The Ravens, Steelers and Bengals would all advance to the postseason if the season ended today, but they all learned there's little margin for error after their Week 12 games.
All three teams won by a combined 17 points and all won in the fourth quarter. The Ravens continued to finish games strong at home, outscoring the 49ers 10-0 in the fourth to break a 6-6 tie. The Steelers won their second straight game by their defense forcing a turnover late in the fourth quarter. And the Bengals won for the fifth time this season after trailing in the fourth.
By the top three teams in the division winning, this shows there's going to be little margin of error for the Ravens (8-3), Steelers (8-3) and Bengals (7-4) to capture the AFC North title. With five weeks remaining, it's looking like a team is going to have to win at least 12 games to win the division this year.
Close races have defined the AFC North the previous four seasons. In 2010, the Steelers and the Ravens both finished 12-4 but Pittsburgh won the tiebreaker with a better win percentage in division games. In 2009, Cincinnati earned the division title by going 10-6, which was one game better than both Baltimore and Pittsburgh (the Bengals also held the tiebreaker by sweeping the division). In 2008, the Steelers took the AFC North with a 12-4 record, one game ahead of Baltimore. And in 2007, the Steelers and Browns finished 10-6, but Pittsburgh took the title because it swept Cleveland.
This is what we learned from the AFC North teams this past week: The Ravens still play their best against the best (in beating the team with the second-best record in the NFL). The Steelers can still win without being sharp on offense and being without two playmakers (Troy Polamalu and LaMarr Woodley) on defense). The Bengals aren't going away after losing to Baltimore and Pittsburgh. And the Browns aren't going to be December pushovers if they continue to fight like they did at Cincinnati.
Here is what the local columnists are saying:
BENGALS: Rookie wide receiver A.J. Green is making these game-breaking performances look easy, according to The Cincinnati Enquirer's Paul Daugherty. "It's dismissive of his talent to suggest A.J. Green simply gallops under footballs the way Willie Mays chased flyballs," Daugherty wrote. "It doesn't account for Green's practice time, video room diligence or his abiding confidence. It's not exactly accurate either, to say that Red Dalton simply confers with Green in the huddle and says, 'Go long. I'll hit you.' But damned if it doesn't look that way."
BROWNS: The Cleveland Plain Dealer's Terry Pluto puts in perspective how another chance at victory slips through Cleveland's grasp. "The Browns need to win a game like this, against an AFC North opponent on the road," Pluto wrote. "They need it not only to show their fans that there is progress, but to convince themselves. Instead, their Pro Bowler snapper Ryan Pontibriand admits, 'I'm in a pretty tough slump.' It's the second time in the last three weeks that his bouncing snaps have led to bungled boots in key situations."
RAVENS: The Baltimore Sun's Peter Schmuck says the lack of a running-game swagger will hurt the Ravens in the playoffs. "The decision to run outside right tackle against the quick 49ers defense left the Ravens with a third down at the five and Joe Flacco was tackled for no gain on an apparent quarterback draw to set up the chip shot field goal by Billy Cundiff," Schmuck wrote. "No big disaster. The three points still looked like a gift after the long penalty wiped out an interception, but the Ravens are likely to regret leaving four points on the field in that kind of situation in the postseason."
STEELERS: The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ron Cook thinks Tyler Palko's errors saved the Steelers. "For the Steelers, this was a good night for Palko's largesse," Cook wrote. "They easily could have lost without it and blown any chance of finishing ahead of the Baltimore Ravens in the division. They played that poorly on offense and coached that poorly, period."