The AFC North is essentially a three-team race with eight weeks left, with Baltimore perhaps in the best position at 6-2 and a season sweep of Pittsburgh in the bag.
However, consider Cincinnati's opportunity Sunday. The Bengals, who are also 6-2 and in the midst of their first five-game winning streak since 1988, host Pittsburgh, and a victory against the Steelers would give them a 1½-game cushion on the defending AFC champions.
The Steelers, meanwhile, find themselves rather vulnerable for a 6-3 club. All the good things the Steelers have done this season are just about lost in the rubble of two losses to Baltimore, the latest a 23-20 defeat Sunday when they faltered in the final minutes — and the Ravens, in turn, capitalized with a championship-caliber finishing kick.
We now consider the AFC North division chase, with the North's defining series in the books.
The PFW spin
Save for two clunkers at Tennessee and Jacksonville and an awful first half vs. Arizona, the Ravens have played like one of the NFL's best clubs, and on Sunday, they were superior to Pittsburgh. While the Steelers outgained the Ravens, Baltimore was simply better when the game was on the line. QB Joe Flacco, in one of the better games of his career, threw for 300 yards. Time and again, he made key throws to convert third downs.
In defeat, the Steelers have much to rue and ponder. Head coach Mike Tomlin made a major, and perhaps game-changing, tactical error by deciding to send out the field-goal team too late for a 47-yard field-goal attempt with 2:37 left and the Steelers leading 20-16. Pittsburgh drew a delay-of-game penalty and punted, pinning Baltimore on its eight-yard line, but Flacco ultimately led the Ravens to the game-winning TD.
"I accept responsibility for that," Tomlin said after the game. "There was some hesitation on my part. I was concerned about that distance. We had some changes in personnel with a new holder (P Jeremy Kapinos). Under the circumstances, I didn't want to give them the ball on that short of a field. I sent the group out there a little late. We ended up with a delay of game, and then I made the decision to make them work the long length of the field, and ultimately that was probably the best option for us."
In addition to shaky game management, other Steelers disappointments on Sunday included their pass defense, which came up short on the final drive, with CBs Ike Taylor and William Gay and FS Ryan Clark all struggling at times as the Ravens marched down the field. Also, QB Ben Roethlisberger, while throwing for 330 yards, was intercepted in Baltimore's red zone early in the third quarter, and he also threw behind RB Mewelde Moore on the play before the Steelers took the very costly delay-of-game penalty.
The Steelers must regroup quickly, as the Bengals are in top form. Rookie QB Andy Dalton was impressive in Cincinnati's 24-17 win at Tennessee Sunday, throwing three TDs. He is a precise, confident passer. His top target, rookie WR A.J. Green, has been an impact player from the moment he stepped into the lineup — a true No. 1 receiver. The Bengals' defense, meanwhile, has been exceptional throughout the season, a sound, swarming group.
The Bengals are underdogs Sunday, but they are capable of giving the Steelers all they can handle if they play as well as they have recently. And should they beat Pittsburgh at home as they did in '09, when a sweep of Pittsburgh helped them to the AFC North title, the Steelers will be in a challenging — and increasingly powerless — position.
The Ravens, meanwhile, are still simply AFC North co-leaders. They travel to Seattle Sunday, and their best will likely prove too much for the Seahawks. Their worst, however, can put them into surprisingly tough spots. It is those moments that could inject some drama into an already exciting AFC North race.