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AFC North Spin cycle: Steelers finish with a flourish

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Posted Dec. 03, 2012 @ 2:38 p.m. ET
By Mike Wilkening

Don't forget about the Steelers. Don't sleep on the Bengals. And don't pencil in the Ravens as division champs just yet. Here's a closer look at the AFC North through Week 13: 

RAVENS

What we learned: The Ravens had their chance to eliminate the Steelers from AFC North title contention. They couldn't do it, and the Ravens (9-3) now have some work to do to secure the division title after a 23-20 loss to Pittsburgh on Sunday. The Ravens could not hold a seven-point fourth-quarter lead to a Steelers club led by third-string QB Charlie Batch and surrendered 366 yards to an offense that had sputtered in recent weeks. The offense was hit-and-miss. QB Joe Flacco completed just 16-of-34 passes for 188 yards with a TD and an interception, and he also lost a fourth-quarter fumble that set up the game-tying score. RB Ray Rice had 78 rushing yards and a TD, but he had just 12 carries and only 13 touches overall. The defeat leaves the Ravens two games ahead of Pittsburgh and Cincinnati (7-5) with four games left. All things considered, the Ravens are still in fairly good shape, but they've lost some of their cushion. 

What's in store next: The Ravens' defense will get a test from a strong Washington offense led by rookie QB Robert Griffin III. Griffin is an accurate, strong-armed passer and a swift, elusive runner. He takes care of the ball (six turnovers entering Monday night), and his big-play flair is obvious, too. This is a big game for Baltimore. The Steelers host struggling San Diego, and Cincinnati will be favored at home vs. Dallas. The AFC North race could be a lot closer than the Ravens would like if they do not pick up their play next week. 

What the heck? The fourth quarter was an absolute mess for the Ravens. The offense ran just eight plays and didn't score. Flacco lost a fumble, and Rice didn't touch the ball in the final 15 minutes. Meanwhile, the Ravens' defense couldn't get off the field and surrendered 61 yards on 12 plays in the final 6:14 as the Steelers marched for the game-winning field goal as time expired. Simply put, the Ravens weren't good enough in the final 15 minutes, and that's a bitter pill to swallow for a club with title aspirations. 

BENGALS

What we learned: The Bengals didn't play their best, but they had enough to win 20-13 at San Diego on Sunday. Cincinnati's defense continued its strong recent play, holding San Diego to zero offensive TDs and 297 yards on 63 plays. DE Carlos Dunlap (two sacks) led a pass rush that consistently got after Chargers QB Philip Rivers. Dunlap's sack, forced fumble and recovery set up a fourth-quarter field goal. The Bengals' offense was a little shaky, with QB Andy Dalton throwing two picks and the club committing three turnovers overall. However, RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis (25 carries, 118 yards) had a fine game, and the Bengals did well to keep drives going (7-of-14 third downs converted). The Bengals were 3-of-3 on third downs on a 14-play, 55-yard drive that took 7:42 off the clock and ended in Dalton's short TD run to give Cincinnati a 17-13 lead with a little more than four minutes left. From there, the defense took over. While the Chargers were able to march to the Cincinnati 17 in the final minute, the Bengals held firm to secure the victory. 

What's in store next: The Bengals host the Cowboys (6-6), who held off Philadelphia Sunday night. The Cowboys' skill-position talent can test any defense, but Dallas' pass protection is not a strength. The Cowboys' ability to cope with the Bengals' pass-rush pressure will be one of the keys to this game. The Bengals have fought their way back into playoff contention with four consecutive wins, but any misstep this late in the season could be very costly. 

What the heck? The Bengals' offense started fast, putting together a 16-play, 91-yard drive to begin the game. Later, an 82-yard march ended in a Mike Nugent field goal. However, the Bengals were then held off the scoreboard for more than 30 minutes of game time. The Bengals got away with this against a San Diego club that's in bad form. They might not have been so lucky against better competition. 

BROWNS

What we learned: The Browns lit up a vulnerable Oakland defense for 475 yards in a 20-17 road win, the team's first since Sept. 18, 2011. QB Brandon Weeden completed 25-of-36 passes for 364 yards and a 44-yard TD to fellow rookie Josh Gordon, who racked up 116 yards receiving on six catches. Though Weeden was intercepted twice, neither turnover resulted in points for Oakland. The Browns' defense surrendered 429 yards, but Oakland managed just two TDs, one of which came with one second left and the Browns having a 10-point lead. CB Sheldon Brown made one of the game's key defensive plays, picking off QB Carson Palmer deep in Cleveland territory in the fourth quarter. From there, the Browns embarked on a 14-play, 94-yard drive taking 6:04 off the clock that ended in Trent Richardson's three-yard TD run. With that, Cleveland had a 20-10 lead with a little more than three minutes left, and the Browns (4-8) were on their way. 

What's in store next: A victory against Kansas City (2-10) would give the Browns a three-game winning streak for the first time since 2009. The Chiefs beat Carolina 27-21 on Sunday in a game overshadowed by the events of the previous day, when LB Jovan Belcher died in a murder-suicide. Belcher, 25, killed his girlfriend before taking his own life. 

What the heck? PK Phil Dawson's 29-yard third-quarter field-goal attempt was partially blocked by Raiders DT Desmond Bryant and sailed wide left. This snapped Dawson's streak of 23 consecutive made field goals to begin the season. The sight of a Dawson FG attempt not ending in three points for Cleveland was an odd one.

STEELERS

What we learned: Let's not count out the Steelers just yet. The Steelers' 23-20 win at Baltimore Sunday allowed Pittsburgh (7-5) to hold its position in the AFC wild-card race, and it kept their hopes alive in the AFC North. In victory, the Steelers — with third-string QB Charlie Batch at the controls of the offense yet again — outgained the Ravens 366-288. Batch, in a bounce-back performance, completed 25-of-36 passes for 276 yards with one TD and one interception. Most importantly, he was sharp when the Steelers needed him to be his best. He led the Steelers on a pair of fourth-quarter scoring drives, with the second of those marches a 12-play, 61-yard effort ending in Shaun Suisham's game-winning 42-yard field goal as time expired. Batch, in a memorable scene, embraced teammate Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers had beaten their bitter rivals, and Batch had played a major role in the win. Given the stakes, this was Batch's best performance as a Steeler.

What's in store next: The Steelers host the reeling Chargers (4-8), whose playoff hopes are almost completely extinguished after their loss to Cincinnati on Sunday. It's unclear whether the Steelers will have Roethlisberger, but Sunday's performance has to raise confidence in the ability of Batch to run the offense. However, the Steelers can't afford a letdown against San Diego, which has a good deal of offensive talent and a solid defense.

What the heck? Though the Steelers played a strong game overall, they committed three turnovers and had a punt tipped. Give them credit for overcoming these miscues, but make no mistake — Pittsburgh doesn't have a great margin for error, and especially without Roethlisberger in the lineup.

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