- James Walker, ESPN Staff Writer
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Here are seven notes and observations from Week 17 in the AFC North:
Let's start with the Cleveland Browns and their coaching situation. President Mike Holmgren is expected to meet with Browns head coach Eric Mangini at 9 a.m. ET Monday where all indications are that Mangini will be fired. Mangini entered the year on the hot seat and won just five games for the second straight year. He's 10-22 in two seasons and Cleveland ended on a four-game losing skid, capped by an embarrassing, 41-9 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday. Holmgren probably made up his mind a couple of weeks ago when the Browns lost back-to-back games to the Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals. But the past two weeks against Pittsburgh and the Baltimore Ravens proved to be further confirmation Cleveland hasn't made enough progress to bring Mangini back for a third season.
If Cincinnati Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis expects major changes in the organization, then he's probably not coming back for a ninth season. ESPN's Adam Schefter reported Lewis will not stay with the Bengals unless significant upgrades are made. Lewis hinted at similar demands last offseason, but the Bengals finished 4-12 and he has no leverage this time. Coming off a Coach of the Year award and a playoff appearance in 2009, Lewis still didn't get what he wanted and, thus, didn't sign an extension. The AFC North blog reported earlier this season that one point of contention was the lack of an indoor practice facility. Bengals owner Mike Brown is extremely difficult to budge when it comes to spending millions of his dollars when, in his mind, it isn't necessary. That's been Brown's history, and it seems very unlikely he would suddenly change in the next couple of days. Therefore, both sides appear headed for a mutual parting this week.
Looking ahead to both coaching searches, neither job is very attractive. Cleveland is more desirable than Cincinnati because Browns owner Randy Lerner is willing to pour a lot of money and resources into his team. Cleveland also has a solid front office and scouting department led by Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert. Also keep in mind, both jobs have the brutal task of trying to beat the Steelers and Ravens twice a year, which will certainly weigh heavily in the minds of potential candidates. Therefore, even if the Browns tried to make a run at a top-tier coach like Jon Gruden, he will probably have better options and decline. That would make Holmgren and former Carolina Panthers coach John Fox among the early favorites. As president, of course, Holmgren has the first shot at the job if he wants it. In Cincinnati, the Bengals also have an in-house favorite lined up in defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, who received a three-year extension last year. He will come relatively cheap and the players are familiar with his system.
For those looking forward to the NFL draft, the Bengals will have the No. 4 overall pick in April, and the Browns hold the No. 6 pick. Both teams will have a chance to land an impact player in these slots.
I have mixed feelings about altering playoff seeding, because winning your division is a solid accomplishment and teams deserve to be awarded. But when a seven-win team (Seattle Seahawks) gets a home game and a 12-win team (Baltimore) is on the road probably for the entire playoffs, something is wrong. The Ravens are just one of four teams with 12 victories this season. They had significantly better seasons than Seattle (7-9), Indianapolis (10-6), Philadelphia (10-6) and Kansas City (10-6). Yet all of these aforementioned teams will host playoff games. The Ravens are being penalized for having another powerhouse (Pittsburgh) in their division, while these other teams do not.
Here is an early wild-card angle to watch: Ravens receiver Anquan Boldin will face Todd Haley, Boldin's former offensive coordinator in Arizona and current head coach with Kansas City. Boldin got into a much-publicized shouting match on the sidelines with Haley during the playoffs two years ago with the Cardinals. Both parties have since moved on, but there could be some attention drawn to it since their first reunion comes in a must-win game. Expect Boldin to brush off the topic. But I'm sure deep down he would rather send Haley home packing this season than have it the other way around.
The Steelers will host a divisional-round game on Jan. 15 at Heinz Field as the No. 2 seed, and it could be one of three opponents. Here is the breakdown: If the Colts beat the Jets Saturday night, Indianapolis will go to Pittsburgh regardless of the outcome of Sunday's wild-card game. If the Jets win, Pittsburgh will await the winner of Baltimore and Kansas City. The Steelers matchup well with all of those teams. But I'm sure most followers of the AFC North would prefer Baltimore and Pittsburgh to meet in the AFC title game, not in the second round.