AFC North Breakdown: Week 16
(David Wellman writes for Stripe Hype which is FSB’s Bengals blog. Representing the rest of the AFC North are The Ebony Bird, Dawg Pound Daily, and Nice Pick Cowher)
A gutty Saturday night victory by Baltimore against Dallas, featuring back-to-back 77+ yard runs for touchdowns, proved to be the AFC North’s highlight game in Week 16. Pittsburgh would fall to the Titans in a possible preview of the AFC Championship game, while Cincinnati scored its first shutout since 2006 against Cleveland.
Looking Back: After a disappointing 13-9 loss to division rival Pittsburgh the previous week, Baltimore bounced back with a statement game against the Dallas Cowboys. The Ravens defense picked Dallas QB Tony Romo twice and flummoxed him all night, while holding the Cowboys to under 100 yards on the ground. Baltimore built a 16-7 lead through three quarters before a wild fourth in which both teams scored 17 points. Fourteen of Baltimore’s came on back-to-back runs by Willis MacGahee (77 yards) and La’Ron McLain (82 yards). Cameras caught Ravens LB Ray Lewis on the sideline after each run wearing a stunned expression, as if he was unable to believe what he was seeing. I’m sure Dallas owner Jerry Jones couldn’t, either. The in-game story of the night was a gutty performance by WR Derrick Mason, who dislocated a shoulder early in the contest and not only continued to play in obvious agony, but racked up 66 yards and a touchdown on six one-armed catches. More quietly, Pro Bowl RT Willie Anderson went down with an ankle injury, but had it taped up and also returned to the game.
Looking Forward: The victory gave the Ravens temporary possession of the final AFC wild card spot. Baltimore’s path to the postseason is clear: win and they’re in. They will try for that victory at home against the Jacksonville Jaguars, who are coming off a long week after losing to the Colts on Thursday night. The Jags are 5-10 but showed some life against their hated division rival, and led 24-14 through the third before allowing 17 unanswered Indianapolis points in the fourth. Playing spoiler in Baltimore would end the underachieving Jaguars’ season on an up note, but judging by their last two games, the Ravens are refusing to be denied.
Looking Back: On the cold, windy shores of Lake Erie, the Dead Cat Bounced higher Sunday as the Bengals heaped more misery on the collapsing Cleveland Browns. Cincinnati’s 14-0 win was its first shutout since 2006 (also against Cleveland) and its best defensive performance (just 182 yards allowed) since 2000. Bears castoff Cedric Benson ran wild, toting up 171 yards on 38 carries, while QB Ryan Fitzpatrick attempted just nine passes, completing five for 55 yards and one TD. Defensively, Bengals CB Leon Hall snagged three interceptions off Cleveland QB Ken Dorsey, one of which he ran back 50 yards for a touchdown. LB Brandon Johnson added a fourth Cincinnati interception of Bruce Gradkowski, who came in after Dorsey left with a concussion and rib injuries. The wicked wind resulted in multiple poor punts and a missed Cincinnati field goal. Bengals RT Stacy Andrews, current wearer of the Bengals’ franchise tag, tore an ACL late in the game, likely ending his hopes of a big payday next March.
Looking Forward: The Bengals close out the season at home against the 2-13 Kansas City Chiefs. Like the Bengals, the Chiefs are still playing hard and put up 31 points last weekend in a loss to playoff hopeful Miami. The Bengals, meanwhile, haven’t scored more than 21 with Fitzpatrick under center all year. And the loss of Andrews means that just two of the Bengals original five starters on the o-line will play in the finale, guard Bobbie Williams and center Eric Ghaicuic. So it will be up to the defense to stand up, one last time, if Cincinnati wants to end the season with a third straight win.
Looking Back: The season can’t end fast enough for the Cleveland Browns, who have dropped five straight and haven’t reached the end zone in 20 quarters and counting. As if an embarrassing shutout by Cincinnati, which included the loss of their third QB of the season, weren’t bad enough, head coach Romeo Crennel had to deal with rumors that DT Shaun Smith popped injured QB Brady Quinn in the weight room. Crennel would not confirm the report, but Darnell Dinkins did. Between locker room fisticuffs and WR Braylon Edwards mouthing off in the media, the Browns appear headed for a 2009 offseason roughly as enjoyable as the Bengals’ was this year.
Looking Forward: The Browns head to Pittsburgh to face the AFC North champions in the season’s final game. Even if the Steelers choose to rest their starters, Cleveland doesn’t appear to stand a chance. At this point, it looks like Pittsburgh’s third string could beat anything the Browns could put on the field.
Looking Back: Pittsburgh fell to Tennessee in a battle for home field advantage throughout the playoffs. The Titans snuffed out the Steelers’ running game, allowing RB Willie Parker to gain just 29 yards on 18 carries. QB Ben Roethlisberger threw 40 times, completing 26 passes for 331 yards and two touchdowns, but also tossed a pair of picks, one of which was returned 83 yards for a touchdown by Michael Griffin to ice the game for Tennessee. The Titans also forced five fumbles, two of which Pittsburgh lost. And Tennessee did all this without either Albert Haynesworth or Kyle Vanden Bosch. The Steelers, who have struggled on offense all year (currently 23rd in yards, 22nd in points) will need to find a way generate more points and fewer mistakes if they hope to go far in the postseason.
Looking Forward: Pittsburgh hosts the Browns in what ought to be an easy victory for the Steelers. If the Browns lose and Cincinnati beats Kansas City, Cleveland will end the year in the basement of the AFC North.