AFC North Stretch Drive Starts Tonight

The parade of prime-time clunkers in the NFL continues. Over a two-week span we’ve gotten games like Philadelphia-Seattle and San Diego-Jacksonville and now can look ahead to St. Louis-Seattle on Monday Night. At least the Thursday Night fare offers one contending team in Pittsburgh, although playing at home against Cleveland it’s tough to imagine this will be much of a game. Whether the Steelers cover the (-14) number is really all the interest this game holds. Or if you’re a betting man, maybe you want to look at the totals line of 38.5. If Cleveland can be held in single digits the Under could be in play.

But the Notebook isn’t a handicapping site though, only occasionally making forays into some losing opinions on betting props, so we’ll instead use today to take an overview look at the AFC North race as we come into the final four weeks. The Steelers would join the Ravens and Bengals in making the playoffs if the season ended today. Pittsburgh is also tied for first with Baltimore at 9-3 although the Ravens two head-to-head wins give them the edge. Cincinnati is at 7-5 and the division title isn’t in serious play, and the Bengals are focused on holding off the 6-5 Jets & Titans for the last AFC wild-card berth. Here’s the rundown on where each team is at in the homestretch…

Baltimore: The Ravens are the most complete team in this division and probably in the entire AFC, but they have these hiccups that suggest a focus problem not appropriate for a championship contender. They’ve lost to Seattle and Jacksonville and have a tendency to play down to their competition. It is important to note that both upset losses have taken place on the road, so even if they play down in home dates with Indianapolis on Sunday and Cleveland in Week 16, it’s hard to see them actually losing. They also have a key road date at San Diego, a game they’ll have to be ready for. Right now it’s scheduled as the Sunday Night game, although looks likely to be flexed out. They end the season with a big one at Cincinnati. What Baltimore needs to do is make sure they focus on their strength, which is running the ball with Ray Rice and then throwing the ball downfield to Torrey Smith and Anquan Bolding. They get in trouble with they try and finesse it too much. Just run and throw deep.

Pittsburgh: Mike Tomlin continues to do an outstanding coaching job with this team. The offensive line isn’t nearly what it’s been in recent years and the running game has appropriately fallen off, but working with Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers still score enough to win. The defense has problems on the corners, is nicked up across the linebacking spots and at both safeties, but keeps delivering. By rights, the Steelers should be out of the playoff chase. Instead, they’re chasing another Super Bowl shot. LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison bring tremendous pressure off the edge from the outside linebacker spots and Troy Polamulu is still the big-play threat in the secondary. What the Steelers really have going for them as the schedule. After tonight they get Cleveland again and also play the Rams. Where the season swings is a Monday Night date in San Francisco next week. Win that, get to 13-3 and they only need Baltimore to stumble once down the stretch, which moves Tomlin’s team into the #1 seeding position in the playoffs. Another scheduling caveat—the Steelers get 11 days to get ready for the 49ers, but with Christmas Eve as the next date, they have only five to prepare for the Rams.

Cincinnati: The Bengals are sure and steady, but with a low ceiling, making them the perfect contrast to the Jets who are wild and inconsistent with a high ceiling. It adds up to a great storyline for the playoff push. Cincinnati has three home games, but playing Houston on Sunday and Baltimore in the season finale are no cakewalks, and even Arizona isn’t a sure thing. Taking care of business on a road trip to St. Louis is a must. Marvin Lewis has put together a very good defense here in the Queen City, but it’s not one that can really get after the quarterback and wreak havoc. Cincinnati’s low ceiling has also shown in an 0-3 record against their two key division rivals.

The Week 17 game with Cincinnati-Baltimore has a good chance of being the most consequential game of the entire regular season. It’s well possible that the division title, the #1 seed in the AFC playoffs and the final playoff berth would all be riding on the outcome of that game. It’s going to be an interesting stretch run in the AFC North and it starts tonight in the Steel City.