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Pressure increases for AFC North contenders

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Posted Nov. 21, 2011 @ 5:38 p.m. ET
By Mike Wilkening

With six weeks left, the AFC North race is tightly bunched at the top of the division, but the Ravens, on account of a season-series sweep of the Steelers and a 31-24 victory over the upstart Bengals Sunday, are the North leaders at 7-3. However, the Ravens get another big test, and quickly, when 9-1 San Francisco comes to town on Thanksgiving night.

The Steelers, also 7-3, had their bye Sunday, a welcome sight for a club that has battled injuries. They visit Kansas City on Sunday night.

The Bengals, one game back at 6-4, have shown they can compete with Baltimore and Pittsburgh, but their inability to defeat either club leaves them a step behind in third place. All three teams, it must be noted, would be in the playoffs if they started Monday, with Baltimore the No. 1 seed, Pittsburgh No. 5 and Cincinnati No. 6.

The Browns, three games back at 4-6, and with five of their final six games against their division foes, merit mention here after hanging on to beat Jacksonville 14-10 on Sunday. Cleveland travels to Cincinnati on Sunday with a chance, albeit slim, to be a factor in the division.

As we take a closer look at the North, let's start at the top.

The PFW Spin

At their best, the Ravens have been the division's top team this season. They are the only North club not to lose a division game, and two of their final three games in AFC North play are against Cleveland.

The Ravens seized control of Sunday's game with splash plays. A 35-yard TD pass from Joe Flacco to Anquan Boldin tied the game in the second quarter, and a 49-yard Flacco-to-Torrey Smith connection set up the Ravens' go-ahead TD. In the second half, a 59-yard Ray Rice run led to a field goal that gave Baltimore a 17-7 lead early in the third quarter.

Later, after Cincinnati had cut Baltimore's lead to 17-14, Ravens rookie CB Jimmy Smith's interception set up Rice's second TD to give Baltimore a 10-point cushion. Finally, the Ravens' last points came on a 38-yard TD catch from Smith, who shredded the Bengals' coverage for 165 yards.

While the Ravens did surrender nearly 500 yards to Cincinnati, their defense, as everyone knows, has played to a much higher standard this season. If the Ravens struggle to get stops over an extended period, then the alarms can sound, but for now, the offense's fine play in victory seems to be the most notable story. The Ravens, as they showed Sunday, can win in track-meet fashion, and what a change that is.

However, it wouldn't be a surprise if the San Francisco game were a grinder. The 49ers have a stout defense and average 32 minutes for time of possession. The Ravens and 49ers, play "similar styles of football," Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh said Monday.

One potential edge for Baltimore might be the schedule. The 49ers are traveling cross-country to play just four days after their last game.

The Steelers, the Ravens' top rivals, don't play again until Sunday night at Kansas City. The timing of the bye was ideal with QB Ben Roethlisberger suffering a broken thumb in the Week 10 win at Cincinnati. Roethlisberger expects to play against the Chiefs.

Kansas City, which plays Monday night at New England, has had terrible injury luck, with the loss of QB Matt Cassel the latest blow. However, two seasons ago, the heavily favored Steelers lost to the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium. The Steelers, who have shown a knack for playing down to their competition at times, could regret letting the hosts hang around.

Likewise, the Bengals would be wise to take the Browns seriously on Sunday. While Cincinnati defeated Cleveland in Week One, the Browns held a 17-13 lead with less than five minutes left before two defensive mishaps allowed the Bengals to earn a 10-point victory.

The Browns' offense has perked up in the past two games. The emergence of RB Chris Ogbonnaya, who rushed for 115 yards on Sunday, has helped. Also, QB Colt McCoy, who threw two TD passes vs. Cincinnati in Week One but completed just 19-of-40 throws, has been more accurate of late. The Browns, who gained a season-best 6.2 yards per play on Sunday, are in better form on offense than they have been all season.

The Bengals' defense, meanwhile, allowed a season-worst 31 points and 6.7 yards per play to Baltimore on Sunday. The Bengals don't have a single "bad" loss this season, and they shook off a two-game losing streak earlier this season with a comeback win vs. then-formidable Buffalo, so a strong bounceback effort vs. Cleveland seems well within their capabilities.

A sound effort in all phases would help their cause immensely. While QB Andy Dalton threw for 373 yards on Sunday, he was intercepted three times. Also, the defense surrendered four plays of 35 yards or more.

The Bengals, Ravens and Steelers are all favored in their Week 12 games. Losses for any of these contenders would have a material effect both on the division race and the AFC wild-card picture. We can agree that Baltimore has the toughest game upcoming … but Pittsburgh and Cincinnati better be careful, too. Such is life in this playoff chase. The distinctly AFC North feel to the events could disappear with a few clunkers from the contenders.

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