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The Ravens should win the AFC North, and could make a deep playoff run

On Sunday, the NFL’s playoff picture got a lot clearer. The New England Patriots, already a playoff contender, clinched their 10th straight AFC East title and are currently the No. 2 seed in the conference, while the Dallas Cowboys defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to secure the NFC East. Those two join the New Orleans Saints, Chicago Bears and Los Angeles Rams as division winners, while the Kansas City Chiefs, Houston Texans and Baltimore Ravens could all clinch their divisions with Week 17 wins.

1 Saints (13-2)     Chiefs (11-4)
2 Rams (12-3) Patriots (10-5)
3 Bears (11-4) Texans (10-5)
4 Cowboys (9-6) Ravens (9-6) 
WC1 Seahawks (9-6) Chargers (11-4)
WC2 Vikings (8-6-1) Colts (9-6)

But that could change during the last week of the regular season, with a big swing possible at the top of the AFC bracket, where the Patriots and Texans are fighting for the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye. If the Patriots beat the New York Jets next week, New England would earn the No. 2 seed, with a small chance (5 percent) at the top seed overall in the AFC. If the Patriots lose that game and the Texans beat the Jacksonville Jaguars in the regular-season finale, Houston would secure the No. 2 seed. The Texans still have a slim shot at the No. 1 seed, but could also fall to a wild-card slot.

Obviously, having home-field advantage and a first-round bye is huge, and each team would benefit enormously in this situation. For example, New England’s Super Bowl chances go from 4 to 13 percent if it secures the No. 2 seed in the AFC; Houston’s chances rise from 1 to 5 percent.

Here are four other matchups that will be key to the postseason in Week 17.

Baltimore Ravens vs. Cleveland Browns

The Baltimore Ravens moved past the Steelers into first place in the AFC North on Sunday, and if the Ravens beat the Cleveland Browns in Week 17, the Steelers would be eliminated from the playoffs.

Not only should Baltimore beat Cleveland (71 percent win probability), they are a team that could make a deep playoff run. Baltimore’s defense, after adjusting for strength of opponent, is the second-best this year per Football Outsiders, allowing just 1.5 points per drive in 2018. Opposing quarterbacks have mustered an 80.7 passer rating against the Ravens (second-best this year, with the league average at 93.2) with cornerback Marlon Humphrey holding receivers to 0.8 yards per snap in coverage, the seventh-best mark at the position this season per the game charters at Pro Football Focus.

That defense, plus the offense’s recent exploits with rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson at the helm, gives the Ravens a 5 percent chance to win Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta, a higher chance than any of the other 9-6 teams in the playoff hunt.

Indianapolis Colts at Tennessee Titans

The winner of this game makes the postseason. The loser does not.

The Titans have home-field advantage, but the Colts have a slight skill edge in this matchup (53 percent win probability). Tennessee quarterback Marcus Mariota was injured late in the first half of Saturday’s game against the Washington Redskins and did not return, with backup Blaine Gabbert leading Tennessee’s comeback win. It’s unknown if Mariota will be ready for Sunday’s game but there is no doubt that Colts quarterback Andrew Luck is the more accomplished passer. According to ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating, Luck is the ninth-most valuable quarterback in 2018; Mariota, when healthy, is 20th.

Philadelphia Eagles at Washington Redskins and Chicago Bears at Minnesota Vikings

Any postseason aspirations for the Eagles start with a win in Week 17 against the Redskins. A win in Washington (52 percent probability) and the Eagles improve their playoff chances from 27 to 47 percent, but they would also need the Bears to beat the Vikings. If Minnesota beats Chicago, the NFC’s final postseason berth would belong to the Vikings.

Read more NFL coverage:

Mike Tomlin wanted to ‘be aggressive’ with fake punt. Now the Steelers are in major trouble.

The NFL playoff picture takes shape as the final regular-season games approach

Jay Gruden says he’ll consider disciplining D.J. Swearinger after critical comments

The NFL playoffs suddenly seem wide open

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