Here are seven notes and observations from Week 13 in the AFC North:
Barring an unforeseen collapse, Marvin Lewis of the Cincinnati Bengals (9-3) deserves strong consideration for coach of the year in 2009. It's hard to make Lewis the front-runner when two teams potentially could go 16-0. But Lewis should be firmly in the conversation with Sean Payton of the New Orleans Saints (12-0) and Jim Caldwell of the Indianapolis Colts (12-0) for the job he's doing this season in Cincinnati, where winning is never easy. Cincinnati's 23-13 victory over the Detroit Lions on Sunday guaranteed the Bengals will finish with a winning record. Last year they were 4-11-1. There's also potential for Cincinnati to secure the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs and a first-round bye.
The biggest indicator of how well Cincinnati is playing defensively is the fact it leads the NFL in fewest points allowed with 187. Opponents are averaging only 15.6 points per game, which takes a lot of pressure off quarterback Carson Palmer and the offense. Only twice have opponents scored 21 points or more against the Bengals.
Last week I received some heat in our AFC North inbox when I stated Pittsburgh didn’t appear to be playoff worthy. I was simply trusting my eyes and basing it on the lack of quality football in recent weeks. Although I'm surprised the Steelers lost to the Oakland Raiders at home, Pittsburgh played the same way Sunday that it had played for the past month, which is why they plan on making significant changes. The Steelers have the potential to play better and get hot in December. But as I mentioned in this column last week, the difference in the way they're playing right now and this time a year ago is like night and day.
The Steelers will make an interesting decision at cornerback. Starter William Gay is expected to miss Thursday's game against the Cleveland Browns because of a concussion. So Pittsburgh will go with rookies Joe Burnett and Keenan Lewis as his replacement. Neither has gotten much playing time, and that was apparent Sunday when Burnett dropped an easy interception in the fourth quarter that could have beaten Oakland. Can these first-year players respond in the clutch?
Browns quarterback Brady Quinn is making it tough on the organization to figure out its future plans for the position -- and that’s a good thing. Quinn had his second solid game in three weeks against the San Diego Chargers. He threw for 271 yards, three touchdowns and had a passer rating of 95.7. The Browns may dangle Quinn as trade bait in the offseason or at least look to acquire another potential starter in 2010 via free agency or the draft. It's early. But a few more quality starts by Quinn in the final month could leave Cleveland with one fewer hole to fill in the offseason.
If Quinn remains the quarterback, it will be vital for the Browns to acquire a good, pass-catching tight end in the offseason. Despite a good performance Sunday, odds are new signee Evan Moore (six catches, 80 yards) isn't the long-term solution. Quinn is in his comfort zone when he can make quick reads to his tight ends and running backs as safety valves. On Sunday, 15 of his 25 completions were to those two positions. One of the biggest mistakes Cleveland made last offseason was not getting another pass-catching tight end after trading Kellen Winslow Jr. The team signed Robert Royal instead, and he hasn't been a good fit for Quinn or the offense.
Looking at the schedule of the Baltimore Ravens (6-5), a road win Monday night against the Green Bay Packers could set them up nicely to make a strong push for the playoffs. Starting next week, the Ravens have back-to-back home dates against the Lions (2-10) and Chicago Bears (5-7). Those are two very winnable games that could make the Ravens 9-5 with two games remaining if they can get past the Packers. The Denver Broncos (8-4) and Jacksonville Jaguars (7-5) are the current wild cards and have tough games this week against the Colts (12-0) and Miami Dolphins (6-6), respectively.