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AFC North Spin cycle: Costly win for Ravens

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By Mike Wilkening

The Ravens inched further ahead in the AFC North race, but at a huge price. We take an in-depth look at Baltimore and its divisional foes in this week's "Spin cycle."

RAVENS

What we learned: The Ravens are 5-1, but they have paid a tremendous price en route to a two-game lead in the AFC North. In a potential major blow to the defense, star CB Lardarius Webb is feared lost for the season with a knee injury suffered in Sunday’s 31-29 win vs. Dallas. Moreover, LB Ray Lewis suffered a triceps injury, and he has been lost for the season. While the Ravens deserve credit for continuing to take care of business this season when mediocrity has defined the AFC to this point, it has hardly been smooth sailing for Baltimore and its proud defense, which is having a season to forget. 

What’s in store next: The Ravens have one more game before a needed week of rest, and it is a tough one. The Texans, who host Baltimore on Sunday, have been one of the NFL’s best clubs through six weeks. While Houston suffered a humbling 42-24 defeat to Green Bay on Sunday night, the Texans’ résumé is filled with far more positives than negatives, and they look to have a considerable edge on defense. The winner moves to 6-1 and secures what could be a vital tiebreaking chip in the playoff chase. 

What the heck? The Ravens’ defense is reeling. The Cowboys successfully attacked the Ravens with the run and the pass on Sunday, racking up 481 yards and holding the ball for more than two-thirds of the game. Credit the Ravens’ offense for making the most of its opportunities; half of Baltimore’s eight offensive possessions (excluding the game-ending kneeldown) ended in points, with the Ravens scoring TDs in three-of-four red-zone trips. Also, KR Jacoby Jones gave the Ravens a huge helping hand with a 108-yard kickoff return score. There’s something to be said for the Ravens winning a game this way, what with their defense being a shell of its former self. However, the discomfort about the Ravens’ defensive woes lingers even in victory.

BENGALS

What we learned: The Bengals’ 3-1 start has given way to the anxiety of 3-3 with a matchup against longtime tormentor Pittsburgh next on the schedule. The Bengals made a bushel of mistakes at Cleveland Sunday, and they paid for it, with the Browns — who hadn’t won in their previous 11 games — bursting away for a 34-24 victory. QB Andy Dalton completed 31-of-46 passes for 381 yards and three TDs, but he also committed four turnovers, including an interception returned for a TD, and he couldn’t spike the ball before time expired with Cincinnati deep in Cleveland territory late in the first half. WR A.J. Green once again was outstanding, hauling in seven passes for 135 yards and a pair of TDs. The Dalton-to-Green connection gives the Bengals’ offense a chance in every game, but more from the running game is definitely needed. The Bengals’ defense played a so-so game, digging in a couple of times after the Browns took over in Cincinnati territory and limiting Cleveland to field goals but not making enough plays overall in defeat. The Bengals’ special teams, meanwhile, surrendered a punt return of 60 yards and a kickoff return of 44 yards to Josh Cribbs in the second half.

What’s in store next: The Bengals now must regroup to host the Steelers in prime time on Sunday night. While Pittsburgh is 0-3 on the road in 2012, it has won four in a row against Cincinnati, including the last two in Paul Brown Stadium. Both clubs desperately need this game, but the Bengals, who are 1-8 against Baltimore and Pittsburgh since winning the AFC North in 2009, could really use it, considering their problems beating top competition of late.

What the heck? The Bengals missed some opportunities to put more distance between them and the Browns in the earlier stages of the game. Not coming away with a field-goal attempt at the end of the first half is an obvious example. Moreover, missed tackles on Cribbs’ 60-yard punt return helped set up a Cleveland field goal, which cut the Bengals’ lead to 14-10 in the third quarter. P Kevin Huber did well to pin Cribbs on the sideline, but Cribbs broke free for the big return. The Bengals had some chances to put some doubt into an 0-5 club but could not do it, and the Browns, to their credit, eventually found their footing. 

BROWNS

What we learned: Even at 0-5, the Browns didn’t look hopeless. In defeating the Bengals 34-24 on Sunday, they proved that they can not only be plucky, but they can be legitimately dangerous if allowed to hang around in a game. The Browns, who trailed 14-7 at halftime, clearly outplayed Cincinnati in the second half, and their 21-point fourth-quarter outburst was the difference in a deserved victory. While the Browns surrendered more than 400 yards, they forced four turnovers, and Sheldon Brown's pick-six with 7:50 left gave them a commanding 34-17 lead. CB Joe Haden made an impact in his return to the lineup, intercepting a pass that set up a field goal. The Browns’ offense was balanced, with QB Brandon Weeden (231 yards, two TDs) again playing well and RB Montario Hardesty picking up the slack when Trent Richardson exited with injured ribs. Rookie WR Josh Gordon, who’s becoming a legitimate big-play threat, hauled in a 71-yard TD pass. And Josh Cribbs did what Josh Cribbs does, breaking a pair of long returns (60-yard punt, 44-yard kickoff) that put the Browns in good field position. Both times, the Browns capitalized with points on the ensuing drive.

What’s in store next: The Browns return to the scene of their last road win when they travel to Indianapolis in Week Seven. The Colts have knocked off the Packers and Vikings at home, so they are capable of a strong performance, especially at Lucas Oil Stadium. However, they are the only team to have lost to Jacksonville, and they were no match for the Jets on Sunday. For the Browns, a win would give them some momentum with home games against San Diego and Baltimore next before the Week 10 bye.

What the heck? Considering that the Browns snapped an 11-game losing streak Sunday, we’re keeping this category positive. We’ll end on this note: With Richardson, Weeden and Gordon on offense, and with Cribbs thriving on special teams, the Browns have quite a bit more playmaking punch than other Cleveland teams of recent vintage. That merits a “What the heck?” — but in a good way.

STEELERS

What we learned: The Steelers (2-3) entered Week Six with a chance to move to improve to better than .500 for the first time this season, but they could not best a Tennessee club that looked like one of the NFL’s worst through five games. The Titans overcame a seven-point fourth-quarter deficit to beat Pittsburgh 26-23 on Thursday night. The loss was the Steelers’ third in three road games this season. As was the case in the other defeats, the Steelers’ defense couldn’t quite get enough stops in the game’s latter stages. What’s more, the offense, as has too often been the case, could get little going in the running game. The Steelers’ special teams also struggled. Tennessee blocked a punt, setting up its first TD of the game. Also, PK Shaun Suisham missed a 54-yard field goal with less than a minute left, putting Tennessee in great field position. The Titans capitalized, with a key third-down pass from QB Matt Hasselbeck to TE Jared Cook setting up Rob Bironas’ game-winning field goal. Making matters worse for the Steelers, C Maurkice Pouncey (knee) and RB Rashard Mendenhall (Achilles) sustained injuries.

What’s in store next: The Steelers face the Bengals (3-3) on Sunday night in a game pitting two teams with potent passing games and sputtering ground games. Once again, the Steelers’ offense may rise and fall with the passing of Ben Roethlisberger, who’s 13-4 all-time against Cincinnati. Roethlisberger is having a strong season thus far, throwing for 1,487 yards with 10 TDs and two interceptions. What’s more, he has been sacked only twice in the past three games, a good sign, considering the pass-rush punishment he has taken over the years.

What the heck? The Steelers didn’t have a lot of good choices when facing 4th-and-7 from the Tennessee 36 in a tie game with 54 seconds left. If they punted, overtime seemed the most likely outcome, but it would have meant passing on a field-goal attempt. They elected to try the field goal, which was hit straight but short by Suisham. This left the Titans at their own 45-yard line with 49 seconds left and needing only perhaps 20 yards to put Bironas into FG range. Alas, they got more than that, and it was no surprise when one of the NFL’s best kickers knocked home the game-winner as time expired. This was a sequence that could haunt the Steelers, even with the FG try understandable. The real problem for Pittsburgh might have been losing a combined one yard on second and third down before Suisham’s try. In the final two minutes, the Titans were simply better, and that was the difference in a three-point loss. 

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