Here are seven thoughts and observations from Week 14 in the AFC North:
It took a three-interception game from quarterback Joe Flacco in Week 13 to get the Baltimore Ravens (7-6) to go back to their successful blueprint of 2008. Although it was against the awful Detroit Lions (2-11), Baltimore made it a point to take the air out of the football and pound its opponent into submission. The Ravens had a run-to-pass ratio of 40-to-23. That led to Baltimore recording a season-high 308 yards rushing. Also, the Ravens improved to 4-0 this year when Flacco has fewer than 30 passing attempts.Larry French/Getty Images
I've alluded to this briefly in the AFC North blog, but Ravens tailback Ray Rice deserves to be in the Pro Bowl. Rice is not popular enough nor plays in a big enough market to get the fan vote. So it's going to be up to the NFL coaches and players to put him in as a reserve. I'm sure Rice will get the Lions' vote after rushing for 166 yards and a touchdown. He eclipsed 1,000 yards rushing and also has 68 receptions for 652 yards out of the backfield. Baltimore would not be anywhere near the playoff hunt without Rice's production.
It turns out the Minnesota Vikings (11-2) were just an awful matchup for the Cincinnati Bengals (9-4). After watching these two teams play Sunday, it's pretty clear Minnesota has the type of personnel the Bengals have trouble with. The Vikings have a great pass rush, and the Bengals, at times, cannot pass protect. Minnesota can spread the field offensively with multiple receivers, and the Bengals don't have much depth in the secondary. Then there is the star power of Brett Favre, Adrian Peterson and Antoine Winfield, who all showed up in a big game. The Bengals don't have that kind of elite talent to match. It was the perfect recipe for a 30-10 win for the Vikings. Luckily for Cincinnati, not many teams are built this way in the AFC.
You have to wonder if Cincinnati receiver Laveranues Coles, who turns 32 this month, is running out of gas late in the season. Coles struggled to get open against Minnesota and was held without a reception for just the second time this year. He also wasn't targeted once, which is rare for a starting receiver. Coles has just six catches in his past four games, which is an average of 1.5 receptions per game. The Bengals need a second wind from Coles for the playoff run.
A hot topic currently in Cleveland is whether Browns (2-11) coach Eric Mangini's job is safe after a 13-6 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers. If there was one game Mangini needed to win, it was against the Steelers. So this definitely helps his case. But it will be interesting to see if Mangini can keep the Browns motivated to play at a high level against the Kansas City Chiefs and Oakland Raiders of the world. That is what Cleveland owner Randy Lerner likely will look for down the stretch.
Last week defensive end Corey Williams played his best game to date in a Browns uniform. Williams had five tackles and two sacks against the Steelers, which marked his first multi-sack game with Cleveland. Williams is a natural 4-3 defensive lineman who struggled for two years to fit in a 3-4 scheme. Williams’ strong point is getting to the quarterback, and Browns defensive coordinator Rob Ryan finally put those skills on display with solid results.
The defending champions may not like the sound of this, but the Steelers have a great opportunity to play spoiler for the next three weeks. Pittsburgh is scheduled to play all wild-card contenders down the stretch in the Green Bay Packers (9-4), Ravens (7-6) and Miami Dolphins (7-6). If the Steelers (6-7) get their act together, they have enough talent to beat all of these aforementioned teams. So even if Pittsburgh can't get into the postseason, the team could have a lot of say in who does.
Though unlikely to be chosen, Baltimore tailback Ray Rice has made a strong case to be selected for the Pro Bowl.