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AFC North Spin cycle: It's the Ravens' race to lose

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Posted Nov. 26, 2012 @ 2:42 p.m. ET
By Mike Wilkening

The Steelers are falling fast. The Bengals are surging. Both, however, are still well back in the Ravens' rear-view mirror. We take a closer look in this week's AFC North "Spin cycle."

RAVENS

What we learned: Two lessons: One, the Ravens have a knack for winning ugly. Two, it helps to have Ray Rice in these winning-ugly efforts. Rice’s memorable 29-yard dash on a 4th-and-29 dump-off from QB Joe Flacco set up the game-tying field goal as time expired in regulation, and the Ravens were able to grind out a 16-13 victory in OT. Rice (164 rushing-receiving yards) played like the blue-chip player he is, but QB Joe Flacco (30-of-51 passing, 355 yards, one TD, no picks) also deserves kudos for his best road performance of the season. The Ravens’ defense also came up big, allowing just 280 yards on 65 plays in its second strong performance in a row. The win moved the Ravens to 9-2 and gives them a three-game lead on Cincinnati and Pittsburgh (both 6-5) in the AFC North.

What's in store next: The Ravens can knock the Steelers out of division-title contention with a win Sunday in Baltimore. The Steelers are reeling without QB Ben Roethlisberger, with backups Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch throwing no TDs and four picks in two starts. Also, the Steelers’ running game was abysmal in Sunday’s loss at Cleveland, with each of their tailbacks losing a fumble and combining to rush for a mere 49 yards. If Roethlisberger is again out, the Steelers could struggle to score, leaving them vulnerable. Even if he returns, consistency hasn’t been one of Pittsburgh’s hallmarks this season. Can the Ravens deliver a knockout punch?

What the heck? Trailing 10-3 late in the third quarter, the Ravens elected to go for it on 4th-and-1 from the San Diego 14. The gamble failed, as RB Bernard Pierce was stuffed for a two-yard loss. The roll of the dice was understandable, but ideally, the play would be better blocked, and Rice, not Pierce, would be the ball carrier.

STEELERS

What we learned: The Steelers’ offense misses QB Ben Roethlisberger’s playmaking ability. The offense is also in a total funk. That’s a losing combination for Pittsburgh, which fell 20-14 Sunday at Cleveland to plummet into a tie with Cincinnati in the competition for the final wild-card spot in the AFC. Eight turnovers on offense doomed Pittsburgh (6-5). All four running backs lost a fumble. Rashard Mendenhall carried four times and fumbled on half of those attempts. Overall, the Steelers gained just 49 yards on 20 carries. The backs didn’t play well, but they didn’t have much running room, either. The passing game wasn’t effective, either. QB Charlie Batch threw three interceptions, and his lack of arm strength and accuracy were problematic. WR Mike Wallace had one catch for nine yards in seven targets. The Steelers’ defense held up well and even scored a TD, with Lawrence Timmons taking back an interception in the second minute of the game. But Pittsburgh just couldn’t score enough.

What's in store next: The Steelers get a rematch with the Ravens (9-2), who can knock Pittsburgh out of the AFC North race with a second win in two weeks against their bitter rivals. It’s not as if the Ravens are playing especially well, either, but their defense has really picked up its play in the last two weeks. Also, the Ravens have a major edge on offense. Their starting quarterback, Joe Flacco, has never missed an NFL game, and starting running back Ray Rice is skilled and durable, too. The Ravens’ injury concerns have been on defense, but they have managed to pull through, and they are on the cusp of seizing the division.

What the heck? The Steelers’ desperately needed a running back to step up on Sunday. None did. It has largely been the story of the season at the position. Mendenhall, Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman have all had their moments, but none has seized the job, and on Sunday, the Steelers’ lack of a running game really hurt the offense. Also, Wallace’s one-catch output was disappointing. He has been very quiet of late.

BENGALS

What we learned: The Bengals continue to be in excellent form. A 34-10 rout of Oakland Sunday extended the Bengals’ winning streak to three games and pulled Cincinnati (6-5) even with Pittsburgh in the battle for the final wild-card spot in the AFC. The Bengals, who have outscored opponents 93-29 in the last three games, are getting key contributions in all phases of late. The running game has picked up its play of late, with RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis exceeding 100 yards rushing in each of the last two games. A strong running game won’t hurt the Bengals’ potent passing game, which got another three TD passes from QB Andy Dalton and has had a No. 2 receiver emerge in rookie Mohamed Sanu. The defense, meanwhile, continued its strong recent run, limiting Oakland to a mere 216 yards and one touchdown Sunday. Raiders QB Carson Palmer was sacked four times by his old club and was limited to 146 yards passing.

What's in store next: The Bengals draw the fading Chargers (4-7) in San Diego. However, this could be a tricky game for Cincinnati. The Chargers are not lacking for talent on offense, and their defense can be tough, too. The Ravens needed a tremendous individual effort from RB Ray Rice on a 4th-and-29 reception to stay alive and wear down San Diego on Sunday. The Bengals will need another strong effort to join Baltimore and Cleveland among the AFC North teams to beat the Chargers this season.

What the heck? The running game’s recent surge has been a pleasant surprise. The Bengals have rushed for more yards in the last two games (410) than they had in the previous five contests (403). Also, the Bengals have gained more yards per carry in the last two contests than they had in any of their previous nine games.

BROWNS

What we learned: The Browns made life miserable for the struggling Steelers, forcing eight turnovers in a 20-14 win in Cleveland. The victory was the Browns’ first vs. Pittsburgh since December 2009, and it was no fluke. When the Steelers weren’t turning the ball over, they were struggling to get much going on offense. The Browns held the Steelers to 49 yards rushing, and the Pittsburgh passing game wasn’t much better. Speedy Steelers WR Mike Wallace was held to one catch for nine yards in seven targets, and QB Charlie Batch threw three picks. The Steelers had only one offensive play of longer than 20 yards. On offense, the Browns didn’t do much (238 yards), but they did enough, and they scored 17 points off of Pittsburgh turnovers. QB Brandon Weeden was intercepted for a TD early but bounced back with a nice TD pass to TE Jordan Cameron in the second quarter. RB Trent Richardson didn’t find much running room (29 carries, 85 yards), but his 15-yard third-quarter TD run was the game-winner.

What's in store next: The Browns aim for their first road win of the season at free-falling Oakland (3-8). The Raiders’ defense has really struggled of late, which gives the Browns’ offense a chance to perhaps build some confidence. The Browns are trying to win back-to-back games for only the second time in Pat Shurmur’s two seasons on the job.

What the heck? There’s no need to look too hard for flaws after such a big win for Cleveland. There have been a lot of head-scratching moments for the Browns in Pat Shurmur’s tenure, but Sunday’s win was one of the best performances his club has put together in his two seasons on the job. The Browns forced the Steelers into mistake after mistake. 

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