Possessing first-round bye, Ravens now the favorite in wide-open AFC

If the Ravens had fallen to the Bengals yesterday and had lost out on the division title, a first-round bye and a home playoff game in the process, I would have thought their chances of making it to Indianapolis as the AFC’s Super Bowl representative would be pretty slim.

Had they entered the playoffs as the No. 5 seed, they would have almost certainly needed to win three road games in three weeks. They would have missed out on their chance to host a game at M&T Bank Stadium (where they did not lose this season), and they wouldn’t have had the benefit of the bye week to let their numerous injured players rest up.

Instead, by beating the Bengals yesterday, the Ravens get all the perks that come with the No. 2 seed, and as a result, I think they’re the favorite to win the AFC title.

Why the new-found optimism? I’ll tell ya why:

* The bye week is absolutely huge. Take a look at the list of Ravens that are battling injuries of some kind at this point: Anquan Boldin (knee), Marshal Yanda (ribs), Billy Cundiff (left calf), Cory Redding (ankle), Dannell Ellerbe (concussion), Jimmy Smith (reported concussion), Tom Zbikowski (reported concussion) and Brendon Ayanbadejo (quad).

That’s not even mentioning guys like Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Haloti Ngata, Matt Birk and others who have been playing through significant pain for the last handful of weeks. The fact that all those guys now get nearly two weeks to rest up is crucial.

Terrell_Suggs-screaming-Bengals-tall.jpg* The Ravens have lost at home just once in their last 19 games. They outscored their opponents 219-119 at M&T Bank Stadium this season and only two of their home games were decided by less than a touchdown. Instead of having to take their playoff journey on the road for a fourth straight season, the Ravens now get to play in front of over 71,000 rabid fans who will create a fantastic home field advantage.

They’re guaranteed at least one playoff game at M&T Bank Stadium, and if the Patriots falter in their Divisional Round game and the Ravens take care of business on Jan. 15, then Baltimore would host the AFC Championship Game, as well. Doesn’t that thought just make you happy all over?

* John Harbaugh’s team isn’t scared of facing the Patriots or playing at Gillette Stadium. The Pats can strike fear into their opponents with their big-play passing attack, with Tom Brady slinging the ball all over the field and Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski and others racking up ridiculous receiving numbers.

But remember two years ago, when the Ravens stomped the Pats 33-14 in the wild card round of the playoffs? That game was played at New England’s Gillette Stadium, where at the time, the Patriots simply didn’t lose. But the Ravens went into Brady’s house, kicked him around and left with a dominating win. Of course, that was then and this is now, and both Baltimore and New England are different teams in 2012 than they were two seasons ago. But the Ravens won’t be afraid of their opponent if they need to travel into Gillette again with the AFC title on the line.

* The Ravens are the most complete team in the AFC. Yes, the Patriots are the most dangerous squad at this point, and they certainly can blow the opposition out of the water with their dynamic, high-powered offense. But New England has a suspect offensive line which has allowed Brady to get hit a ton this season, and it also possesses the NFL’s second-worst defense, which is allowing a whopping 411 yards per game. The Ravens can run the ball, have a deep passing game and also possess the league’s third-best defense. They went 5-0 against AFC playoff teams and were 6-0 against all teams that made the postseason.

It won’t be an easy road to Indy, but the field is wide open. And in my mind, by securing that No. 2 seed, the Ravens went from just another contender to the favorite to come out of the AFC.

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