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AFC North Spin cycle: Week Five

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By Mike Wilkening

The Ravens and Steelers grinded out wins. The Bengals had their momentum stall in disappointing fashion. The Browns? Goodness, where do we start? Here's a recap and analysis of the Week Five AFC North action: 

RAVENS

What we learned: The Ravens operated off of an old blueprint, winning ugly on Sunday. They didn't score a touchdown, but neither did the Chiefs. In the end, Baltimore gutted out a 9-6 win on the strength of some big plays from the defense (four turnovers forced) and just enough from the offense, with RB Ray Rice (102 rushing yards) leading the charge. Some major mistakes from Kansas City didn't exactly hurt, either. At 4-1, the Ravens hold a one-game lead in the AFC North over Cincinnati for this reason: they won while not at their best, while the Bengals couldn't do the same in a home loss to Miami. While the Ravens' win lacked style points, it got the job done, and that's really what matters. 

What’s in store next: The Ravens host the Cowboys (2-2), who come off their bye. While Dallas has had its issues this season, it has more than enough talent on both sides of the ball to give Baltimore a challenge if Jason Garrett's club recaptures its best form. It will be interesting to see if the Cowboys emphasize the run a little more than usual after Chiefs RB Jamaal Charles racked up 140 yards on 30 carries against Baltimore on Sunday. What's more, the Cowboys' pass rush could also give Baltimore some issues. 

What the heck? The Ravens' passing game didn't have its best day on Sunday. QB Joe Flacco completed just 13-of-27 passes for 187 yards and was picked once. Moreover, he was sacked four times. The Cowboys' defense has a talented CB tandem in Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne and one of the game's very best pass rushers in OLB DeMarcus Ware. Baltimore's passing game faces much stiffer competition on Sunday and will need to raise its game back to early-season levels to sustain the sort of drives it will take to beat a solid Dallas club. 

BENGALS

What we learned: The Bengals didn't play close to their best game on Sunday, and they paid for it in a 17-13 home loss to Miami. The defeat snapped a three-game winning streak and dropped them out of a first-place tie with Baltimore. The Bengals' offense was off-rhythm for much of the game. QB Andy Dalton threw two picks and was sacked three times. WR Armon Binns lost a fumble. RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis continued to struggle, gaining just 14 yards on nine carries. Bernard Scott, who gave the running game a lift with 40 yards on five carries, suffered a season-ending knee injury. The Bengals' defense had its moments, allowing just 4.4 yards per play, but rookie QB Ryan Tannehill completed 17-of-26 passes for 223 yards. 

What’s in store next: On paper, the Bengals would seem to be getting a break drawing a road trip to 0-5 Cleveland in Week Six. However, when these clubs played in Week Two, Cleveland outgained Cincinnati 439-375. Also, the Browns were without CB Joe Haden, who is slated to return from a four-game NFL suspension for Sunday's rematch with the Bengals. To sweep the season series, the Bengals must provide more resistance to Browns rookie QB Brandon Weeden (322 yards passing, two TDs in Week Two) and star first-year RB Trent Richardson (145 total yards, two TDs). While the Browns are winless, their offense is much more capable of causing problems for the opposition than in past years. 

What the heck? Save for a 29-yard run from Scott and a 12-yard scramble from Dalton, the Bengals' running game had a day to forget. After a promising Bengals debut at Baltimore, Green-Ellis has failed to make much of an impact, racking up just 209 yards on 73 carries in the next four games (2.9 ypc). The Bengals desperately need to get their running game going to take some of the pressure off of Dalton and the passing game. 

BROWNS

What we learned: The Browns' defense, weakened by injury all season, just couldn't hold up against a balanced and strong Giants offense in a 41-27 loss at the Giants. The defeat dropped the Browns to 0-5, and with the Saints' Sunday-night win, Cleveland finds itself in the uneviable position of being the NFL's last winless club. The Browns, who lost MLB D'Qwell Jackson to a concussion, surrendered 502 yards in defeat at New York. The loss was all the more humbling and frustrating considering the Browns jumped out to a 14-0 lead. However, the Browns just couldn't cope with the Giants' passing and rushing attacks. QB Eli Manning threw for 259 yards and three TDs, all to WR Victor Cruz. RB Ahmad Bradshaw, meanwhile, rolled for 200 yards and a score on 30 carries. One positive for Cleveland: RB Trent Richardson again starred in defeat, rushing for 81 yards and a TD on 15 carries and catching five passes for 47 yards. Already he must be considered one of the NFL's more exciting backs to watch. 

What’s in store next: The Browns will try to even the score with the Bengals, who beat Cleveland 34-27 four weeks ago in Cincinnati. The Browns' offense more than held its own against the Bengals' defense in the first meeting, racking up more than 400 yards. However, big plays hurt Cleveland, as the Browns surrendered an 81-yard punt-return score and passing TDs of 44 and 50 yards. The Browns' defense will be aided by the return of star CB Joe Haden, but Jackson's status for Week Six is unclear at the moment. 

What the heck? The Browns had a 17-10 lead and were well within Phil Dawson's field goal range with four minutes left in the second quarter when Weeden, on a 3rd-and-1 play from the Giants 25, rolled right and overthrew WR Josh Gordon. Giants S Stevie Brown intercepted the pass, and the 46-yard return put New York in Cleveland territory. On the next play, Manning hit Rueben Randle for 36 yards. One play later, Bradshaw was in the endzone, performing his turnaround jump-spike celebration after a four-yard TD run. That sequence was a devastating one for Cleveland. The Browns' play call — a sprint-out to the short side of the field — was a little surprising, and Weeden's pass was late and inaccurate. 

STEELERS

What we learned: The offense really, really missed RB Rashard Mendenhall. A Steelers team that struggled to run the ball in the first three games surged for 136 yards on 31 carries in Pittsburgh's 16-14 win vs. Philadelphia on Sunday. Mendenhall, who led the club with 81 yards on 14 attempts, showed no ill effects of the ACL injury suffered at the end of the 2011 regular season. On the game's first TD, Mendenhall caught a backwards pass, made a swift lateral movement to leave an Eagles defender in his wake and sprinted down the sideline for the score. Isaac Redman (13-41-0) also ran fairly well and could be key in Week Six with Pittsburgh playing a Thursday-night game. 

What’s in store next: The Steelers are favored to knock off the Titans (1-4) in Nashville. Tennessee's defense has had a season to forget, allowing 423.8 yards per game through five weeks. The Titans have failed to hold any opponent to less than 30 points, so this could be a chance for the Steelers' offense to shine. However, it's never ideal having to play a Thursday-night road game after a Sunday matchup, so the Steelers will have some hurdles to overcome.

What the heck? Speaking of hurdles: the Steelers' defensive injuries continue to stack up. FS Troy Polamalu's calf injury flared up once again; given the short week of rest going into the Tennessee game and the reoccuring nature of the ailment, he would figure to be questionable for Week Six. The same might be said for LOLB LaMarr Woodley, who left with a hamstring injury. The good news for Pittsburgh is ROLB James Harrison (knee) did return against the Eagles and notched three QB hits. Nevertheless, the Steelers' defensive depth will again be key as Pittsburgh faces the quick turnaround this week. 


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