By Ray Hamill
Despite the crowded nature of the AFC playoff picture this season, both Pittsburgh and Baltimore could put some distance between themselves and their chief rivals this weekend.
The Ravens get to host a weak Jacksonville side, and with a 14-point spread they’re the heaviest favorites of the weekend, while Pittsburgh is favored by two to win at Atlanta after what has been another disappointing campaign for the Falcons.
And that could spell disaster for their closest seven playoff rivals, five of whom are underdogs this weekend, according to Vegas.
Heading into Sunday’s games, the Steelers and Ravens are each 8-5 and occupy the fifth and seventh seeds, respectively, with sixth seed San Diego (8-5) also well in the mix.
But the Chargers must play the high-flying Broncos (10-3), who lead the AFC West, and a loss could see the Ravens leap-frog them into that sixth seed and final playoff spot.
And the Chargers aren’t the only AFC playoff contenders with a difficult task this weekend. In fact, five of the Ravens’ and Steelers’ six closest playoff contenders play division leaders, including Houston (at Indy), Miami (at New England), Buffalo (vs. Green Bay) and Cleveland (vs. Cincinnati).
After this weekend, both Pittsburgh and Baltimore still have two remaining games each against playoff contending teams, but victories for both this week, coupled with the expected losses for their rivals, could see each of them take a big step toward the postseason.