Here we go again—three teams from the AFC North are in a position to make the playoffs, and all three are set to battle in the final two weeks of the season for what is likely one wild-card berth.
But don’t be fooled. This is not the typical three-team race from what is traditionally one of the NFL’s best conferences. The usual suspects are here, but in strange form. Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati are in contention, but it is the latter leading the charge this time around.
This is 6-8 Pittsburgh, where the biggest story is a rookie running back. This is 8-6 Baltimore, where the biggest story is a handicapped franchise in part thanks to a $120 million contract doled out to a streaky quarterback. This is 9-5 Cincinnati, now the gatekeeper in the North (for now), where the biggest story is a young team yet again ill-prepared for the prime-time spotlight necessary to take the final step.
This is the AFC North, the NFL’s most unpredictable conference.
We’ll start with the division-leading Bengals, because honestly, the team with one of the NFL’s longest-tenured coaches in Marvin Lewis deserves the recognition of the quality season they have put together.
Despite recent failings, it easy to forget this is a Cincinnati team that has defeated the likes of Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots and even the Detroit Lions at Ford Field.
But the “what have you done for me lately?” attitude among observers will point to the egg laid on Sunday Night Football against Pittsburgh in Week 15 as the season-defining moment for the 2013 Bengals thus far—a team led by quarterback Andy Dalton once again failed in the spotlight with everything on the line.
Critics are right to focus on the negative. The Bengals did not just go out and lose, they were punched in the mouth and never responded, instead shriveling in the cold and not fighting for each other. Punter Kevin Huber was the main victim, as Joe Reedy of the Cincinnati Enquirer captures:
Huber suffered a fractured jaw and cracked vertebrae after an illegal blindside hit by Pittsburgh linebacker Terence Garvin (who was subsequently fined $25,000). Rather than respond with a rally, Cincinnati remained silent.
The end result? A 10-6 record could mean watching the playoffs from home despite currently sitting in first place. Lance McAlister of 700 WLW sums up the mood nicely:
Cincinnati faces Minnesota in Week 16, which seems favorable, but it is a team that just dropped 48 on Philadelphia without star back Adrian Peterson.
But forget the matchup with Minnesota. The real deal is a Week 17 bout with Baltimore, a team that already owns a victory over Cincinnati via a Week 10, 20-17 overtime outcome. Should the Ravens emerge victorious from Paul Brown Stadium, it will likely result in the Bengals missing the playoffs entirely.
It’s important to note that no team has entered Paul Brown Stadium and left with a mark in the win column this year. Six have tried and failed, but none of the previous wins hold any weight compared to what the season-ending showdown with Baltimore means.
Which is where Cincinnati has failed the past three years. We could search for adjustments the team needs to make on both sides of the football, but things have been better in recent weeks. Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden is not simply spamming the ball to A.J. Green anymore, Dalton has limited costly mistakes (one interception in last three games) and the bulk of the touches has officially transitioned from veteran back BenJarvus Green-Ellis to rookie Giovani Bernard. (Bernard has touched the rock 46 times in the past three games to 42 for Green-Ellis, with Bernard’s 13 rushes to Green-Ellis’ four against Pittsburgh the highlight).
No, the main point for Cincinnati to make the postseason is twofold. For one, the team simply needs to grow up. Cincinnati has been eliminated from the opening round of the playoffs the past two years and mostly failed in prime-time appearances.
Above all else, the Bengals must get healthy. Injuries have finally caught up to the offensive line. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth has been forced inside to left guard for Clint Boling, who is shelved on injured reserve. Journeyman Mike Pollak is in for Kevin Zeitler at right guard. Backup swing tackle Anthony Collins is starting at left tackle. In recent weeks, the line has struggled in the running game, and while the stats may not show it, Dalton has been under constant fire.
Switch to defense, where the team had already lost tackle Geno Atkins and corner Leon Hall. Veteran corner Terence Newman missed the Pittsburgh battle, which resulted in second-year corner Dre Kirkpatrick getting royally exposed.
Every team deals with injuries, and for the most part, the impressive depth in Cincinnati has made up for the loss of countless stars and role players. But with a grueling season coming to its conclusion, the issues have started to pile up at the worst possible time. Time will tell if the Bengals can hold onto the playoff berth they are beginning to let slip away.
Let’s transition to the situation in Pittsburgh, where the Steelers are still alive in the postseason hunt after an “I’m still living, brother!” effort Hulk Hogan would admire—the Steelers have won four of six, with both losses by a combined eight points and each win coming by 10 or more.
Admittedly, the chances are slim—and confusing. Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette sums it up best, if that’s even a thing in this scenario:
“The NFL tiebreaking system is indeed difficult at times to understand. That is why some people, even in my business, thought a Miami win would eliminate the Steelers. After all, the Dolphins beat the Steelers to have that first tiebreaker between the two if they both finish 8-8. However, if the Dolphins and Jets both tie at 8-8, the rules say you break the tie within the division first when 3 or more teams are tied. That tiebreaker would go to the Jets. Over in the AFC North, if Baltimore finishes 8-8 as well, they would break the tie with the supposed 8-8 Steelers first. That tiebreaker would go to the Steelers based on a better record among common opponents.
That would leave them to break the Jets-Steelers tie and that would go to the Steelers — based on their win against the Jets.”
Right. To be more succinct, the Steelers have a mountain to climb.
Familiar names litter the black and gold once again in 2013, but they’re just that—names. Cornerback Ike Taylor is the definition of washed up (despite what broadcast announcers spew at fans) and ranks at No. 104 on a list of 109 at his position this year, per PFF. End Brett Keisel ranks No. 27 out of 44. High-profile rookie Jarvis Jones? No. 34 out of 42 at 3-4 outside linebacker.
No, Pittsburgh has been saved by newer names. Rookie back Le’Veon Bell is the real deal as an every-down option. End Cameron Heyward is one of the best rising defensive stars in the league. Outside linebacker Jason Worilds has stepped in for those departed and played at a high level.
The road to the playoffs is paved with obstacles out of the team’s control, but it can stick with what has worked in recent weeks to move past 7-6-1 Green Bay regardless of quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ status. This holds true against a Week 17 bout with 4-10 Cleveland, a team Pittsburgh dismantled in Week 12, 27-11.
The defense will be a strength the rest of the way. Dick LeBeau’s unit ranks in the top 10 against the pass thanks to stellar seasons from the cornerback duo of William Gay and Cortez Allen. Safety Troy Polamalu has had a quiet year, but still ranks seventh in the NFL at the position.
Offensively is where the problems have resided in Pittsburgh. Whether the blame truly falls on coordinator Todd Haley or not, things have been better in the second half of the year. We’ll likely never know if this is a result of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger taking more control, but the offense in recent weeks has shown a level of creativity and balance that was previously absent.
For Pittsburgh to uphold its end of the deal on its postseason quest, the attack must continue to be spearheaded by Bell. Antonio Brown must remain consistent as he has all year—as one of the only players in the NFL to catch five or more passes in each game as the Sunday Night Football account illustrates:
Perhaps the win against Cincinnati perfectly encapsulated how the Pittsburgh offense can help to win the team’s next two games. Roethlisberger rarely held onto the ball more than three seconds, which has been a common theme in recent weeks—after being sacked 36 times the first nine weeks, the Miami (OH) product has been sacked four times in his last four games. The quick-hitting attack, spearheaded by the no-huddle, will continue to make life difficult on defenders asked to accommodate for speedy receivers on the outside and the bruising power of Bell up the middle.
Pittsburgh is more than capable of winning out, but nothing positive will happen without sheer luck.
Baltimore knows a thing or two about getting hot at just the right time. In fact, the John Harbaugh era has been fruitful as ESPN details:
We knew this was coming. The minute Cincinnati dropped the game to Pittsburgh last week, which in turn gave the Ravens the knowledge that they control their own destiny, we simply had to know what was in store.
Baltimore went out and beat Detroit Monday. The validity of the win does not matter. What matters is simple—Baltimore wins out, it wins the AFC North.
Is that really something fans want to doubt?
No. This is the same team that hit the postseason last year, got hot and won it all. The result was an exodus in veteran talent and a ludicrous contract to quarterback Joe Flacco, but the roster is primarily the same and armed with players who understand what is necessary from this point forward.
“The thing I love about our football team is that we are a team of faith,” coach John Harbaugh said. “We believe. We trust. Because of that, we’ll fight. We will run the race right down to the end. That’s something that our football team does. I’m very proud of them for that.”
Speaking of that contract, the $120 million deal can in part be blamed for some of the issues the Ravens had early in the year. The offensive line is in shambles. Running back Ray Rice averages 3.1 yards per carry behind it and Flacco has thrown one more touchdown than interception mostly due to pressure and a lack of targets—which he himself helped cause as the team needed to make space for his deal. The result was Anquan Boldin being shipped to San Francisco for a sixth-round pick (the same Boldin who averaged 95 yards per game and scored four times last postseason, not to mention leading Baltimore in receiving in each of the past three years). The Flacco contract situation is an easy target, and while it only represents a $6.8 million cap hit, things escalate quickly next year when each year is a $14 million or more hit for five more years—with a high of $31 million.
The team better win now, which Harbaugh certainly thinks is possible as he told the media, via ESPN’s Jamison Hensley: “The thing I love about our football team is that we are a team of faith,” coach John Harbaugh said. “We believe. We trust. Because of that, we’ll fight. We will run the race right down to the end. That’s something that our football team does. I’m very proud of them for that.”
The Ravens are smart to have faith. Flacco is at his best against familiar opposition (21 touchdowns, seven interceptions and an 88.3 passer rating against the AFC North since 2011), which he and the Ravens encounter the rest of the way. Week 16 is a duel with New England, an offense once again neutered without tight end Rob Gronkowski, and a defense Flacco is accustomed to by now. Cincinnati is the opponent in Week 17.
It seems the writing is on the wall. This is not a team that has been blown out of the water. Outside of a lopsided affair in Denver to open the season, Baltimore’s five other losses have come by six points or fewer. Baltimore’s defense has been spectacular in the team’s four straight wins. The offense has received a massive boost from the return of tight end Dennis Pitta. Rookie receiver Marlon Brown has come on in recent weeks, seeing 17 targets in his last two games, catching 11.
It is foolish to doubt Baltimore. Pair last season’s success with recent trends, not to mention old ones such as a young Bengals team choking when it matters most, and is anyone truly willing to bet Baltimore misses the postseason?
After a tumultuous ride the first half of the season, the favorite in the wild AFC North at this point may very well be the Ravens.
Advanced metrics and player rankings courtesy of Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Statistics via ESPN.