AFC NORTH ROUNDUP: Last season’s divisional powers struggle

Street Talk AFC NORTH ROUNDUP: Last season’s divisional powers struggle

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Baltimore Ravens

"We’ve got plenty to be encouraged about," Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh said. "We’re in a tight race for the wild card, we are every bit in it. Everybody, they’ll say what they’ll say. It’s a week-to-week proposition in this league."

The Ravens struggled in coverage without star safety Ed Reed, who sat out with hip and ankle injuries. But Ravens coach John Harbaugh insisted his team is "still breathing" in the playoff race. Baltimore was called for five pass interference penalties, the most by a team in a single game since the New York Giants in 2001. While Reed’s replacement, Tom Zbikowski, came up with one of the 2 interceptions thrown by Packer QB Aaron Rodgers, the Ravens struggled in coverage.

Baltimore’s Joe Flacco was 15 of 36 for 137 yards with a touchdown and three interceptions. The Packers sacked him three times. Leading 17-0 at halftime and seemingly cruising, the Packers suddenly found themselves scrambling after a pair of turnovers — both involving Donald Driver — allowed Baltimore to get back in the game. The Packers were driving on their first possession of the second half when Driver caught a pass in Ravens territory and fumbled as he turned to run up-field. Flacco made the Packers pay, throwing to Kelley Washington for a touchdown. Rodgers watched as his first pass of the next possession bounced off Driver’s leg and into the arms of linebacker Jarret Johnson. Flacco went deep, drawing pass interference on Packers cornerback Tramon Williams. Willis McGahee scored on a 1-yard touchdown run two plays later, cutting the lead to 17-14 in the third quarter.
After a missed field goal by Green Bay’s Mason Crosby, Flacco then threw deep downfield to Derrick Mason, who caught the ball but was called for offensive pass interference against Charles Woodson. Mason compounded the problem by drawing an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty afterward, and the Ravens had to punt from their own 9-yard line. The Packers then scored to take a 24-14 lead, but allowed a long kickoff return by Lardarius Webb.  Williams was called for pass interference, but Williams came back to pick off Flacco in the end zone to preserve the lead.

Ray Rice was held to 54 yards rushing and lost a fumble.

Cincinnati Bengals

"I love carrying the ball that much," Bengals running back Cedric Benson said relative to his 36 carries versus Detroit. "It usually just means we’re putting a team away, and I love putting teams away. You know, you’ve got to put the hay in the barn. That’s what my old high school coach used to call it. And anytime we’re carrying the ball that much, I think we’re putting the hay away."

Cedric Benson tied the franchise record with his fifth 100-yard game of the season on Sunday, setting up a 23-13 victory over the Detroit Lions that had even greater significance for the franchise. The Bengals assured themselves of a winning record for only the second time in 19 years.  A commitment to running the ball has carried them to the doorstep of the playoffs. In each of the past three games, a different Cincinnati running back has topped 100 yards, the first time that’s happened in the NFL since Green Bay did it in 2006. Benson finished with 110 yards on 36 carries and became the focal point once Cincinnati got ahead.

The Bengals won another game with an approach so simple that the fans sometimes booed. They did just enough against the league’s worst pass defense — Carson Palmer threw for 220 yards and a touchdown to Ochocinco — and went into grind-it-out mode in the second half, after coach Marvin Lewis chewed them out for their lackluster effort. The first quarter of the Bengals’ least-appealing home game — they needed an extension to sell out and avoid a television blackout — had fans wondering why they’d bought those tickets. Paul Brown Stadium filled with boos as the Lions outplayed the Bengals at the outset. The Bengals got no pressure on Matt Stafford, who had plenty of time to throw a 54-yard touchdown pass to Calvin Johnson for a 7-0 lead. Cincinnati’s offensive line got pushed around — Cincinnati managed only 47 yards in the opening quarter. Third-round pick Michael Johnson batted one of Stafford’s passes in the air, and defensive end Jonathan Famine caught it cleanly, tucked the ball into the crook of his left arm and ran 45 yards untouched for his first career score.

Palmer’s 36-yard touchdown pass to Ochocinco on the next series put the Bengals in control. It was only their third touchdown pass in the last five games, a sign of how much they’ve been leaning on the run this season.

Cleveland Browns

"They made a lot of big plays," Browns linebacker David Bowens said. "That was the key to the game. They have a lot of weapons. L.T.’s (LaDainian Tomlinson) a great player and (Antonio) Gates made some big catches."

Browns Stadium was less than half full at kickoff and any late arrivals missed the Browns’ first TD, Brady Quinn’s 11-yard pass to Mohamed Massaquoi. Quinn went 6 for 6 for 61 yards on the scoring drive, Cleveland’s first for a TD on an opening possession since Nov. 11, 2007 — a span of 35 games.

The Browns have lost seven straight amid mounting injuries. Browns DT C.J. Mosley injured his right leg in the first half. He left the stadium on crutches. An impressive Browns drive ended midway through the second quarter when Brady Quinn was sacked and stripped by Shaun Phillips on the San Diego 3-yard line. Jacques Cesaire recovered, killing a great scoring chance for the Browns, who committed their first turnover in three weeks. San Diego thoroughly dominated the Browns in the third quarter after leading by 13-7 at halftime, out-gaining Cleveland 208-10 — 164-0 in passing yards — while holding the ball for 12:06. Quinn threw three TD passes for the Browns who have lost franchise-record 10 straight home games, and must get ready to play an angry Pittsburgh squad on Thursday. Quinn finished the day 25 for 45 with no interceptions. The Browns made the score respectable by scoring 16 in the fourth as Quinn hit running back Jerome Harrison for two TD. Phil Dawson’s 49-yard field goal with 39 seconds left made it 30-23, but LaDainian Tomlinson recovered an onside kick with 38 seconds remaining.

"I’m disappointed, but I’m really happy with the way our guys kept fighting," Browns head Coach Eric Mangini said. "They kept dealing with whatever adversity they had. They’ve been fighting each week."

Pittsburgh Steelers

"I can’t even describe how frustrating it is right now to be 6-6," linebacker James Farrior said. "We thought we’d be doing a lot better at this point. But we are what our record says we are."

The Super Bowl champion Steelers are losing their confidence as fast as they’re losing leads and losing games. The Steelers, in danger of missing the playoffs after winning the Super Bowl for a second time in four seasons, went ahead 24-20 on Ben Roethlisberger’s 11-yard touchdown pass to Hines Ward with 1:56 remaining, only to have the Raiders rally and win it. Pittsburgh, 6-2 at midseason, has lost to two of the NFL’s worst teams in the last three weeks, the Chiefs (3-9) and the Raiders, to fall three games behind Cincinnati in the AFC North. It was the fifth time in six losses the Steelers couldn’t hold a lead in the fourth quarter. They led 10-6, 17-13 and 24-20. "As a defense, you want to be dominant," cornerback Deshea Townsend said. "The way to be dominating is when your team needs you to finish."

The Raiders, held to 49 points in their first five road games and next to last in the NFL in offense, fell behind 17-13 on Rashard Mendenhall’s 3-yard TD run one play after Roethlisberger’s 57-yard hookup with Santonio Holmes. Holmes earlier put Pittsburgh up 10-3 with a 34-yard scoring catch. Pittsburgh drove 80 yards in seven plays for Hines Ward’s touchdown, but left enough time on the clock — almost three minutes — for Oakland to win it with the kind of drive it’s rarely mounted all season, much less three times in a quarter. Bruce Gradkowski found Louis Murphy for 19 yards to the Steelers 40 and 17 yards to the 23, and a late-hit penalty on backup safety Ryan Mundy gave Oakland a first down at the 11. Murphy then got free behind Mundy — playing only because Troy Polamalu (left knee) missed a third consecutive game — for the game-winner. Playing 17 days shy of the 37th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception, the Steelers had one more chance. Roethlisberger threw into the end zone from the 50 on the final play, but Hiram Eugene knocked down a pass intended for Limas Sweed. No miracle finish against Oakland this time.

"We played poorly at a critical time, so you lose when you do that," Coach Mike Tomlin said. The Steelers have allowed seven plays of 40 yards or longer in their last four. They gave up only two such plays last season. Roethlisberger finished the day 18 of 24 for 278 yards, two TD and an interception.

AFC North

Team

W

L

T

PCT

PF

PA

Home

Road

DIV

PCT

AFC

PCT

NFC

Streak

Cincinnati

9

3

0

.750

254

187

5-2

4-1

6-0

1.000

6-3

.667

3-0

Won 2

Pittsburgh

6

6

0

.500

272

231

4-2

2-4

1-3

.250

4-5

.444

2-1

Lost 4

Baltimore

6

6

0

.500

271

215

4-2

2-4

3-2

.600

6-4

.600

0-2

Lost 1

Cleveland

1

11

0

.083

145

309

0-5

1-6

0-5

.000

1-7

.125

0-4

Lost 7

 
Week #13 Scores    

Green Bay    27        Baltimore       14

Cincinnati     23        Detroit             13

San Diego    30        Cleveland       23

Oakland        27        Pittsburgh       24

 

Week #14 Match-ups and ITH Predictions

Baltimore (6-6) vs. Detroit (2-10)

The Lions visit Baltimore for the first time since Barry Sanders played his last ever football game in 1998. It also marked the end of Ted Marchibroda’s coaching stint in Baltimore. Area native Jim Schwartz returns to Baltimore, though not with the Titans. He does have some familiarity with the Ravens, and will surely attempt to neutralize Ray Rice in much the same way that the Packers were able to. Unlike the Packers, the talent doesn’t yet exist in Detroit. The Lions come off a respectable effort in Cincinnati, while the Ravens are battling injury issues and first half doldrums in their last 9 games, 6 of them losses.

The Ravens muster up enough good plays to win this one at home, but just barely.

Baltimore   23     Detroit   17

Cincinnati (9-3) at Minnesota (10-2)

This game will attract a lot of national interest in a match-up between 2 likely division winners and Super Bowl aspirants. If not for their meltdown in Oakland, the Bengals are reaching road warrior status with wins at Baltimore, Green Bay and Pittsburgh dotting their 2009 resume. Having a wrecking ball at running back in Cedric Benson and a stout defense makes any game a winnable one for this group. The Vikings are coming off of a disappointing effort on the road at Arizona and are looking for redemption and a hold on the #2 seed in the NFC playoff race. Adrian Peterson will have a big say in the outcome. Carson Palmer is capable of going toe-to-toe with Brett Favre and the Vikings secondary is vulnerable. ITH believes that the defenses in the AFC are better than those in the NFC, and the Bengals have played very good defense in 2009. Look for Chad OchoCinco to cause problems for the Vikings in a Bengals upset (7 point underdogs as of this writing).   

Cincinnati   24     Minnesota   20

Cleveland (1-11) vs. Pittsburgh (6-6)

This game is the featured Thursday night snoozer on the NFL network. Now that the college football season is over, why wouldn’t the league schedule some Saturday games? Making the teams play on Thursday is just plain stupid. I think that a re-run of CSI may be more interesting to watch than this game. ITH wonders if this is the week that Mike Tomlin “unleashes hell” in December. If the Browns weren’t so god awful, this would be a game that they could win. The Steelers, losers of 4 straight, have to travel on a short week, but a win, which is likely, gets them a few extra days to prepare for the Packers at home on 12/20. The Browns had a nice comeback in their loss to the Chargers on Sunday and a top effort from Brady Quinn keeps them close in this one and maybe an overtime affair.

Pittsburgh   20     Cleveland   17    in OT

Record Week #13 and YTD: 4 – 0/21 – 11

 

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Eric Buckner

About Eric Buckner

Eric Buckner is a native of Baltimore and has lived in the area his entire life. A graduate of Towson University , Eric has been a student of professional football since the day he wept in his grandfather’s bedroom after the Baltimore Colts were upset by the New York Jets in Super Bowl III. A loyal fan of the Colts and subsequently the Ravens, Eric’s passion for the NFL is unwavering as evidenced by his near flawless attendance record at Ravens’ games. He’s missed only one preseason game — back in 2005. We’ll cut him some slack since he was on his honeymoon. You won’t find Eric slacking when it comes to covering the AFC North for ProFootball24x7.com.
 

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