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AFC North Round Up Week 11: Ravens Reclaim First Heading into Sprint to Finish Line

Bumped. I've added a thing of two, but hat tip to Michael Hewitt for taking one thing off my plate this week with the AFC North Round Up. Unfortunately the Ravens reclaimed first place with their hard-fought win over the Bengals on Sunday afternoon. I'm not surprised by the outcome, though it must be acknowledged that the game could have easily gone to overtime if not for a controversial call (not a bad call by the refs mind you, just a controversial call entirely related to the wording of the NFL rule book). Anyhow, very little is handed to you in this league, so it should most certainly be expected that Pittsburgh will have to win their final six, or at worst go 5-1, in order to have any shot at winning the AFC North. It's still in the cards though, believe that. -Michael B.-

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Ten games down, six games to go. Six more chances for three of our AFC North teams to try and get one up on the others. 

It has been a great season so far for the AFC North excluding the Cleveland Browns. The Cincinnati Bengals have defied all odds and are looking at a very possible playoff berth behind a rookie second round Quarterback and a great defense. The Baltimore Ravens have overcome their hated nemesis the Pittsburgh Steelers by sweeping them during the regular season series, however inconsistencies have stopped them running away with the division. And finally, our beloved Pittsburgh Steelers have shaken off a rough start to the season and are looking good heading into the final stretch. 

I've always considered the final six games of the regular season to be the time of year where championship contenders are decided, and if you look at the Superbowl Champions of the last 10 years (2001-2010) the eventual Superbowl Champs have gone a combined 40-20 over the course of the last six games, a 4-2 average. Meaning, the team that wins the Superbowl does not limp into the playoffs, they close opponents out and "get hot" as they say. The best mark was the Patriots who went 6-0 twice (2001, 2003) and the worst mark was the Colts who went 3-3 in 2006, and to be honest, played in what was (in my opinion) the most boring and unpolished performance by a Championship team in the past decade. 

As the Cleveland Browns are well out of playoff contention, lets have a look back at each the Bengals, Ravens and Steelers thus far, and their obstacles in obtaining a playoff berth.

AFC North Standings (through Week 10)
Team Record Div. Record Conf. Record Streak Scoring Differential
Baltimore Ravens 7-3 3-0 5-2 Won 1 + 80
Pittsburgh Steelers 6-3 1-2 5-3 Won 1 + 41
Cincinnati Bengals 6-4 1-2
4-3 Lost 1 + 41
Cleveland Browns 4-6 0-1 3-4 Won 1 - 48

 

AFC Standings Through Week 10:

  1. Baltimore Ravens (7-3)

  2. Houston Texans (7-3)

  3. New England Patriots (6-3)

  4. Oakland Raiders (6-4)

  5. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-3)

  6. Cincinnati Bengals (6-4)

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Cincinnati Bengals: 

Record: 6-4 (1-2 vs AFCN) 

Standing: 3rd in AFCN, 6th in the AFC Conference

Remaining Opponents Record: 30-30 (0.500)

Do not be fooled by the .500 win percentage of Cincinnati's remaining opponents, as they have a brutal stretch to finish the season. If you ignore the NFC West combo of the St Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals (a combined 5-15) then that leaves you with a rematch of each Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Cleveland, and throw in a tough game against Houston and you get a record of 25-15 (or .625). Not to discount the NFC West, as these games should be circled as trap games for Cincinnati. 

This is where we find out the true character of the Cincinnati Bengals. No one considered the Bengals a severe threat to the AFC North crown, but after starting 6-2 they started turning some heads based off solid play by the defense and a maturer than age suggests combo of Andy Dalton to AJ Green. After two straight losses to the Steelers and Ravens, they are reeling a little. But in reality they should be proud, because we have seen that they can compete with the best the AFC has to offer after falling by just a touchdown to each of their main division rivals. 

The Bengals currently hold the 6th seed in the AFC, as they are one game ahead of each the Broncos, Titans, Jets and Bills. They hold the tie breaker against the Titans and Bills, however lose the tiebreaker to the Broncos. In other words, they control their own destiny. AJ Dalton needs to shake off the two game stretch where he threw 3 touchdowns to 5 interceptions and get back on track against the Cleveland Browns. 

Prediction:

I think the Bengals are focused. They have lost their four games by a combined score of 22, or only 5.5 per game. They have not been blown out, and the last two games have showed they have the mental stamina to come back in games and not fall apart. However, they need to put aside the likes of the Browns, Rams and Cardinals, all potential trap games. Count that as three wins, and then they need to muster one win either on the road against Pittsburgh or in their own house against Houston or Baltimore in what could be a game with serious playoff ramifications. 4-2 in that stretch gets them to 10-6 and a likely playoff berth as the 6th seed, which I think they will pull off. Bengals go 10-6, Wildcard. 

 

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Baltimore Ravens: 

Record: 7-3 (3-0 vs AFCN)

Standing: 1st in AFCN, 1st in AFC Conference (Pending NE vs KC, in which NE would be #1 if winners)

Remaining Opponents Record: 27-33 (0.450)

Like the Bengals, do not be fooled by the remaining opponent record, as the Ravens have a Week 14 meeting against the hopeless 0-10 Indianapolis Colts. Take them off the board and the record stands as a little more intimidating 27-23 (0.540) mark. 

Well, well, well. The Ravens shook the monkey off their back this season and walked the walk, sweeping the Steelers and currently have no losses on their divisional record, as well as holding a key tiebreaker over the also 7-3 Houston Texans. The problem with the Ravens is they have backed up great wins with stunning losses. After a dominating 35-7 win in Week One, they crumbled to the Tennessee Titans(now 5-5). After a big win over the Houston Texans, they then fell to the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars(now 3-7) and finally after sweeping the Steelers in round two with a comeback 23-20 victory, they again tripped up, being embarrassed by the Seattle Seahawks(now 4-6). 

Inconsistency has been the name of the game for the Ravens, and whilst they have not followed up on solid wins, they have to their credit, rebounded after those humiliating losses. The defense is still performing well, as is Ray Rice (when they give him the ball). Flacco has been up and down between outstanding and below average. 

The next big game comes in a weeks time, as the inaugural "Harbaugh Bowl" kicks off as John Harbaugh and his Ravens play host to his brother Jim and his very impressive 9-1 San Francisco 49ers. Can the Ravens string two big wins against winning teams together, or will they continue the pattern of let downs following big victories? Time will tell. Regardless, the Ravens now have the control sitting 1st in the AFC, at worst 2nd after Monday Night Football.

Prediction:

The Ravens have two games against the Cleveland Browns remaining, and one against the lowly Indianapolis Colts. Those three right there shouldnt be a problem. Theres a potential trap game against the Chargers, and then the big two games, the 49ers in a weeks time, and the potential playoff ramifying finale against at Cincinnati. I think we will have a lot better idea after the "Harbaugh Bowl" of where this team is, but if any team needs to get hot at the final stretch, it is this team. I could chalk them up four wins and two losses, as I think the 49ers match up well enough to win, and then leaving possibility to drop a game against the Bengals or Chargers. They need to be very careful, as the Steelers have the easiest run to the finish, and two losses opens the door for the Steelers to steal the division. Ultimately, I think the Ravens close it out. 12-4, AFC North Division Champions

 

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Pittsburgh Steelers:

Record: 7-3 (1-2 vs AFCN)

Standing: 2nd in AFCN, 3rd in AFC Conference (Pending NE vs KC, drop to 4th if NE win)

Remaining Opponents Record: 28-32 (0.466) (I am making the assumption KC lose to NE)
The Steelers have had a solid season, marred by being swept by the Baltimore Ravens which has had many Steeler fans, at least on BTSC anyway, ready to throw the season. Not so fast. Outside of  tough games against Cincinnati and San Francisco, the Steelers have the most favorable season ending schedule of the top three teams in the AFC North.

The Steelers started off slow, losing two of their first four. However since then, the Steelers have gone 5-1 and were one of the hotter teams throughout the month of October, with both Big Ben and Lamarr Woodley taking away honors for AFC players of the month. It is not like the Steelers are under-performing. The teams the Steelers have lost to are a combined 14-6. No losses to lesser teams. Yes, of course being swept by the Ravens hurts a lot, but it could be a lot worse. It hasnt been pretty, the style points score has been low, but winning is winning and the playoffs are easily within reach.

The goal now is to get hot to finish the season. The Ravens are gone and now each team controls their own destiny. Two big games are circled on the remaining schedule, and thats the Week 13 hosting of the rivaled Bengals, and the Week 15 trip to Candlestick Park to face the 49ers, which we will have a better understanding of in a weeks time. No let downs against lesser teams can occur if the Steelers have serious playoff credentials, they need to put away the likes of Cleveland and Kansas City in convincing fashion on the field if not on the scoreboard as they will likely be travelling throughout the playoffs.

Prediction:

I do not think it is a total stretch to say the Steelers can win out, trying my best to not be a homer. It really all comes down to the big clash with the 49ers (who by the way, we will really see what they are made of in the next few weeks) as well as the rematch against the Bengals. Generally we hold our own very well against Cincy on our home turf, and have usually been far too good for the likes of the Cleveland Browns, who still appear on our incoming radar twice in the last six weeks. The Kansas City game looms as a potential trap game next week, however we do have the advantage of coming off the bye. I think we win the rematch with Cincy, and the 49ers I believe we match up with very well personnel wise. I'll leave room for a loss and say we finish the stretch 5-1. If the Ravens lose two games, we can sneak the division title out from under their feet. Steelers go 12-4, Wildcard.

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To sum up, the shoe is now on the other foot. The Ravens in a couple of the most recent seasons have had to loom in our shadow and be the ugly sister. Now it is our turn to try and do what they could not, which is win on the road in the playoffs en route to the Superbowl.

If you below the AFC North, you have the Broncos, Titans, Bills and Jets all sitting at 5-5, however none of those teams seems playoff worthy to me. Unless Cincy tanks it, there will be three teams representing the AFC North in the playoffs, the first time since realignment. 
It truly is a run to to the finish for the division title. So be it. Bring it on. 

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