By Stephen Stone (@SrStoneSports)
Cold Hard Football Facts' AFC North Sniper
The Pittsburgh Steelers are in a lot of trouble. It was only a few weeks ago when I declared them the best team in the AFC North and I was convinced they would wind up winning the division. In my defense, that was before they lost their All-Pro quarterback. That was before I saw Cincinnati get hot and Baltimore get lucky.
The Steelers find themselves desperate to bring back Ben Roethlisberger because they are now three games back in the division and the Bengals are right on their heels for the final wild card spot. Pittsburgh went on a roll in October by bringing back classic Steeler-ball with tough defense and hard running. They haven’t been able to keep that up, and the lack of a competent backup quarterback has them in a rough spot.
Here's what transpired in week 12.
1. New backup, even worse result. Steelers passing attack sputtered again (Cleveland 20 Pittsburgh 14)
In eight and a half games, Ben Roethlisberger threw 17 touchdown passes. Since then, a combination of Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch have completed 45 of 87 passes, have thrown zero touchdowns and have been intercepted four times.
Before his injury, Big Ben was a strong MVP candidate and the Steelers were challenging Baltimore for a divisional title. Now, Pittsburgh is reeling and Roethlisberger’s MVP legitimacy has probably increased given the team’s performance without him.
If Byron Leftwich was rusty, Charlie Batch was decaying. Most of the Steelers didn’t do many favors for their quarterback, particularly the running backs (more on that later) but the signal caller needs to do something to help his cause.
2. The Browns forced eight turnovers in an epic upset.
The Cleveland defense has been sneaky good all year long. Their defensive Quality Stats rankings far outpaces their position in the standings. On Sunday, they took things to a whole other level by forcing a remarkable eight turnovers.
The Browns intercepted Charlie Batch three times, but the real difference in the game came from Cleveland’s incredible five fumble recoveries. Four different Steelers running backs put the ball on the ground, allowing the Browns to prevent Pittsburgh from accomplishing anything on offense.
Pittsburgh has traditionally owned the Browns, winning 10 of the last 12 contests prior to today. This was exactly the type of victory Cleveland needed to gain some momentum heading into next season.
3. The Bengals have more offensive weapons than just A.J. Green (Cincinnati 34 Oakland 10)
Cincinnati’s offense scored four touchdowns on Sunday. None of them were by their stud wide receiver. Green failed to get into the end zone for the first time since week 1, but his teammates managed to pick up the slack.
The most encouraging aspect of the Cincinnati victory was the emergence of the ground game. BenJarvus Green-Ellis hasn’t been the player he was with the Patriots this season, but he showed on Sunday he’s still got it. He ran for 129 yards on only 19 carries and scored for the fourth time this season.
In total, the Bengals rushed for 221 yards as a team, alleviating much of the pressure on Andy Dalton. As a result, the second-year quarterback was fantastic for his third straight game - all Bengal victories. His streak of three straight games with a quarterback rating over 100 is the longest of his career, and dating back to his rookie year, the Bengals are now 8-1 when he hits the century mark.
4. The Ravens keep on ticking, even if it isn’t pretty (Baltimore 16 San Diego 13 OT)
Ok, some of the game was pretty. Ray Rice’s unbelievable 30-yard catch and run on 4th down and 29 was one of the most remarkable plays I’ve seen in all my years as a fan. If Baltimore winds up winning the AFC North and receiving a first-round bye, the team only has to look back to that play that kept them alive on Sunday as a big reason why.
The Ravens will need all the home games they can get in the playoffs too. Joe Flacco’s performance was much better than what he typically does on the road, even if it was still well below his average home numbers. Flacco’s 86.6 rating was his second highest this season away from Baltimore and his last-second heroics showed that he can be counted on late in games, even when the odds are stacked heavily against him.
I’m still not sure if this team passes the eye test, but they keep winning. That’s all that matters in football.
5. Power Rankings
1. Baltimore Ravens - They might be one of the worst division winners in history, but you can’t fault them for not complaining as they get into the playoffs.
2. Cincinnati Bengals - Andy Dalton has more touchdown passes during the team’s three-game losing streak (nine) than he has combined in his teams’ five losses (six.)
3. Pittsburgh Steelers - They won’t make the playoffs if Roethlisberger doesn’t come back soon.
4. Cleveland Browns - That was a season-making victory for the Browns today, who showed a lot of heart at home.