Week 14 Could Tell the Story for the Bengals and AFC North
With a win today, the Bengals may end up in prime position for the AFC North crown. Mandatory Credit: Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports
The AFC North is by far the most competitive division in the NFL from top to bottom. All four teams are virtually within a game and a half of each other heading into the season’s final quarter. Every game is vital from now until December 28th, but with a win today, the Bengals may find themselves on the doorstep of the AFC North’s throne.
Today, the Bengals will face the Steelers in the teams’ first matchup of the season. The Bengals are coming home following an incredibly successful three game road trip that saw the team go 3-0 with wins against the Saints, Texans, and Buccaneers. Meanwhile, the Steelers head to Cincinnati in desperation mode after giving away a vital game at home against the Saints last week. With the Bengals currently holding about a game and a half lead, a win over the Steelers today would put the Steelers just a misstep away from elimination from the AFC North title race; a win for the Bengals would leave them with a 9-3-1 mark while the Steelers would fall to 7-6 with three games to go. A Bengals loss would put the teams in a virtual tie; that damned tie against the Panthers is just so annoying.
The Bengals will need to find a way to limit Ben Roethlisberger, who’s having a career year, if they are to give themselves a chance today. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Today, the Bengals return home, which will be a welcomed boost for a team who excels on their home turf. Once again, they will be without the presence of Vontaze Burfict. With the Steelers possessing one of the league’s best offenses, stopping Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, and Le’Veon Bell will be no easy task, especially without their defensive quarterback. But the Bengals will enjoy the benefit of Marcus Gilbert‘s absence. The Steelers’ right tackle will miss his second consecutive game today with an ankle injury. On offense, Andy Dalton may have one less pass rusher to worry about as the ever dangerous James Harrison may miss today’s action with a knee injury; he’s currently listed as “doubtful.’ Dalton will need to note that the Steelers did activate linebacker Jarvis Jones from the IR/DTR list earlier this week; it’ll be his first action since Week 3 of this year. But regardless of who’s on the field, the Bengals must treat this game as a must-win considering the ramifications of a potential loss.
Outside this game, the rest of AFC North’s participants will face extremely difficult battles of their own. The Ravens travel to Miami in a game that has huge implications. Both team’s are entrenched in the AFC Wild Card race while both continue to battle for their respective divisional crowns. Today’s game will mark the first for the Ravens since losing Haloti Ngata to suspension for the use of Adderall. This will give the Dolphins’ running attack a huge advantage, which is troublesome for the Ravens as the Dolphins currently boast the league’s tenth best rushing attack. Yet, the Ravens have proven across 2014 that they can overcome adversity (Ray Rice), so counting them out at this point would be unwise.
The AFC North’s final contender, the Cleveland Browns, will face Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts at home. It should be a great matchup between the two. The Colts possess the league’s best passing offense while the Browns present the league’s eighth best passing defense. Cleveland is coming off a big loss to the Buffalo Bills last week and will need to rebound quickly if they are to keep themselves in the divisional race. Brian Hoyer will need to rebound particularly quickly as his performance lately has final sparked the seemingly inevitable quarterback controversy between he and Johnny Manziel. In fact, some believe Hoyer may be on a “short leash.” Sunday will show whether Hoyer and the Browns can overcome the adversity and distractions to keep pace in the AFC North. On the other side of the ball, the Colts will be looking to nearly end the race for the AFC South’s top spot as the Texans continue to hang on ever so slightly.
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Both the Ravens and the Browns head into the their games arguably as underdogs–according to the spread, both are three point underdogs–so it’s very possible both end this week at 7-6. If this happens and the Bengals are able to pull out a tough win over the Steelers, the Bengals will own about a 2.5 game lead with three games to go. With a games at Cleveland and at Pittsburgh in Week 15 and 17 respectively, the Bengals will be in control of their own fate.
The Bengals have struggled this year against the league’s best. They’ve also struggled in “big” and prime time games. Over the next four weeks, they’ll have the opportunity to address these issues as all four games are against strong, divisional opponents, or are against the Denver Broncos (in Cincinnati) during Monday Night Football. The Bengals don’t have to necessarily go 4-0, that’s unlikely. But a couple, if not few wins, could re-establish faith in this team during these all-important “big” games. Despite all the struggles this season, the Bengals season starts today. We’ll see what this team is made of during the season’s final stretch.