By Stephen Stone (@SrStoneSports)
Cold Hard Football Facts' AFC North Sniper
With only three weeks left in the season the margin for error is minuscule.
And while no team can afford a slip-up this late in the game, each squad will be presented with a hefty challenge this week. You can’t complain about boring football this weekend. All four AFC North teams are in big games. When the dust clears on Sunday night, we might have a better idea of the divisional and playoff picture.
Here are five things to keep in mind heading into week 15.
1. The Ravens have lost eight straight games against Peyton Manning. (Denver at Baltimore)
The Ravens have never fared well against the team that used to play in their home city, having gone 3-9 overall against the Colts. While they managed to defeat Peyton Manning in both of his losing seasons (1998 and 2001) they have not defeated him since. (Last year’s win, of course, had nothing to do with the future Hall of Fame quarterback.)
The eight game losing streak includes two playoff games and has seen the Ravens give up an average of 23 points per game. The Broncos head into Sunday’s contest as the number one raked team in the Quality Stats Power Rankings and Peyton Manning is right near the top of the list of MVP candidates.
The Raven defense isn’t what it used to be, but Baltimore is still above average when it comes to stopping the pass. They currently rank 10th in both Defensive Real Quarterback Rating and Defensive Passer Rating, but the Broncos are third and second in each respective statistic. In a game that could very well decide playoff positioning, it will be interesting to see if Baltimore’s D can shut down the dynamic Bronco passing attack and help the Ravens break their Peyton curse.
2. The Bengals are 4-2 on the road this season, tied for the second least road losses in the conference this season. (Cincinnati at Philadelphia)
It’s funny how the NFL works. Five days ago, the Bengals probably looked at their schedule and wrote in a W for Thursday night’s trip to Philadelphia. That was before the Eagles won in dramatic fashion and the Bengals blew a crucial game against the Cowboys. Now the Eagles aren’t stuck in a tailspin and they appear to be a formidable opponent.
However, the Bengals are traveling to Philadelphia to play this game, which means they have the Eagles right where they want them. Cincinnati has been a strange team all season. The Bengals have been streaky all year long, winning three in a row, losing four in a row and winning five in a row before dropping last Sunday’s heart-breaker to Dallas. And despite all of that, they have managed to be consistent on the road. The Bengals are only 3-4 at home this year, but they are 4-2 on the road. Only the Texans have fewer road losses in the AFC this year.
3. The Cowboys and Steelers have more Super Bowl matchups than any two teams in history. (Pittsburgh at Dallas)
This is classic. This is football. The ghosts of Roger Staubach and Terry Bradshaw (yes I know they aren’t actually dead yet) haunt this rivalry. In the 90s, Neil O’Donnel and Troy Aikman squared off. Today, Ben Roethlisberger and Tony Romo keep the mystique going.
The historians love this game, but the modern fans should enjoy it as well. Both teams are trying to stay alive in their respective divisional races while they jockey for playoff position. While they both have the same record, the Cowboys are trending upward, having won four of their last five games. The Steelers on the other hand have lost three of four, but Roethlisberger is trying to get back into the swing of things after a shaky return last weekend.
He might see some success this weekend, as the Cowboys possess a banged up secondary that wasn’t all that good to begin with. Dallas ranks 26th in Defensive Passer Rating, and while the Steelers only rank 14th in Offensive Passer Rating they should be able to open things up and toss the pigskin around a bit.
4. The Browns’ defense is going to have its hands full against a potent passing attack. (Washington at Cleveland)
I feel bad for the Browns this week. They have put together a string of quality wins and they are formulating some momentum that could very well lead them into a successful off-season. But they are running into a massive wave of momentum known as the Washington Redskins.
The most watched knee this week has been Robert Griffin III’s but if he plays, the Cleveland defense has a lot to look out for. The Brows have been playing well, but the Redskins are number one in Real Quarterback Rating.
You’d have to think that with the playoffs on the line, Washington will do whatever it can to get its superstar on the field. It will be up to the Browns to formulate a plan to stop it. Not a knock on their usually impressive defense, but I just don’t see it happening.
5. What will Baltimore’s coaching change mean to the divisional race?
As a follower of the Miami Dolphins, I know Cam Cameron’s weaknesses all too well. He was a successful offensive coordinator in San Diego, became a terrible head coach in Miami and then was a mediocre coordinator in Baltimore.
His longevity (this was his fifth year on the job) was impressive, but he was losing control over the offense. The Ravens started calling strange plays. They started going away from what worked. That’s why, even though there are only three games left in the regular season, Cameron had to be let go.
Ray Rice didn’t touch the ball in the fourth quarter against the Steelers two weekends ago. He’s the team’s best player. The Ravens are 5-0 when he gets 25 touches. He got 30 in Baltimore’s epic win over the Chargers, but has only a combined 36 in the two games since - both Baltimore losses.
For Baltimore’s sake, they better implement a new coaching strategy that utilizes their talent. If not, they’ll lose their grasp on the division.