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AFC North Spin cycle: The Steelers' wasted season

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By Mike Wilkening

The Ravens are AFC North champs, and the Bengals are playoff-bound, too. Meanwhile, the Steelers are left to ponder a lost season.  We explore in the AFC North "Spin Cycle."


What we learned: The Ravens faced a struggling defense and took full advantage in a 33-14 victory over the Giants on Sunday. The win gives Baltimore its second AFC North title in a row and its fifth consecutive playoff appearance in John Harbaugh's tenure as head coach. Perhaps just as important as the victory itself was the manner of victory for Baltimore. The Ravens' offense was outstanding, racking up 533 yards and 25 first downs. QB Joe Flacco bounced back after a shaky Week 15 performance, throwing for 309 yards and two TDs. The running game thrived, with rookie RB Bernard Pierce and Ray Rice each rushing for more than 100 yards. Rice also added 51 yards as a receiver, with a 27-yard TD reception the highlight. His versatility is special. The Ravens' defense also had a day to remember, limiting the Giants to just 186 yards. 

What's in store next: In a matchup of the AFC North's playoff entrants, the Ravens (10-5) travel to Cincinnati. The Bengals (9-6) have shaken off an early-season slump on the strength of one of the AFC's best defenses. Cincinnati is locked into the No. 6 seed in the AFC, and Baltimore can secure the No. 3 seed with a win and a New England loss to Miami, so it's possible these teams could meet again in the first weekend of January. 

What the heck? It's a little thing in a big win, but the Ravens' last four red-zone trips Sunday ended with field goals, not touchdowns.


What we learned: The Bengals' defense is truly the real deal, and it carried the day in Cincinnati's 13-10 win at Pittsburgh on Sunday. The victory sends the Bengals to the postseason in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1981-82. The Bengals' defense scored Cincinnati's only TD (a first-quarter Leon Hall interception return) and set up Josh Brown's game-winning field goal in the final seconds when FS Reggie Nelson intercepted an overthrow from QB Ben Roethlisberger with 14 seconds remaining in regulation time. To get into position for Brown's pivotal 43-yarder, QB Andy Dalton made one of the biggest throws of his career, hitting WR A.J. Green for 21 yards in between two Steelers defensive backs with eight seconds left. Green (10 catches, 116 yards on 18 targets) didn't play a perfect game; he lost a fumble in Pittsburgh territory early in the fourth quarter. However, he was much more of a factor than in the first meeting with the Steelers when he had only one catch. 

What's in store next: The Bengals host the AFC North-champion Ravens in a game where Cincinnati has nothing to gain from a playoff-seeding perspective. No matter the outcome, the Bengals are the No. 6 seed in the AFC. The Ravens, meanwhile, can become the No. 3 seed with a win and a Patriots loss. It will be interesting to see how the Bengals treat this game. In each of their three previous playoff appearances under head coach Marvin Lewis, they lost in the regular-season finale, then fell in Round One. 

What the heck? Lewis made a couple of aggressive calls in the second half. With the Bengals leading 10-7 and facing a 4th-and-22 on the Pittsburgh 33 in the third quarter, Lewis passed up a long field-goal attempt or a punt and kept the offense on the field. The Bengals couldn't convert, and the Steelers turned the fairly favorable field position into the game-tying field goal later in the quarter. Then, in the fourth quarter, Lewis made a much wilder gamble, electing to have Brown try a 56-yard field goal in a tie game with a little more than three minutes left. Brown's attempt fell short, and Pittsburgh suddenly had the ball on its 46-yard line. The Bengals' defense was left to save the day, and it did, bending but not breaking as Pittsburgh had to settle for a long field-goal attempt of its own that also landed short of the mark. 


What we learned: The Browns are fading as the regular season nears its end, just as they did in Eric Mangini's last season in 2010 and Romeo Crennel's final campaign with the team in 2008. In one week, we could have an idea on current head coach Pat Shurmur's future in Cleveland, as CEO Joe Banner has promised a quick decision regarding Shurmur and GM Tom Heckert. The Browns (5-10) have been competitive for much of the season, but their most lopsided losses have come in the past two weeks, and the 34-12 defeat at Denver Sunday highlighted how far Cleveland has left to go in its rebuilding. The Broncos scored TDs on their first two drives, outgained the Broncos 457-233 and were never really threatened. Making matters worse, the Browns lost QB Brandon Weeden (shoulder), RB Trent Richardson (ankle) and CB Sheldon Brown (concussion) to injuries. The Broncos sacked Browns quarterbacks six times, with backup Colt McCoy taken down four times in less than 20 minutes of game action. 

What's in store next: The Browns can end their season on something of a positive note with a win at Pittsburgh, which was eliminated from playoff contention Sunday with a loss to Cincinnati. The Browns, aided by eight Steelers turnovers, upset Pittsburgh 20-14 in November. A Browns win would give them a season sweep of Pittsburgh for the first time since 1988. If Weeden can't play, McCoy will get the start — his first since suffering a concussion in a loss at Pittsburgh last December. 

What the heck? With less than four minutes left in a 31-12 game and the Broncos in Cleveland territory Shurmur used all three timeouts. The decision backfired. The Broncos would cap the drive with a field goal, and the Browns would lose Richardson to an ankle injury when trailing by 22 points in the final minute of the game.


What we learned: The Steelers were eliminated from the postseason chase with a 13-10 home loss to Cincinnati on Sunday. It's a bitter end to a disappointing season for the Steelers, who wasted a strong season from an aging defense and another year of QB Ben Roethlisberger's prime. The Steelers (7-8) have too often been their own worst enemies this season, and two Roethlisberger interceptions cost Pittsburgh dearly. The first was returned for a score, and the second set up Cincinnati's game-winning field goal in the final seconds. In all, it was a frustrating day for Pittsburgh. The offense again lacked much of a running game. Roethlisberger completed just 14-of-28 passes and was sacked four times. WR Mike Wallace had only one catch. The defense sacked Bengals QB Andy Dalton six times and slammed the door on Cincinnati's running game but again couldn't get a late-game stop when it absolutely needed it. After Roethlisberger was intercepted by FS Reggie Nelson with less than 30 seconds left, Dalton connected with WR A.J. Green for 21 yards to the Pittsburgh 25. The Bengals capitalized, with PK Josh Brown hitting a 43-yard field goal to put Cincinnati into the playoffs. 

What's in store next: The Steelers will host the Browns (5-10) at Heinz Field, where Pittsburgh has not won since Nov. 12. A victory will allow the Steelers to avoid finishing with a losing record for the first time since 2003. The Steelers aren't accustomed to playing for just pride, and the Browns are in their worst form of the season, so this isn't the most compelling edition of this longtime rivalry. The real drama with Pittsburgh figures to come in the offseason after such a disappointing campaign. RB Rashard Mendenhall and Wallace are unrestricted free agents, and each faces an uncertain future with the club.

What the heck? Roethlisberger's return from a three-game absence because of shoulder and rib injuries was supposed to be just what Pittsburgh needed to make a playoff run. Instead, the Steelers are 0-3 since he re-entered the lineup, and late-game interceptions at Dallas and vs. Cincinnati led to Pittsburgh losses. The biggest issue of all, though, is that the Steelers paid so dearly for their franchise QB's mistakes. The Steelers have had two wins of more than a touchdown all season. All these close games are exciting, but the knack for continuing to get into these slugfests suggests Pittsburgh doesn't quite have the knockout ability it needs.

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