AFC North Notebook: Going for the clincher

The Cincinnati Bengals will be looking to clinch their third AFC North title in seven seasons.

Tony Avelar/AP

Fresh off a thrilling comeback victory over the Denver Broncos, the Pittsburgh Steelers will now be looking for some help from the Mile High City this Monday night. The first-place Cincinnati Bengals can clinch the AFC North with a victory in Denver while a loss will extend the Steelers’ hopes of retaining their divisional crown into Week 17, provided they get by the woeful Baltimore Ravens this Sunday.

It’s in AJ’s hands

Quarterback AJ McCarron got alma mater Alabama off the schneid — and the Bengals (11-3) in the playoffs — by executing a conservative game plan in Sunday’s 24-14 win over San Francisco. This Sunday, offensive coordinator Hue Jackson is likely going to have to open things up in Denver, which saw its ‘No Fly Zone’ defense carved up by Ben Roethisberger and Antonio Brown on Sunday at Heinz Field. It’s unlikely McCarron will be able to sling the ball around the way Roethlisberger did, especially if A.J. Green continues to be bothered by the back injury that kept him out for most of the 49ers game. 

Relying on the run game isn’t exactly a promising option either, as the Broncos also boast the top rush defense in the NFL. Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard aren’t exactly inspiring confidence after combining for 64 yards on 33 carries in San Francisco. Hill will surely be studying footage from last year’s Monday night victory over Denver, when he rushed for 147 yards and a touchdown. 

The most memorable part of last year’s contest was the four interceptions Peyton Manning threw, including Dre Kirkpatrick’s pick-six late in the fourth quarter that sealed the win. While Manning’s status remains up in the air, the combination of Hill and an opportunistic defense is Cincinnati’s best path to victory and in turn, the AFC North title. 

Steelers-Ravens not the same this time

Normally when the Steelers and Ravens do battle, the records of both teams can be thrown out the window. The Ravens, ravaged by injuries all season long, will be sending out a skelton crew featuring many players who don’t know much about the heated rivalry. This year’s matchup lacks its usual cachet, so much so that it was flexed out of the coveted Sunday prime-time slot. 

Remember when this season’s schedule was first announced and it appeared the Steelers (9-5) had the toughest schedule in the league? As it turns out, Pittsburgh will catch a break by closing out the regular season with dates in Baltimore and Cleveland. While the Steelers now control their own destiny for a wild-card spot, the schedule couldn’t play out any more favorably in a three-way race with the Chiefs and Jets for AFC’s final two seeds. 

In case you missed it, Antonio Brown is unstoppable. Brown has a ridiculous 16 catches for 189 yards against arguably the best secondary in the league, adding two touchdowns against a corner who hadn’t been scored upon in two years. While Brown is licking his chops preparing for the Ravens’ struggling secondary, expect Martavis Bryant to get in on the action as well come Sunday.

No. 1 overall pick looking less likely for Cleveland

There were few bright spots in Cleveland’s 30-13 loss in Seattle. The Browns (3-11) share the league’s worst record with Tennessee, but their 28-14 win over the Titans could mean losing out on the first pick of the draft next year. If the two teams remain the basement by themselves, the head-to-head tiebreaker would send Tennessee to the podium first. The schedule likely won’t help the Browns the rest of the way. Both the Browns and Titans will face teams fighting for postseason spots, but the Chiefs and Steelers make for tougher matchups while the Titans close out against Houston and Indianapolis.

It remains to be seen who will be making the picks at next year’s draft. Another front-office shakeup may be in the cards as the Browns are a combined 10-20 with Ray Farmer and Mike Pettine at the helm. Pettine is the franchise’s eighth head coach in 17 seasons since its return to Cleveland. Pettine has at least one supporter in quarterback Johnny Manziel, not that Manziel has much choice but to say he’s behind the current coaching staff. After all the feeling may not be mutual

Offensive guard John Greco will miss the final two games after suffering a knee injury in Seattle. Dwayne Bowe caught two passes for 22 yards in the defeat, increasing his total to five and driving his price per reception down to $1.25 million. 

 

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