Stephen R Stone (@SrStoneSports)

Cold Hard Football Facts' AFC North Sniper

It feels good to preview four Sunday afternoon games this week. I know, football on a Sunday afternoon, what a concept. This is only the third time this year that all four teams play on one Sunday between the hours of 1 and 7 pm eastern standard time and the first time since week five. 

A lot has changed in the division since then. The Browns aren’t the worst team in the league, Cincinnati doesn’t appear to be headed back to the playoffs and the balance of power at the top of the division is shifting. Who knows where things will be in another few weeks.

But we'll worry about that when the time comes. For now, here are five things to think about as we head into week 9.  


The Steelers and Giants may be a Super Bowl Preview (Pittsburgh @ New York)

We know the Giants are good. We also know that this is the time of year when they barely hang around and that the really good play is still a month and a half away. Picking them in the Super Bowl is not a shock. Picking the Steelers may be going out on a limb, unless you take a look at the last couple of weeks.

I still don’t know how Pittsburgh lost that Thursday night game in Tennessee, but I do know ever since that game, the division has swung drastically. 

Pittsburgh hadn’t shown any signs of consistency heading all year until the last two weeks. The Steelers took care of business against Cincinnati before dismantling RGIII and the Redskins. The most impressive aspect of the change is that they have been playing classic Steeler ball - hard-nosed defense, a strong rushing attack and a dominant performances from Ben Roethlisberger. 

Baltimore, who had been running away with the division, hasn’t looked good in about a month. Now, if they can’t overcome their injuries, the division will be Pittsburgh’s for the taking. In a conference with only two or three good teams, the Steelers have as good a shot as anyone to represent the AFC in February. 

The Steelers have been getting the job done this year by being efficient. They currently rank in the top seven in Real Quarterback Rating, Offensive Passer Rating, Passer Rating Differential and third down conversion percentage. Overall, they are in the top seven in seven different Quality Stats. The Giants, on the other hand, rank in the top seven in eight different categories. 


Joe Flacco and John Harbaugh have never lost to the Browns (Baltimore @ Cleveland)

Uninspiring wins over the Chiefs and Cowboys and a beat-down at the hands of the Texans has Baltimore reeling. The injuries are starting to pile up and it’s looking less likely that they will hold on and win the AFC North. But, as the Ravens come off their bye week they are in prime position to do so successfully against Cleveland. The Ravens have hit a lull and the Browns are on the rise, but Baltimore has all the history on its side.

The Flacco/Harbaugh era Ravens are 9-0 against the Browns. Most recently, Baltimore took care of business in a 23-16 win in week four of this season - otherwise known as the day the refs came back and saved football. Baltimore’s long-term prospects in 2012 are sketchy at best given the loss of several key members of the defense, but that shouldn’t prevent the Ravens from keeping the streak going on Sunday afternoon.


Don’t expect a quarterback duel in Cleveland

Flacco becomes a completely different quarterback when he leaves the comfort of Baltimore. His inability to perform on the road is what is currently hindering his ascension to elite status. Both of Baltimore’s losses this season have been on the road, and Flacco’s rating is a good 50 points lower away than it is at home. 

However, Brandon Weeden is also experiencing a similar discrepancy in Cleveland, but the results are reversed. Both of Cleveland’s wins have been at home, but the rookie quarterback only elevates his game while on the road. Weeden’s rating while away is a respectable 86.4, but at home the number dwindles to 51.7. 

The two starting quarterbacks carry an average rating of 53.8 in the environment they’ll be playing in on Sunday. Take the under.  


Cincinnati will have its hands full with Peyton Manning (Denver @ Cincinnati) 

The Bengals passing defense is not very good. Peyton Manning on the other hand, well, he’s every bit of Peyton Manning now as he was back in Indy. The early season rust is all but gone and number 18 is leading the Broncos to an AFC West title and is probably the front-runner to receive a fifth MVP trophy. 

After thrashing the Saints last Sunday night, Denver jumped to number two in the Quality Stats Power Rankings, with the future Hall-of-Famer leading the way. Manning’s success in the second act of his career has already exceeded my expectations. The real scary part? He’s just getting started. Peyton has improved every week this season and he seems to have found a rhythm with his receivers, who are also just now hitting their respective strides. 

Cincinnati’s passing defense hasn’t been New Orleans bad, but it hasn’t been good. The Bengals currently rank 20th in Defensive Real Passing Yards per Attempt, 25th in Defensive Real Quarterback Rating and 28th in Defensive Passer Rating. On the offensive side, Denver ranks first, first and second in those three categories respectively. Congratulations in advance to all of Manning’s fantasy owners. 


Ben Roethlisberger has taken over as the division’s Most Valuable Player

I was going to list the awards where they stand right now, but many are still the same (and I can’t really think of a coach worthy of being awarded Coach of the Year) but there is one major shift in the awards that’s worth noting. 

Remember when Joe Flacco was not only the runaway MVP in the AFC North, but one of the stronger contenders for the league’s award? Yes, I know that I had Ray Rice the last time I listed the divisional awards, but ultimately, I felt Flacco would be the winner if he quarterbacked the Ravens to a divisional title. Regardless, I think we can put that talk to bed, at least for now. Flacco’s abysmal performance in Houston really hurt his stock and, if he can’t figure out how to play better on the road, Baltimore is going nowhere. 

Meanwhile, Roethlisberger is continuing his fantastic season. I already mentioned Pittsburgh’s tremendously efficient passer rating. His 14 to 3 touchdown to interception ratio puts him on pace for about 30 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. That will be more than enough to lead the division.