AFC North Playoff Race Stalls as Bengals, Ravens and Steelers Lose
By Stephen Stone (@SrStoneSports)
Cold Hard Football Facts' AFC North Sniper
You can look at today’s results in two different ways. The optimistic fans of the Ravens, Bengals and Steelers can all say “at least no one else won today so our loss won’t affect us too much.” That’s technically true. However, the pessimistic (and perhaps more realistic) fans know they squandered a golden opportunity.
At least one of the three teams atop the AFC North will be left out of the playoffs. When that happens, they should look back at this week as the reason they missed their opportunity.
This week saw a number of firsts and rarities. Here’s what I noticed.
1. The Steelers lost a regular season home game to the Chargers for the first time in team history. (San Diego 34 Pittsburgh 24)
As I said in the preview article, the Steelers have lost at home to the Chargers in the playoffs. It cost them a chance at the Super Bowl in 1995. But San Diego hadn’t won in Pittsburgh in the regular season in the history of the rivalry. Today, after 15 losses, the Chargers pulled one out on the road in the Steel city.
You can blame the Pittsburgh loss on a number of factors. Roethlisberger, despite putting up healthy numbers, didn’t seen in sync with his receivers for most of the first half. The defense, despite being ranked first in the league heading into today’s action, yielded 34 points. The Chargers put up their highest point total since September.
This is probably the worse of the three bad losses this week because of the opposition. San Diego had all but given up on the season, having not won since November 1st. At least Cincinnati and Baltimore were victims of teams trying to make playoff runs. There’s no excuse for Pittsburgh’s no-show.
2. The Ravens lost back-to-back games for the first time all season. (Washington 31 Baltimore 28 OT)
The talk was that the Ravens’ flaws would be exposed when the schedule got tougher in the second half of the season. That may just be the case. Redskins fans know there is a dark cloud hovering over the team’s victory today after RG3 got injured late in the game, but they are at least moving in the right direction as the season winds down. Baltimore is going backwards.
Joe Flacco threw three touchdowns, and had by far his best road performance of the season. It was the first time put up a quarterback rating of 100 on the road (to go with four such games at home this year.) However, most of Flacco’s success on Sunday was in the first half. The Ravens were unable to get a drive going when it was needed in the second half, they let the Redskins hang around and when the game came down to the wire the Redskins may the appropriate plays to prevail.
3. The Bengals lost to an NFC team for the first time since September 25, 2011. (Dallas 20 Cincinnati 19)
This was a tough one. The Bengals were in control for most of this game. They out-gained the Cowboys and the defense played tough for most of the contest. But Cincinnati couldn’t score when they reached the red zone. The Bengals found themselves inside the Cowboys’ 20 four times, but only got into the end zone once. Their inability to get six proved to be the difference in the game.
Perhaps my anointing of A.J. Green as the number one receiver in the NFL was premature. Yes, he’s still one of the best, but he’s now gone three games without scoring a touchdown. He had a major drop today that would have led to a difference-making Bengal score. If he doesn’t step his game up and get back on the same page with Andy Dalton, the Bengals won’t make the playoffs.
4. The Browns were the only team in the division to win since week 15 of 2007. (Cleveland 30 Kansas City 7)
It was almost five years ago to the day when the Browns defeated Buffalo 8-0, the same week that Baltimore lost to Miami 22-16 in overtime, Pittsburgh lost to Jacksonville 29-22 and Cincinnati lost to San Francisco 20-13. For the first time since then, Cleveland fans can spend at least a couple of days with their heads held high as they look down at the rest of the division.
You have to hand it to this scrappy bunch. They haven’t quit on their coach and they are playing hard in mid-December. Trent Richardson scored twice on the ground, his first multi-rushing touchdown game of the season. He’s showing why he’ll be one of the league’s best running backs heading into next year.
Brandon Weeden is also coming around. He’s taken a lot of crap this year for turning the ball over, but he didn’t throw an interception today. It was his fifth game without a pick. If you’re keeping score at home, Andrew Luck only has three pick-less games this season. Weeden’s age is helping him learn quickly on the fly and he could be in position to make a major difference on his team next season.
5. So where do we go from here?
There are three weeks left in the season. The Ravens might as well concede a first-round bye, but they are still in control for the division title. With another game left against Cincinnati, they can bury the Bengals. The Steelers also have to face off against Cincinnati in a game that could decide the final wild card spot.
I’m still shocked that no team was able to take advantage of their rivals’ losses. This is a league that rewards opportunistic play. But having said that, each team can take a “no harm, no foul” approach and regroup for next week.
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