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AFC North Spin cycle: Ravens, Steelers separating from pack

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By Mike Wilkening

At the season's midpoint, it's business as usual in the AFC North. We take a closer look in this week's Spin cycle: 

RAVENS

What we learned: The Ravens used an old blueprint on offense and held firm just enough on defense in a 25-15 win at Cleveland on Sunday. It was far from perfect — and it’s just a little unsettling that the Ravens had to overcome a fourth-quarter deficit to win — but it was the epitome of a survive-and-advance game for a team with big long-term goals. Baltimore (6-2) emphasized the run, with RB Ray Rice racking up 98 yards and a TD on a season-high 25 carries. Backup Bernard Pierce chipped in with 26 yards and a rushing TD of his own. The Ravens’ defense didn’t allow a touchdown, with Cleveland settling for field goals on five different trips inside the 20. While the Ravens allowed 105 yards to Browns RB Trent Richardson, he gained just 4.2 yards per carry. Overall, Baltimore allowed just 4.5 yards per play in a good post-bye start for its beleaguered defense.

What’s in store next: The Ravens host the Raiders, who lost 42-32 to the Buccaneers at home. Raiders QB Carson Palmer is very familiar with Baltimore from his time in Cincinnati and has given the Ravens’ defense trouble in the past. Check the status of Raiders RB Darren McFadden, who left Sunday’s game vs. Tampa Bay with a leg injury. The Raiders’ defense has been weakened by injuries in the secondary and struggles vs. the run, so this should be a favorable matchup for Baltimore’s offense.

What the heck? After converting a third down late in the first quarter, RB Bernard Pierce was flagged for a personal foul. While the first down stood, the Ravens lost 15 yards. Instead of having first down at the Browns’ 6-yard-line, the Ravens had the ball at the 21. The good news? Pierce would atone three plays later, rushing for a 12-yard TD on 3rd-and-1.

BENGALS

What we learned: The Bengals, who could not withstand a Denver fourth-quarter rally in a 31-23 defeat Sunday, continue to struggle with the AFC’s top-tier clubs. Now 3-5, the Bengals are three games behind first-place Baltimore and two games behind second-place Pittsburgh in the AFC North. If you’re looking for silver linings, the Bengals were competitive in defeat. A pair of third-quarter Terence Newman interceptions led to 10 points and put Cincinnati ahead 20-17 early in the fourth quarter. But Manning quickly rallied the Broncos, leading a five-play, 80-yard TD drive to give Denver the lead for good. In the end, Cincinnati did some good things, but not enough. The Bengals converted just 5-of-14 third downs, and QB Andy Dalton threw a costly fourth-quarter interception (though he was hit on the play). The defensive effort was highlighted by Newman’s takeaways, but the Bengals didn’t sack or even hit Manning once, and the Broncos converted 9-of-14 third downs. What’s more, the Bengals struggled in the kicking game, with Broncos KR Trindon Holliday striking for a 105-yard kickoff score at the start of the second half. Also, PK Mike Nugent missed a field goal.

What’s in store next: The Bengals are running out of time to save their season. A win vs. the Giants (6-3) would be a step in the right direction. The Bengals can still save their season; after Week 10, their next three games are against AFC West foes. If Cincinnati can recapture its early-season form, it can get back into playoff contention. But starting a winning streak against the Giants won’t be easy, not even with QB Eli Manning struggling a little bit of late. The Giants have one of the NFL’s most talented rosters. They are exactly the sort of club that has given Cincinnati trouble the last two seasons. 

What the heck? Holliday’s kickoff-return score was one of the game’s key plays. It gave the Broncos a 14-point lead right off the bat to start the second half. Though the Bengals would score the next 17 points, they could only get out to a three-point lead — which beats the alternative, but is hardly a huge cushion. And against a Peyton Manning-led team, it’s not really much at all. The Bengals were going to need to play very well to beat Denver, and they couldn’t afford to give points away. Holliday is very fast, and the Broncos clearly blocked the play well, but it’s a play that really cost Cincinnati in the end. 

BROWNS

What we learned: With seven games left on the schedule, the Browns (2-7) are all-too-close to being eliminated from playoff contention for a 10th consecutive season after a 25-15 loss to Baltimore Sunday. The Browns had their chances to knock off the Ravens, who hardly played well. In fact, the Browns, on the strength of five Phil Dawson field goals, scratched to a 15-14 lead with 8:50 left in the game. However, the Ravens woke up just in time, putting together a nine-play, 81-yard drive ending in a Joe Flacco-to-Torrey Smith TD pass to give Baltimore the lead for good with 4:26 left. After an encouraging win vs. San Diego a week ago, the Browns enter their bye week on a sour note.

What’s in store next: The Browns’ bye week gives Cleveland a chance to regroup. Were this an older team, you would say that the final seven games of the regular season would give the Browns a perfect chance to play some younger players. Well, the Browns have already gone young. So the focus now turns to how QB Brandon Weeden and Co. develop down the stretch. Weeden did not play well on Sunday, throwing a pair of picks and completing just 20-of-37 passes for 176 yards (44.4 QB rating). The job status of head coach Pat Shurmur will also be a discussion point down the stretch.

What the heck? With the Browns trailing 22-15 and facing 4th-and-2 at their 28-yard-line with 3:53 left, head coach Pat Shurmur would have been well within reason to send out the punting unit. The Browns had two timeouts, and they had forced the Ravens to punt on five of six previous second-half drives. Instead, the Browns went for it, and Weeden’s pass for Greg Little went incomplete. The Ravens, in field-goal range, made the most of the opportunity, with Justin Tucker connecting on a 43-yarder with 2:49 left. “I wanted to get the first down. It felt like we had a play that we liked and we didn’t execute it well,” Shurmur said afterward. Given where the Browns were on the field and the game situation, this wasn’t the most prudent decision from Shurmur. It was too early for an all-in gamble. That’s what it was, considering where the Browns were on the field.

STEELERS

What we learned: The Steelers' 24-20 win at the Giants Sunday was impressive and important on numerous levels. For one, the Steelers' defense outplayed a very good Giants offense, limiting New York to just 182 yards on 48 plays. Secondly, the Steelers overcame a good deal of adversity. In a two-minute span during the second quarter, a dubious personal foul on Steelers FS Ryan Clark helped set up one Giants TD, and a questionable fumble ruling on QB Ben Roethlisberger directly resulted in a 70-yard Michael Boley TD return. Also, the Steelers lost WR Antonio Brown to an ankle injury. (And that wasn't the end of the adversity, as we'll detail in the "What the heck?" portion of our program.) Nevertheless, the Steelers pulled through, and pulled away, in their best win of the season. The Steelers' offense was one of the major differences in the game; Pittsburgh proved able to establish the run and pass, while New York really could not. Steelers RB Issac Redman (26-147-1) had his best game of the season in place of the injured Rashard Mendenhall and Jonathan Dwyer, and QB Ben Roethlisberger (21-of-30, 216 yards, two TDs, one interception) was sharp. The victory moves the Steelers to 5-3 and keeps them one game behind Baltimore in the AFC North. 

What’s in store next: The Steelers will be heavy favorites against the reeling Chiefs (1-7) in Week 10. Though the Chiefs are an utter mess, a similarly weakened Kansas City club stood in and fought Pittsburgh pretty tough a season ago before falling 13-9. However, this Chiefs team has to travel to Pittsburgh, and the Steelers are in sharp form. One story line that will be worn out in the next week is Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley getting to face the team he coached from 2009-11. This could set up to be a Pittsburgh rout, considering all of the factors we've discussed. Surely the Steelers won't overlook the Chiefs, and they are capable of delivering an early knockout. 

What the heck? Trailing 20-17 with less than 11 minutes left in the fourth quarter, and facing a 4th-and-1 on the New York 3, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin elected to try a fake field goal. The play failed, and PK Shaun Suisham was stopped for a one-yard loss. The Steelers were fortunate to overcome this missed opportunity. A conventional offensive play would also have been risky, but the Steelers had converted a 4th-and-1 earlier in the game on an Issac Redman run, so a second similar gamble wouldn't have been out of left field. However, a fake field goal? That's a completely different story. 

 

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