Here are seven notes and observations from Week 16 in the AFC North:
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Cincinnati Bengals (10-5) coach Marvin Lewis has an interesting decision to make. The team already secured a playoff berth before its Week 17 game against the New York Jets (8-7). The Bengals, currently the fourth seed, could earn the third seed with a win and a loss by the New England Patriots (10-5). That could set up a potential rematch against the San Diego Chargers (12-3) -- avoiding the Indianapolis Colts (14-1) -- in the divisional round. But I don't think it's worth risking injuries. I'm always in favor of resting players when the opportunity presents itself. The Bengals have earned it and will host a wild-card game regardless of Sunday's outcome. So that should be the primary focus. Either way, Lewis' decision will impact a lot of wild-card hopefuls, including the Pittsburgh Steelers (8-7), Denver Broncos (8-7) and Houston Texans (8-7).
Speaking of injuries, the Bengals caught a tough break with rookie linebacker Rey Maualuga. The second-round pick likely is out for the season after suffering an ankle injury during Cincinnati's 17-10 win over the Kansas City Chiefs. But Cincinnati has quality depth at the position. Linebacker Rashad Jeanty is experienced and ready to fill in. He had 15 starts for the Bengals last season.
I try to avoid officiating as much as possible, but let's address the subject. I'm increasingly amazed by how poorly AFC North games are called and Pittsburgh's 23-20 win over the Baltimore Ravens was another example. Two bad calls stood out: The first was an illegal-contact penalty that negated a Ravens interception at the end of the game. It appeared Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had left the pocket, which would have made contact with the receiver allowable. The second was Baltimore receiver Derrick Mason's apparent catch and fumble in the fourth quarter. According to Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, he considered challenging the call but was told by officials that it would be ruled an incomplete pass. These are calls that can impact an entire season.
For those in Steeler Nation on the "fire Bruce Arians" bandwagon, consider the statistics. For the first time in franchise history, Pittsburgh has a 4,000-yard quarterback (Roethlisberger), two 1,000-yard receivers (Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes) and a 1,000-yard rusher (Rashard Mendenhall). Covering the Steelers the past two seasons, I've noticed when things go right it's on Roethlisberger. Yet when things go wrong, it's all on the offensive coordinator. Arians has been by no means perfect, but let's keep things in perspective.
The two best throws I saw from Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco Sunday were incomplete passes. Flacco made a pair of beautiful, pinpoint throws to the corner of the end zone to Mason and tight end Todd Heap. The throw to a wide-open Mason bounced off his hands as he relaxed at the last second. Heap had a more difficult opportunity because he was covered, but Flacco placed the ball where only his tight end could make the play while staying inbounds. Both were big-time throws that will show up on game film but not in the box score.
If you're into trends, there are two that should concern Ravens fans in Week 17. The first is Baltimore is 2-5 on the road this year. The second is the Oakland Raiders have been successful at home against quality teams. The Raiders upset two division leaders in Oakland this year in the Philadelphia Eagles (11-4) and Cincinnati. Four of Oakland's five wins have come against teams currently with winning records. The "Black Hole" can be challenging, especially for a team like Baltimore, which is traveling across the country. Oftentimes visitors can be sluggish after the long trip, and that's something the Ravens will have to combat.
Is Cleveland Browns tailback Jerome Harrison starting material? Earlier this season, I would have said no. But after Harrison gained 434 rushing yards the past two weeks, I'm starting to rethink my assessment. Harrison knows how to accumulate yards. But the two issues that kept him out of the lineup were poor pass protection and toughness between the tackles. Harrison erased some of those concerns with 39 carries for 148 yards in a win over the Raiders. He longest rush was 17 yards, while the rest were hard-earned carries.
Bengals coach Marvin Lewis has to decide whether or not to rest his team Sunday against the Jets.