both the Pittsburgh-Cleveland and Tennessee-Oakland games don’t end in a tie, and the Dolphins lose, there will be six teams tied at 5-6 with five weeks remaining.

Does that create excitement or insanity? Or both?

To say the least, the Ravens could use a win this week, and they know it.

“Everything we want to do is still ahead of us. We just have to take care of this game and continue to get better, do all we can to win it and then move on to the next one and then move on to the next one,” quarterback Joe Flacco said. “We don’t have anything to lose right now. We can’t really be in any worse of a situation and still have hope. We’ve got to go out there, and we’ve got to lay it on the line. And that’s what we did last year. We let it all go, and we just played free. We focused on what was next or what was there right now. And if we do that this year, then we have all the ability in the world to play well and turn this thing around and play the way we want to.”

Even though the Ravens are frustrated with being 4-6, they aren’t panicked or distraught since they’re just one game out of a playoff spot and can gain a measure of control with a victory.

“You never want to be in a position where you’re like looking at another team for help rather than doing it on your own. But being where it’s at right now, we’ve still got everything ahead of us,” tailback Ray Rice said. “But needless to say, this is our fourth quarter of the year. There’s no time for mishaps and dropping one and waiting on another team. Let’s get control of our own destiny and let’s try to get on a roll.”