When the dust cleared in Week 14, only the Browns had reason to feel good about themselves. Meanwhile, the Ravens and Bengals were left to lament missed opportunities. The Steelers? They suffered a most mystifying loss. We take a closer look in this week's AFC North "Spin cycle."
What we learned: The Ravens knocked QB Robert Griffin III out of the game with a knee injury, but they could not close out Washington, despite holding a late 28-20 lead, and the Redskins' 31-28 OT win dropped Baltimore to 9-4 with games against the Broncos, Giants and Bengals looming. Monday, the Ravens changed offensive coordinators, firing Cam Cameron and promoting QB coach Jim Caldwell to the same role. The consistency of the offense has been a concern throughout Cameron's tenure, so the firing was perhaps surprising only because of Baltimore's record and the calendar. The focus turns to how the offense will operate with Caldwell calling the plays. Could we see more of the no-huddle attack that QB Joe Flacco likes?
What's in store next: The focus on Monday will be on the Ravens' offense with the coaching change. But let's be frank: the biggest concern in Baltimore has to be the defense's ability to hold up against top competition. The Ravens allowed 420 yards to Washington on Sunday and could not get a stop on the Redskins' final drive of regulation even with backup Kirk Cousins at the controls of the offense. The Ravens' strugging defense gets no schedule relief down the stretch. On Sunday, the Ravens must deal with the Broncos and QB Peyton Manning. Manning was able to give Ravens' defenses that were better than this one some problems in his time in Indianapolis.
What the heck? The Ravens' special-teams coverage faltered at an inopportune time on Sunday, allowing a 64-yard punt return to the Redskins' Richard Crawford in OT. The return put the Redskins in prime field-goal range right off the bat, and it was no surprise when Washington's Kai Forbath converted the game-winning kick not long thereafter. The Ravens' special teams have had, on balance, a strong season, but they must be stronger on coverage than they were Sunday, especially with speedy Broncos RS Trindon Holliday a real game-breaking threat.
What we learned: The Bengals aren't good enough to miss repeated opportunities to put away a talented team like Dallas. Multiple mistakes left the Bengals (7-6) to tally only one TD and four field goals, and in the end, they did not have enough of a cushion to hold off the Cowboys, who ralled for a 20-19 win on Sunday. The loss represents a big missed opportunity for the Bengals, who could not gain ground on AFC North-leading Baltimore (9-4) or break away from wild-card competitor Pittsburgh (7-6).
What's in store next: The Bengals now have the challenge of facing the Eagles in Philadelphia on Thursday night. The Eagles have improved in recent weeks and could give Cincinnati a stern test if they play like they did Sunday at Tampa Bay, when they notched a 23-21 upset. However, the Eagles have struggled on defense for much of the season and haven't won a game by more than two points. A sharp effort from the Bengals' offense could go a long way to carrying an 8-6 record into a pivotal game at Pittsburgh on Dec. 23. Make no mistake, though: the Bengals can't afford to look ahead.
What the heck? Sure-handed WR A.J. Green dropped two passes, one of which looked like it would have been a TD. That was surprising, to say the least. He wasn't the only player to make mistakes, however. With the Bengals' offense on the march, QB Andy Dalton threw a bad second-quarter interception that set up Dallas' first TD. Finally, the Bengals' pass protection left much to be desired, as Dalton was sacked five times.
What we learned: The Browns continue to play better and better. A 30-7 rout of Kansas City on Sunday moves their record to 5-8 and gives them a three-game winning streak for the first time since 2009. After surrendering an 80-yard TD run to Jamaal Charles on the game's first offensive play, the Browns held Kansas City scoreless thereafter in an impressive performance in all three facets. Travis Benjamin's 93-yard second-quarter punt-return TD gave the Browns the lead for good, and the Browns pulled away in the second half, scoring 20 unanswered points. All in all, this is the best the Browns have played in Pat Shurmur's tenure as head coach, and in our view, it's the most impressive Cleveland has looked since its impressive two-game winning stretch against New Orleans and New England in 2010.
What's in store next: The Browns face the Redskins (7-6), who have won four consecutive games. It's unclear whether the Redskins will have star rookie QB Robert Griffin III, who suffered a knee injury late in Sunday's win vs. Baltimore. However, the Redskins' offense must be respected even if Kirk Cousins fills in for Griffin. This game could come down to whether the Browns' offense can exploit a favorable matchup against a Washington defense that has struggled vs. the pass and was gashed by Baltimore's running game on Sunday.
What the heck? The Browns' defense played a strong game overall but did surrender the 80-yard TD to Charles right off the bat. The Browns crowded the line of scrimmage, but Charles had a nice hole to run through, and once he cut back against SS T.J. Ward, he was off to races. The Browns must be sound vs. the run against Washington, particularly if Griffin is in the lineup. The Redskins' running game is versatile and potent.
What we learned: We learned that with 21 days left in the regular season, the Chargers were much, much better than the Steelers in a game that Pittsburgh (7-6) very much needed. That's the chilling reality of Pittsburgh's 34-24 loss to San Diego on Sunday. The Chargers were on the far fringes of the playoff hunt and hadn't defeated a team with a winning record all season, but the Steelers had no answers for San Diego, which was in control throughout. The Chargers converted 12-of-22 third downs and took control of the game with a 17-play TD drive taking more than nine minutes off the clock to begin the third quarter. The Steelers, then trailing 20-3, had no margin for error thereafter, and when the Chargers recovered a fumble in the endzone on the next drive, the Steelers were in deep, deep trouble.
What's in store next: The Steelers' saving grace Sunday? The Bengals also lost. The bad news? Cincinnati lost to Dallas, whom Pittsburgh visits this Sunday. The Cowboys (7-6) are one game out of the NFC East lead as well as the final wild-card spot in the NFC, and they have the offensive and defensive skill to give Pittsburgh trouble when they're at their best. The Cowboys' pass rush gave the Bengals problems on Sunday, and how the Steelers deal with Dallas' pressure is very much a story line to watch.
What the heck? A look at the standings suggested the Chargers would be vulnerable on Sunday. Instead, they put together an utterly playoff-caliber performance. The Steelers have had to deal with injuries all season and have rarely been in top form, so excuses can be made for Pittsburgh if so willing. Nevertheless, the Steelers were routed in a game they very much could have used. The offense again lacked much punch in the running game, and QB Ben Roethlisberger completed barely more than 50 percent of his passes. The defense, meanwhile, mustered only one sack vs. San Diego's patchwork offensive line.