AFC North Spin cycle: Bengals primed to rally?

Posted Nov. 12, 2012 @ 6:08 p.m.
Posted By Mike Wilkening

Updated Tuesday, Nov. 12 at 2:12 p.m. ET

The Bengals started the second half with a huge win. Now, can they make a run? We explore this, plus the Ravens' two-game winning streak, in the AFC North "Spin cycle."

RAVENS

What we learned: After a shaky performance in a nonetheless important Week Nine win at Cleveland, the Ravens (7-2) were much sharper on Sunday, routing the Raiders 55-20. QB Joe Flacco continued his fine play at home, riddling the Raiders for 341 yards and three TDs. Both of WR Torrey Smith's catches went for scores, and TE Dennis Pitta, quiet of late, made his presence felt with five catches, 67 yards and a TD. The Ravens' running game was held in check (78 yards on 28 carries), but it didn't matter on this day. The defense surrendered 422 yards, with 350 through the air. However, OLB Paul Kruger had a strong game, with two sacks and an interception. Moreover, DT Haloti Ngata (knee, shoulder) got a needed week of rest, dressing but not playing.

What’s in store next: The Steelers and Ravens will meet twice in the next three weeks, with the first game Sunday night in Pittsburgh. Baltimore swept the season series in 2011, which broke the tie in the division race when both teams finished 12-4. This is the biggest test the Ravens have faced since Week Seven, when Houston scored a 43-13 victory. At their best, the Steelers have looked like an elite AFC club. So, too, have the Ravens, but their best form was earlier in the season. However, Baltimore didn't look anything but powerful in Week 10, which could be a good sign entering a pivotal meeting with its divisional rival.

What the heck? The Ravens raised a lot of eyebrows by calling a fake field goal up 41-17 more than midway through the third quarter. The play worked, as P Sam Koch scored a seven-yard TD run, but the play was a curious one, given the game situation. Asked how he would respond to those who didn't like the timing of the fake, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said, per the club: "I don’t have any answer to that because it’s the National Football League. I just put no credence in that. It’s the way you line up your field-goal formation, your defense. You line up your defense inside the 10-yard line to defend those things, and they knew that. They took a chance. The main thing is how our guys executed — that’s the thing. … The most important thing is calling it against the right look and then executing it well. I am proud of our guys for doing that.” Harbaugh said the Raiders' formation made the call a natural one to make. "The thinking was it’s an overload look," Harbaugh said. "They’ve got eight guys on one side of the formation, and inside the 10-yard line, if they are going to give you that opportunity, then we’re going to take it. That’s pretty much what we always do, so that’s why we did it.”

BENGALS

What we learned: Oh, did the Bengals ever need Sunday's 31-13 win over the Giants. Sure, the Bengals probably were catching the Giants at the right time, what with New York in its worst form of the season. Nevertheless, give the Bengals credit — they capitalized, playing their best game against top competition in the past two seasons. The Bengals jumped on the Giants early with big plays in the passing game (a 56-yard TD to WR A.J. Green) and on special teams (a 68-yard Adam Jones punt return that set up an Andy Dalton-to-Andrew Hawkins TD pass) en route to 14-0 lead less than five minutes into the game. That was all of the points the Bengals would need. The defense played a wonderful game, limiting QB Eli Manning to just 215 passing yards in 46 attempts. DE Carlos Dunlap (season-high 1½ sacks) helped lead a strong pass rush. The offense got four TD passes from Dalton (21-of-30 passes, 199 yards), who wasn't intercepted for the first time all season.

What’s in store next: The Bengals can start to make up some ground in the AFC wild-card race in a three-game stretch that begins Sunday at Kansas City. A win would move the Bengals to .500. A loss? Well, it would be devastating, especially with winnable games against Oakland (Week 12) and at San Diego (Week 13) upcoming.

What the heck? With a 14-3 lead, the Bengals passed on a 48-yard field-goal attempt early in the second quarter, electing to go for it. The gamble failed, and the Bengals surrendered the ball on downs. Later in the quarter, the Bengals went for it once again in Giants territory, this time converting a 4th-and-2 at the New York 37. The Bengals turned that into three points. The fourth-down gambles weren't unreasonable, considering where the Bengals were on the field. Also, conditions were windy. However, the calls were surprising. In a game the Bengals desperately needed, head coach Marvin Lewis definitely wasn't conservative.

STEELERS

What we learned: The Steelers didn’t play anything close to their best on Monday night, but they were able to pull through, prevailing 16-13 in overtime against one-win Kansas City. Now, it’s time to assess the damage. QB Ben Roethlisberger left Monday’s game with a right shoulder sprain, and he’s “questionable” for the Week 11 showdown with Baltimore (7-2), head coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday. Without Roethlisberger, the Steelers turned to Byron Leftwich, who was up-and-down (7-of-14, 73 yards) but didn’t make the big mistake and was able to help maneuver the Steelers, albeit with help from some Kansas City penalties, into range for a fourth-quarter field goal to give Pittsburgh a 13-10 lead. The Steelers got little out of their running game. Isaac Redman (eight carries, 21 yards) lost a first-quarter fumble; thereafter, Jonathan Dwyer (19-56) got the bulk of the carries. On defense, the Steelers excelled on third downs, with the Chiefs just converting two in 13 opportunities. However, the Chiefs gashed Pittsburgh for 142 yards rushing, running time and again off the right side. The pass rush (two sacks, both by DE Brett Keisel) was so-so. One bit of good news: SS Ryan Clark left late in the game after suffering a blow to the head, but the injury doesn’t appear serious, according to Tomlin.

What’s in store next: The Steelers draw Baltimore for the first of two matchups in a three-week span. With Roethlisberger, the Steelers could give the Ravens’ shaky defense a good deal of trouble. Without Roethlisberger, the Ravens’ defense — its many issues acknowledged — could still show well against Pittsburgh. The Ravens are sixth in yards per rush allowed, and if they can force a Leftwich-led offense into some obvious passing situations, they could have the upper hand. However, the Steelers’ defense, which has allowed fewer yards per game than any other team, is a formidable obstacle for the Baltimore offense. Ravens QB Joe Flacco has been much sharper at home than on the road.

What the heck? Head coach Mike Tomlin’s decision to go for it on 4th-and-1 from the 50 in a tie game in the third quarter on Leftwich’s first drive was a curious one. The Steelers seemed to get out of the huddle a little late, and Chiefs LB Derrick Johnson broke through to hit Redman for a one-yard loss. The Chiefs couldn’t capitalize, but they were able to pin Pittsburgh on its 14 on the next drive. The call would have made far more sense with Roethlisberger than Leftwich, who was seeing his first regular-season action since Week 17 of 2010.

BROWNS

On bye.