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AFC North Spin cycle: Ravens wobbling down the stretch

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By Mike Wilkening

The Ravens are in the playoffs, but they hardly look like contenders. Meanwhile, the Steelers and Bengals prepare for the biggest game of their seasons. We explore in the AFC North "Spin cycle."

RAVENS

What we learned: The Ravens will make a postseason appearance for the fifth consectutive season, but how long they last in January is very much in question after a humbling 34-17 loss to powerful Denver on Sunday. The defeat was the third in a row for Baltimore (9-5), which holds a one-game lead over Cincinnati (8-6) in the AFC North. The Ravens' offense disappointed in Jim Caldwell's first game as coordinator, sputtering in a scoreless first half that ended in disaster when QB Joe Flacco was intercepted near the Broncos' goal line in the final minute. The resulting TD return by Chris Harris turned a manageable 10-0 deficit into a 17-0 halftime crater. The Ravens' defense, dealing with major injury concerns at linebacker, played fairly well early in the game and limited Denver to just 4.7 yards per play, but it faltered in the third quarter, surrendering a 51-yard TD pass to Eric Decker and a six-yard TD run to Knowshon Moreno. The latter gave Denver a 31-3 lead, and the outcome was really no longer in doubt. 

What's in store next: The Ravens host the Giants (8-6), who are in a fight for their playoff lives. The Giants' potent offense poses a big-time challenge for Baltimore's defense. However, the Giants' defense is quite shaky; only New Orleans is allowing more yards per play than New York. Can the Ravens' offense capitalize? 

What the heck? There can be no sugar-coating it — the Ravens' first-half struggles on offense cost them dearly. The defense dug in and did its job, but the offense came up short in the first 30 minutes, and the Ravens never recovered. Harris' interception of Flacco was very much a game-changer; the Ravens could have cut the deficit to three points at the half. And with Baltimore getting the ball to start the second half, the game could have been a very competitive one in the final 30 minutes. Instead, the Broncos added to their lead, and the Ravens were in a very vulnerable spot thereafter. Simply put, the Ravens need more out of Flacco and Co.  

BENGALS

What we learned: The Bengals did what they had to do on Thursday night. They didn't play particularly well, but they didn't have to in a 34-13 win at Philadelphia. The Eagles were their own worst enemies, with four second-half turnovers opening the floodgates for Cincinnati (8-6). The Bengals' defense (221 yards allowed) and ground game (106 yards from RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis) were positives in victory, with the pass protection (six sacks) a negative. 

What's in store next: The Bengals get a rematch with Pittsburgh (7-7), which won the first meeting between the teams in Cincinnati in October. If the Steelers score a second win vs. Cincinnati, they will have the all-important head-to-head tiebreaker with the Bengals. A Cincinnati win, meanwhile, eliminates the Steelers from playoff contention and could land them in the postseason, depending upon how various scenarios play out. The Bengals do not have a win against Pittsburgh since 2009. In short, this game doesn't lack in importance for Cincinnati. 

What the heck? The Bengals need more pass catchers to step up in Week 16. WR A.J. Green (6-57-1) and TE Jermaine Gresham (6-63-0) combined for all but one of Cincinnati's receptions in Week 15, with the other going to RB Brian Leonard. Make no mistake — Green merits all of the targets he can get, and Gresham is very capable, too. Nevertheless, QB Andy Dalton needs a full complement of options at his disposal. 

STEELERS

What we learned: It's this simple for the 7-7 Steelers: a win Sunday vs. Cincinnati (8-6) keeps their playoff hopes alive. A loss, and they are eliminated from the postseason for the first time since 2009. The Steelers' margin for error decreased a little more on Sunday in a 27-24 OT loss at Dallas. The Steelers could not hold a 24-17 fourth-quarter lead and lost all chance to win when QB Ben Roethlisberger threw an interception on the second play of overtime. The mistake was a bitter ending to an otherwise strong game from Roethlisberger, who threw for 339 yards and two TDs. The passing game carried the Steelers on a day where the running game again sputtered and the defense, missing key CBs Ike Taylor and Cortez Allen, surrendered 415 yards, the bulk of which came through the air. 

What's in store next: The Steelers' comeback win at Cincinnati on Oct. 21 evened Pittsburgh's record at 3-3 and was the first of four victories in a row for Mike Tomlin's club. The win over the Bengals showed Pittsburgh's toughness in the face of adversity, and it also reflected the value of a strong running game, as the Steelers ground out a season-high 167 yards on the ground. The Steelers desperately need to recapture their best form in a game they absolutely need.  

What the heck? WR Antonio Brown caught a TD pass in the Steelers' loss, but his punt-return struggles very much hurt Pittsburgh. First, his 22-yard fourth-quarter punt return ended in disaster, as his fumble was recovered at the Steelers' 38 by the Cowboys, who capitalized with the game-tying TD. Then, with the Steelers getting the ball back in a tie game with two minutes left, Brown didn't field a short punt from the Cowboys' Brian Moorman. The decision was costly, as it rolled for a 59-yard net gain for Moorman, putting Pitttsburgh on its 20. The Steelers would advance as far as their 46, but the drive stalled before having to punt it away. 

BROWNS

What we learned: The Browns begin the final two weeks of the season — a period where speculation of the unclear futures of head coach Pat Shurmur and GM Tom Heckert figures to reign — on a down note. The Browns' three-game winning streak ended with a thud Sunday, and a 38-21 loss to Washington leaves Cleveland (5-9) to regroup before closing out the seasonwith challenging road games at Denver and Pittsburgh. In defeat, the Browns were outgained 430-291 by Washington, which was led by rookie backup QB Kirk Cousins (329 yards, two TDs, one interception, 104.4 passer rating). The Redskins also got 87 yards and two TDs on 27 carries from rookie RB Alfred Morris. Meanwhile, the Browns' rookie QB-RB tandem of Brandon Weeden and Trent Richardson didn't fare quite as well. Weeden threw two interceptions and just one TD, while Richardson, though scoring a pair of TDs, was held to 28 yards on 11 carries.

What's in store next: The Browns face the hot Broncos (11-3) in Denver. Denver has won eight in a row, and their only losses are to Atlanta, Houston and New England. The Browns have been competitive on the road all season, but they have only one win to show for their efforts, and that was at Oakland. 

What the heck? The Browns had a 14-10 halftime lead, but Washington seized control in the final 30 minutes, outscoring Cleveland 28-7 and outgaining the Browns 271-148. Both of Weeden's picks came in the final 30 minutes. What's more, Richardson had just two carries for zero yards in the final two quarters. For a team that had shown so much promise in recent weeks, the Browns' second-half play was very disappointing. 

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