By Stephen Stone (@SrStoneSports)
Cold Hard Football Facts' AFC North Sniper
For Pittsburgh’s sake, here’s hoping round two goes a little differently than round one.
When the Steelers took on the Baltimore Ravens at home two weekend’s ago, it was the beginning of the Ben Roethlisberger-less portion of their season. To put it bluntly, things couldn’t have gone worse for them. A close loss at home to the Ravens (nothing to be ashamed of) was followed by an unimaginable disaster in Cleveland. Eight turnovers later and the Steelers are reeling as they head into week 13, facing a must-win situation.
While a win would certainly help Pittsburgh’s cause, I think they can forget about the division right now. They should be more concerned with what’s coming in their rear-view mirror. Cincinnati is only one game behind the Steelers and with an easy schedule in their immediate future, they could pass Pittsburgh in the coming weeks. Roethlisberger's return is still up in the air, but regardless, the Steelers must be better at holing onto the football if they want to hold onto the last playoff spot.
With that in mind, here are five things to consider as we head into week 13.
1. Passing will be at a premium in Baltimore (Steelers @ Ravens)
Pittsburgh’s passing attack will obviously be improved if Big Ben is back in the lineup, but the Baltimore passing defense is still going to be difficult to throw against regardless of who is under center. The Ravens are sixth in Defensive Real Quarterback Rating and fifth in Defensive Passer Rating, so Roethlisberger - who has a passer rating over 100 for the third time in his career - will need to be in the lineup to five the Steelers a decent shot.
On the other side of the ball, Pittsburgh’s ability to defend the pass is on par with Baltimore. The Steelers are eighth in Defensive Real Quarterback Rating, sixth in Defensive Passer Rating and second in Defensive Real Passing Yards per Attempt. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco’s performance significantly improves at home, but Flacco’s numbers tend to drop against his divisional rivals.
2. Ray Rice might struggle to get into the end zone
The Baltimore running back is certainly a super star and he has a nose for pay-dirt, but in 10 career games against the Steelers, he has only managed to score four times. Two came in one game - a 35-7 shellacking from week 1 in 2011, the last time they met in Baltimore.
That doesn’t mean Rice can’t make a difference. His 4th down and 29 conversion from Sunday is the best play of 2012. It will just be difficult against a stingy rushing defense that is only allowing 3.71 yards per attempt, the fourth best mark in football. His success this weekend will likely rely on screens and an open passing game that can open up running lanes.
3. A win over San Diego will put Cincinnati in a rare position (Bengals @ Chargers)
It’s no secret that the Bengals haven’t been consistently good in quite some time. Cincinnati’s playoff birth last year was the team’s third in 21 seasons. On Sunday, a victory over San Diego and a loss by Pittsburgh would put the Bengals in the final playoff spot with four games left to play.
As you may remember from my season preview column back in August, the Bengals haven’t made the playoffs in consecutive seasons since the 1981 and 1982 season. It shouldn’t be difficult against a struggling Chargers squad. San Diego is now ranked 29th in the league in Quality Standings. The Philip Rivers era’s window is just about shut and Cincinnati will help close it.
4. Expect Oakland to turn the ball over against Cleveland (Browns @ Ravens)
The 3-7 Browns haven’t done a whole lot right this year, but their defense can take the ball away. Last Sunday’s eight forced turnovers obviously inflated their stats, but the reality is the Browns have been taking away the football all season long. Cleveland currently ranks second in the conference in forced turnovers with 25. In fact, despite quarterback Brandon Weeden’s growing pains and a less-than-inspiring offense, the Browns are still tied with Houston for third in the conference in turnover differential, only behind playoff-bound New England and Baltimore.
Meanwhile, the Oakland Raiders and quarterback Carson Palmer have a knack for giving it up. The team ranks in the bottom half of the conference in turnovers and turnover differential. The Cleveland defensive backs are already licking their chops.
5. The four most valuable players in the division
It’s been a few weeks since I’ve done this, but I think it’s necessary. While I have included five players in the past, I simply can’t find that many legitimate candidates for the award right now. Sorry Joe Flacco.
Here are the four MVP candidates in the AFC North.
4. A.J. Green (Cincinnati) - He’s the best wide receiver in the league, but I can’t place a receiver any higher than fourth place. While he’s certainly Andy Dalton’s number one target, last week proved the Bengals have more weapons than him.
3. Andy Dalton (Cincinnati) - The quarterback has to be ranked in front of his receiver. There was a time earlier this year when we questioned whether or not Dalton was suffering from a sophomore slump. Now the Bengals are on fire and Dalton is leading the charge.
2. Ray Rice (Baltimore) - If the Ravens ultimately win the division and earn a first round bye, it will likely be by the narrowest of margins. At that point, Baltimore fans can look back to Sunday’s win over San Diego and Rice’s amazing 4th and 29 conversion as a game that, had they lost, would probably have prevented them from earning a bye.
1. Ben Roethlisberger (Pittsburgh) - Is there any doubt? The Steelers quarterback was already near the top of my league MVP candidates prior to his injury. Now that I have seen Pittsburgh’s offense without their franchise signal caller, I’m convinced he’s the most valuable player in the division, if not the entire NFL.