A two-horse race for the AFC North can reach the finish line this Sunday, but based on recent history, it’s going to be a photo finish.
The first-place Bengals (10-2) will host the 7-5 Steelers with a chance to clinch the division for the second time in three seasons. Pittsburgh claimed the division last year with a 27-17 win over Cincinnati in the regular season finale. The two teams played to a sluggish 16-10 win for the Bengals in Week 8 at Heinz Field. The Steelers carved up the Bengals in last Decmeber’s visit to Paul Brown Stadium for a 42-21 victory.
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With a seemingly insurmountable three-game lead and four games remaining, Cincinnati has its eyes on a bigger prize. Unable to get out of the first round of the playoffs the last four seasons, the Bengals can punch their ticket to the divisional round by holding on to one of the top two seeds in the AFC. They currently sit atop the conference thanks a three-way tiebreaker with the Broncos and Patriots. Even with a loss to Pittsburgh, a Week 16 Monday night clash with Denver will likely determine the Bengals’ fortunes.
UP NEXT: vs. Steelers (L), at 49ers (W), at Broncos (L), vs. Ravens (W)
PREDICTION: 12-4, first place in AFC North
Steelers offense firing on all cylinders
Before the season, Ben Roethlisberger said his offense was capable of putting up 30 points every game. The Steelers have made that prediction come to fruition over the last four games, setting a single-season franchise record for consecutive games with 30-plus points. They also have notched 450 yards offensively in four straight contests, tying an NFL single-season record.
Injuries and suspensions have been a big hurdle for the Steelers to climb, but now that Roethlisberger is healthy, the offense is on fire at just the right time. Currently on the outside looking in as the seventh seed in the AFC, the Steelers will need to continue their winning ways in December to leapfrog the Chiefs and/or Jets. Pittsburgh’s 45-10 win over Indianapolis on Sunday night was its eighth straight December win, sharing the longest active streak with the Carolina Panthers.
The Steelers won’t have Le’Veon Bell to shred the Bengals defense has he did last year in Cincinnati, but DeAngelo Williams has proven to more than an adequate replacement, something Pittsburgh did not have last year. Williams’ presence allows Todd Haley to remain balanced on offense and keep def
enses from focusing exclusively on Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and company.
UP NEXT: at Bengals (W), vs. Broncos (W), at Ravens (W), at Browns (W)
PREDICTION: 11-5, second place in AFC North (wild card)
Decimation of Baltimore’s roster continues
Just about every position on the Ravens’ depth chart has been ravaged by injuries, particularly on the offensive side of the ball, where 11 players sit on injured reserve out of 17 total for Baltimore. Already missing second-round pick Maxx Williams due to a concussion, fellow tight end Crockett Gillmore was forced out of Sunday’s loss with a back injury, leaving rookie Nick Boyle as the only healthy tight end in Miami. Adding insult to injury, Boyle was just suspended four games for violating the league’s PED policy, leaving the Ravens scrambling to find healthy bodies. Konrad Reuland was promoted from the practice squad and free agent Richard Gordon was also signed.
The Ravens will limp to the finish line with a very tough four games ahead, beginning with Sunday’s home date against Seattle. Rookie Javorius Allen has been a revelation at running back the last two games, especially in the passing game. Allen has four games to show that he is capable of being the team’s workhorse of the future.
Quarterback Joe Flacco had surgery Tuesday morning to repair the torn ACL he suffered in Week 11 against St. Louis.
UP NEXT: vs. Seahawks (L), vs. Chiefs (W), vs. Steelers (L), vs. Bengals (L)
PREDICTION: 5-11, 3rd in AFC North
Manziel back as the starter with potential No. 1 overall pick on deck
Surprise, surprise, the Browns are in disarray in December. With the NFL’s worst record at 2-10, the Browns have the inside track at the first overall pick in 2016. It’s no lock that the current regime will be making that selection, and Johnny Manziel will get another chance to dissuade management from making it a quarterback.
The team announced Tuesday that Manziel will return to start this Sunday against San Francisco after a two-game punishment for an off field incident. Manziel follows Austin Davis, who struggled against the Bengals on Sunday with little help. After Travis Benjamin’s exit earlier in the first quarter, Davis’ receivers were Brian Hartline, practice squadder Darius Jennings, and special teamer Marlon Moore, who also missed about a quarter with a rib injury.
Benjamin isn’t expected to miss time, but don’t be surprised to see free-agent bust Dwayne Bowe or the recently re-signed Terrelle Pryor back in uniform this Sunday.
Getting back to Manziel, you have to wonder if Mike Pettine is fully on board with the decision. He clearly wasn’t happy with Manziel’s "violation of trust" and even admitted Monday that the front office isn’t 100 percent on the same page. Knowing the Browns’ history of having an itchy triger finger, Pettine knows that he may be coaching for his job, and Manziel could help him save it if he can play like he did in Pittsburgh back in Week 10. However, the opposing defenses he’ll be facing are no day at the park.
UP NEXT: vs. 49ers (W), at Seahawks (L), at Chiefs (L), vs. Steelers (L)