AFC North Spin cycle: Ravens inching away from pack

Posted Nov. 18, 2012 @ 3:18 p.m.
Posted By Mike Wilkening

The Ravens took a big step toward gaining control in the AFC North. The Steelers, meanwhile, are left to regroup. We explore in this week's AFC North "Spin cycle."

RAVENS

What we learned: The Ravens' defense woke up the echoes, so to speak, in a gutsy 13-10 victory at Pittsburgh. After being flat-out embarrassed on the Steelers' first drive, which ended in a 31-yard TD run by the not-exactly-fleet-footed Byron Leftwich, the Ravens slammed the door on Pittsburgh's offense, allowing only a field goal the rest of the way. Several Ravens defenders who aren't household names made their presences felt. OLB Paul Kruger was very active off the edge and gave the Steelers fits. CB Corey Graham had a key third-quarter interception and notched eight tackles and defended three passes. And LB Dannell Ellerbe notched 12 tackles (eight solo). If the Ravens' defense didn't step up, Baltimore (8-2) might have lost, considering their offense didn't score a touchdown and gained just 200 yards. The Ravens' special teams also merit considerable credit. RS-WR Jacoby Jones continued his excellent season with a 63-yard punt-return TD, and the Ravens clearly won the battle of the special-teams coverage units. PK Justin Tucker missed a 41-yard field goal but hit attempts of 26 and 39 yards. The victory gives the Ravens a two-game lead on Pittsburgh (6-4) in the AFC North. 

What’s in store next: The Ravens have a potentially tricky game at San Diego (4-6). The Chargers desperately need a win, and they routed Baltimore a season ago. The Chargers' passing game will pose a stern test for Baltimore's secondary. WR Danario Alexander's emergence adds another big-play threat to an attack that already includes WR Malcom Floyd and TE Antonio Gates. While the Ravens now have a nice cushion in the AFC North race, that could quickly disappear. The Steelers have a winnable game at Cleveland in Week 12 and get another crack at Baltimore in Week 13. 

What the heck? The Ravens' offensive woes away from home continued on Sunday night. The Ravens couldn't establish the run, with Ray Rice held to 40 yards on 20 carries. The passing game lacked punch. Speedy Torrey Smith was held to one catch in seven targets, and QB Joe Flacco (three passing TDs in five road starts) threw for just 164 yards in 32 attempts. However, the Ravens took care of the ball, not committing a single turnover. If you're looking for silver linings, focus on the fact that the Ravens didn't make the big, game-tilting mistake that could have altered the course of the AFC North race. 

BENGALS

What we learned: Unlike the Ravens and Steelers, the Bengals didn't let the Chiefs hang around; instead, they were in control for much of Sunday's 28-6 win at Kansas City. The victory moved the Bengals (5-5) to within one game of Indianapolis and Pittsburgh for the final playoff spot in the AFC. Cincy got strong contributions in all three phases in victory. The defense held the Chiefs out of the endzone. The offense was potent and balanced. QB Andy Dalton ran for a score and threw a pair of TDs, one to blue-chip WR A.J. Green, who now has scored in nine consecutive games. The running game showed signs of life, with RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis exceeding 100 yards rushing. And a fake punt set up the Bengals' first TD. 

What’s in store next: The Bengals draw struggling Oakland (3-7) at Paul Brown Stadium. The Bengals aren't known for having an exceptional home-field advantage, but their crowd could be louder than usual with Raiders QB Carson Palmer returning to face his old team for the first time since being dealt Oakland. Palmer did some very good things in his seven seasons as the Bengals' starter, but he might not receive a very kind reaction after he ended his Cincinnati career by refusing to play for the team. 

What the heck? Three fourth-down conversions in the first half helped give the Bengals control of the game. The first was the fake punt on a 4th-and-3 from the Cincinnati 29, which resulted in a 32-yard gain for RB Cedric Peerman. Later in the drive, Dalton scrambled for 11 yards on 4th-and-7 from the Kansas City 36. Three plays later, the Bengals took the lead for good on a Dalton-to-Green four-yard TD pass. Finally, the Bengals' next score came on a Dalton one-yard TD run on 4th-and-goal from the Kansas City 1. The Bengals were bold, and it paid off handsomely. 

BROWNS

What we learned: The Browns' pass rush woke up in a major way on Sunday. The Browns sacked Cowboys QB Tony Romo seven times, with eight different players notching at least half a sack. Cleveland showed fortitude, overcoming a fourth-quarter deficit and taking a 20-17 lead on a TD pass from QB Brandon Weeden to TE Benjamin Watson with 1:07 left. In the end, though, the Browns just couldn't finish the deal. The Cowboys were able to force overtime, and they managed to scratch out a 23-20 OT win. The defeat dropped the Browns to 2-8 on the season. Five of Cleveland's losses have been by seven points or less. 

What’s in store next: The Browns host banged-up Pittsburgh (6-4) in a renewal of a rivalry that the Steelers have mostly dominated in recent seasons. However, the Browns' best game could make this interesting. The Steelers are without QB Ben Roethlisberger (ribs, shoulder), and backup Byron Leftwich looked to be hurting in Sunday's loss to Baltimore. 

What the heck? Trailing 17-13 with 1:47 left in the fourth quarter and facing 4th-and-goal from the Dallas 1, the Browns had no choice but to go for it. However, they made the curious decision to have QB Brandon Weeden throw a fade to TE Jordan Cameron. The pass sailed incomplete, and the Browns turned the ball over on downs. The Browns have had more than their share of short-yardage issues this season, and you can add this to the list. 

STEELERS

What we learned: Without QB Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers' margin for error is very thin against top competition. The Steelers did a lot of good things in a 13-10 loss to Baltimore on Sunday night, with their defensive play atop the list. However, their offense, after one surprising burst to begin the game, did little thereafter, and their special teams surrendered a punt-return score to Baltimore's Jacoby Jones. In the aftermath of a loss that dropped Pittsburgh (6-4) two games behind Baltimore in the AFC North, the focus will be on QB Byron Leftwich, who completed just 18-of-39 passes for 201 yards with an interception and appeared to be bothered by injured ribs (reports on Monday said he has two fractured ribs). Save for an out-of-the-blue 31-yard TD run on the game's first drive, highlights were few for Leftwich, who was making his first start since 2009. However, the offense's issues can't all be pinned on him. The offensive line didn't play its best game, and a Ravens pass rush not as robust as in past seasons sacked Leftwich three times. WR Mike Wallace lost a first-quarter fumble, which set up a Ravens field goal. The Steelers' running game was workmanlike, with RBs Jonathan Dwyer and Rashard Mendenhall combining for 88 yards on 23 carries. 

What’s in store next: Now only one game up on the field in the competition for wild-card position in the AFC, the Steelers need to take care of business at 2-8 Cleveland on Sunday. The Steelers generally haven't had much trouble with the Browns in recent years, but Cleveland has more talent than in past seasons, and Pittsburgh isn't as strong without Roethlisberger, as evidenced Sunday night. They likely will be without Leftwich, too, so Charlie Batch will need to step up and produce.

What the heck? The Steelers' offense needs to collectively pick up its game with Roethlisberger out for Week 12 and beyond. Yes, Leftwich needs to play better, and he reportedly was playing with fractured ribs. No matter the quarterback, though, the Steelers need more out of the talent around the position. Wallace had just four catches for 26 yards, and his lost fumble was a key play. The running game was serviceable, not spectacular. The offensive line simply didn't perform well enough, especially in pass protection, where rookie ORT Mike Adams particularly struggled.