Winning AFC North early could give Harbaugh tough choices

Winning AFC North early could give Harbaugh tough choices
November 28, 2012, 1:00 pm

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco (5) throws a pass against the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium. The Ravens defeated the Chargers 16-13 in overtime.

(Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-US PRESSWIRE)

The Ravens could lock up the AFC North Sunday with a win over Pittsburgh and a Cincinnati loss to the Chargers. Even if that happens and the Ravens lose their final four games, they'd finish 10-6 and if the Bengals win their final four, they'd do the same, but Baltimore would get the tiebreaker with a better AFC North record.

However, if the Ravens clinch so early, it brings up a few interesting questions for coach John Harbaugh and his staff. The biggest question is a very simple one-- who plays and who sits. That's probably something determined by where the Ravens are in the overall AFC playoff race.

The Colts went through this a few years ago, taking their foot off the gas late in the season and resting some players after they had everything locked up, and that seemed to hurt them as they didn't look as sharp in the playoffs. 

But the Ravens aren't in the same spot. In fact, they would still be in a battle with the Houston Texans for the No. 1 seed and with New England and Denver for the other top spots. The Ravens have an edge since they already beat the Patriots. They'll also play Denver later on.

As long as the Ravens still have a shot at the No. 1 seed -- something that gets tougher each week since the Texans already beat them and finishing in a tie won't help much -- they'll keep rolling. 

Same with the New England/Denver situation. The Ravens would love to get into the spot they were in last year, getting a first-round bye and earning an AFC semifinal game at home. That would mean they wouldn't have to get on the road until the AFC final and since the Ravens play so well at home, this could be a big plus. 

That's why the AFC North title won't have as much of an effect on the Ravens unless they lock up something bigger.