Here are seven notes and observations from Week 12 in the AFC North:
Expect plenty of behind-the-scenes conversations at Cincinnati Bengals headquarters regarding quarterback Carson Palmer's future. The face of the franchise is no longer playing like it, and the Bengals have to decide if it's worth continuing to make Palmer the team's highest-paid player. Palmer, who has five multi-interception games this season, is due a base salary of $11.5 million in 2011. That puts him near the top of the entire NFL, despite a stark decline in production. In our opinion, still paying Palmer like an elite quarterback wouldn't make much sense for the Bengals. Cincinnati also could ask Palmer to take a pay cut, but there's no guarantee Palmer would accept, especially for a rebuilding team. That would back Cincinnati into a corner to either pay the high salary or release Palmer and allow him to become a free agent for the first time in his career. This will be one of the biggest offseason decisions in the entire division.
Cincinnati's call on Palmer also will weigh heavily on the team's draft plans. If the Bengals keep Palmer, don't expect them to draft a quarterback in the top five, which is where Cincinnati is expected to land. Palmer already has a $118.75 million contract with the team, and a top-five pick next year could command anywhere between $50-$75 million. That's too much money tied into one position, which is why the Bengals have to decide one way or the other between Palmer or starting over next year with a rookie quarterback.
Speaking of quarterbacks, Joe Flacco of the Baltimore Ravens continues to show growth in his third season. In Sunday's win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Flacco threw for 289 yards, two touchdowns and had a 103.2 passer rating. It was the sixth time this season that Flacco has eclipsed a 100-plus passer rating. Baltimore is 5-1 in those games, with the only loss coming in overtime to the New England Patriots.
If you're looking for a major difference between last year and this year with the Ravens, the team has been fortunate to avoid major injuries. The Ravens are one of the healthier NFL teams heading into December. They dodged a few scares, including Sunday when left tackle Michael Oher (knee) and safety Dawan Landry (concussion) were knocked out of the game. Both players were in the locker room Sunday evening and said they will be fine for Sunday's showdown against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
At some point, the Steelers have to take better ownership in cleaning up their penalties. The past two weeks have been atrocious, as the Steelers recorded 24 penalties for 270 yards. Yes, there have been questionable calls in that span -- Steelers linebacker James Harrison earned another debatable personal foul Sunday against Buffalo -- but many of those two-dozen flags are legit. Giving up this many free yards likely will get Pittsburgh beat next week.
Is Cleveland Browns running back Peyton Hillis Pro Bowl worthy? The AFC North blog thinks it's time to strongly consider his candidacy. Hillis added another 131 yards rushing and three touchdowns in a win over the Carolina Panthers. He has 905 rushing yards, leads the Browns in receptions (46) and became only the third running back in team history to record 11 or more rushing touchdowns in a season. But there is stiff competition at running back in the AFC. Hills has no chance of winning the fan voting because he isn't a household name and plays for a losing team. So his nod would have to come from opposing players and coaches, who select the reserves.
Finally, we want to give a special "Seven-step drop" congratulations to AFC North alums Jerome Bettis, Art Modell, Dermontti Dawson and Kevin Greene. They were all selected as semifinalists for the Hall of Fame Class of 2011. Finalists will be chosen at a later date and the selection process will continue through Super Bowl week in February, when the 2011 class is announced.