By Stephen Stone (@SrStoneSports)
Cold Hard Football Facts' AFC North sniper
If Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t play this week, it will be Pittsburgh’s fourth straight game without their franchise quarterback. Early reports suggest he is progressing in practice, but it’s still way too early to determine whether or not he’ll play this Sunday. Meanwhile, All-pro Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs, the reigning defensive player of the year, has a torn biceps.
The health of each team’s respective superstar is imperative to their playoff chances. The Ravens’ substantial lead in the division doesn’t seem as big after Pittsburgh’s win in Baltimore last Sunday and if Suggs can’t play at a high level for the foreseeable future, that fact coupled with Roethlisberger’s inevitable return could change the tide in the divisional race in the coming weeks.
With that in mind, here are five things to consider heading into week 14.
1. The Steelers are 13-3 in their last 16 games against the Chargers. (San Diego at Pittsburgh)
The last time the Steelers lost at home to the Chargers in the 1994/95 AFC Championship game. Since that time, they have won every game in Pittsburgh as part of a 13-3 overall mark. In addition to the Colts and Patriots, these two teams have been the standard for AFC contention in the last 10 years, but the Steelers have gotten the better end of the matchup far more often than not.
So if Roethslisberger doesn’t play, the Steelers may be able to rely on history and a defense that should shut down the Charger offense. San Diego is currently ranked 17th in Offensive Passer Rating and 23rd in Real Quarterback Rating. Both are the teams’ worst marks since Rivers took over as the Charger quarterback in 2006. Head coach Norv Turner is on his way out of southern California, so it will be a major surprise if the Steelers are unable to take care of business at home.
2. The Ravens will have their hands full with a phenom (Baltimore at Washington)
The Redskins are one of the hottest teams in the NFL right now, and their franchise rookie quarterback is the reason why. Robert Griffin III has torched most of his opponents this season, which is why the Redskins are ranked second in the league in Real Passing Yards per Attempt, third in Offensive Passer Rating and first in Real Quarterback Rating.
It will be even harder to contain the rookie sensation Suggs doesn’t suit up. However, the pass-rusher has proven in the past he can be a tough customer. He knows how important the last four games of the regular season are, so it will be hard to see him sitting the game out, but you have to wonder how much the Ravens will get out of a less-than-100 percent Suggs.
3. Andy Dalton should have his chances against the Cowboys (Dallas at Cincinnati)
This is a huge interconference game between two teams fighting to make the playoffs. Both took care of inferior competition last week, although both were pushed a little harder than they expected.
While Bengal quarterback Andy Dalton struggled in the win against the Chargers last weekend, he will have an opportunity to succeed this Sunday. Currently, the Bengals are ranked ninth in Offensive Passer Rating, while the Cowboys are ranked 26th in Defensive Passer Rating. Look for A.J. Green to capitalize as he tries to get into the end zone for the first time in three weeks.
And although Dalton, Green and the rest of the Cincinnati offense has been getting the press, the defense is quietly molding into a powerful unit. The Bengals have only given up one touchdown in the past three weeks, all wins.
4. The Browns have a shot at a three-game winning streak. (Kansas City @ Cleveland)
Don’t look now, here come the Browns! Ok, maybe not, at least in the grand scheme of the 2012 NFL season, but fans in Cleveland have reason to be optimistic heading into the 2013 offseason.
There is at least more optimism in Cleveland than there is in Kansas City. The Browns are ranked in the bottom half of the league in nearly every offensive quality stat, but they outrank the Chiefs in all but one. The Browns’ defense is what’s fueling the winning streak. After yielding an average of 27.2 points per game the first six weeks of the season, the Browns have only given up 16.3 points per game in the last six weeks. It’s no wonder that the Browns have won two in a row and three of their last five.
5. Power Rankings
1. Baltimore Ravens - I want to put the Steelers ahead of them after last Sunday’s huge win, but until further notice, Baltimore is still the best team in the division.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers - They held onto the last playoff spot by winning in Baltimore, and if they get Big Ben back soon they can make a run at the division title.
3. Cincinnati Bengals - It’s unfortunate that one of the three top teams in this division is probably going to miss out on the playoffs, but at least Cincinnati, which plays Pittsburgh and Baltimore in the last two weeks of the season, might be able to control its own destiny.
4. Cleveland Browns - Cleveland’s recent surge may give the Browns enough wins to help name the AFC North the best division in football.