By Stephen Stone (@SrStoneSports)
Cold Hard Football Facts' AFC North Sniper
The Baltimore Ravens scraped by for three months, barely winning against bad teams. Now that the Ravens are playing quality opposition, they are losing their grip on the divisional title.
Not that Pittsburgh is doing itself any favors. The Steelers could have taken a lead in the division, but a no-show last weekend and a tough loss on Sunday is letting the Ravens off the hook.
And despite the fact they were left for dead in early November, the Bengals are in the driver's seat. They currently control their own destiny and if they win out they will win the AFC North. The problem is, those last two games are against the Steelers and Ravens.
The AFC North might be the worst division in the NFL because I don’t really trust any of its teams to make noise in January. However, it’s going to be an exciting last two weeks.
Here are five items of note from Week 15 in the AFC North.
1. Pittsburgh’s defense failed to show up in the Big D. (Dallas 27 Pittsburgh 24 OT)
Yes, the Steelers offense had their share of costly turnovers. Antonio Brown’s fumble was a big moment and Ben Roethlisberger’s interception to start overtime virtually ended the game. However, if the Pittsburgh defense had played to its potential, the Steelers never would have been in a position to be so devastated from those turnovers.
Pittsburgh’s defense was ranked first in the league against the pass. It also came into the game ranked fifth in Defensive Real Quarterback Rating and seventh in Defensive Passer Rating. However, Tony Romo, who had an epically bad outing against the Steelers in December 2008, threw for 341 yards and two touchdowns on Sunday. The Steelers pass defense has to step it up for the team to make the playoffs.
2. The Ravens had their worst home loss of the Joe Flacco era.
Around the halfway mark of the season, someone told me the Ravens would miss the playoffs because of their brutal second half schedule. I didn’t give the statement all that much credence, but now the Ravens have lost three in a row and they have a difficult last two weeks. A 9-7 finish isn’t out of the question and, although Pittsburgh’s two-game losing streak has placed the Ravens in the postseason, fans can’t feel good about their team going forward.
Perhaps it’s justice. I’ve followed every Raven game this year and know how fortunate this team has been. San Diego, Kansas City and Dallas were all losable games. Maybe it’s catching up to the Ravens. They have shown late in the year that they aren’t good enough to keep up with the good teams in the NFL.
One thing that I thought would keep Baltimore’s going was the team’s typically stellar play at home. Before losing to the Steelers two weeks ago, the Ravens had won 16 straight home games. Now they have lost two straight games in Baltimore, with Sunday’s being the worst score differential at home since 2007.
3. Brandon Weeden struggled, but the Browns really lost because of their defense. (Washington 38 Cleveland 21)
While the team has improved by leaps and bounds this year, most of Cleveland’s undoing has been by the hand of quarterback Brandon Weeden who has been erratic throughout the season. The rookie signal caller posted a passer rating of 66.8, his lowest since November 4. Since then, Weeden had been playing better and Cleveland was 3-1, with its one loss coming in a tough overtime matchup against the Cowboys.
But that was only part of the story. Cleveland’s usually stingy defense fell apart against a backup quarterback making his first career NFL start. The 38 points scored by the Redskins were the most points yielded by the Browns since they gave up 41 to the Giants in week 5. Kirk Cousins’ 104.4 passer rating was the highest by a Cleveland opponent since Ryan Fitzpatrick torched the Browns in week 3.
4. The Bengals became a turnover machine on Thursday and kept their playoff hopes alive. (Cincinnati 34 Philadelphia 13)
Now, the Eagles have been prone to fumbles this year, but most of them came with Michael Vick manning the offense. It turns out it doesn’t matter who the quarterback is, because the Eagles lost four fumbles on Thursday night under rookie Nick Foles. The Bengals forced a season high five turnovers in total and rode a powerful running game to victory.
And while Andy Dalton posted his third consecutive sub-90 point passer rating, he was able to connect with his old friend for the first time in weeks. He hit A.J. Green for the star receiver’s first touchdown since November 18. After Green failed to tie Jerry Rice’s consecutive games with a receiving touchdown record, he went on a bit of a scoring slump. If he’s back into the swing of things, the Bengals will be touch for any team to beat as the regular season winds down.
5. AFC North Power Rankings
As the year comes to a close, there is still much to be decided in the AFC North. Baltimore’s once enormous lead in the division is dwindling away and the Ravens still have a difficult schedule left to play. Things could drastically change between now and two weeks from today, but at this moment here’s how things stand.
1. Cincinnati Bengals - The defense and running game have come around. If Dalton can get back into a groove with A.J. Green, watch out.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers - A hard fought battle in Dallas, but the team fell just short. Now they have no room for error if they want to hang onto a playoff spot.
3. Baltimore Ravens - I don’t care that they have the best record in the division and will make the playoffs. They are not as good as Cincinnati or Pittsburgh right now.
4. Cleveland Browns - Sunday was one of those games that reminds us some improving teams still have a long ways to go.