Can Ravens, Bengals spoil playoff party?

January, 4, 2010
1/04/10
1:21
AM ET
Palmer/FlaccoUS PresswireCarson Palmer's Bengals and Joe Flacco's Ravens have been unpredictable this season.

The Indianapolis Colts have the NFL’s best record.

The San Diego Chargers are the league’s hottest team.

The New England Patriots are always a title threat with quarterback Tom Brady.

But what about the sleeper teams in the AFC North?

For the second year in a row, the division has two teams looking to spoil the playoff party. The Cincinnati Bengals (10-6) won the AFC North and will play host to the New York Jets (9-7) in a rematch of Sunday's 37-0 loss. The Baltimore Ravens (9-7) are a wild card and will travel to play New England (10-6) in another rematch from the regular season.

Last year the Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers dominated the AFC playoffs. Both wound up competing in the conference title game, with Pittsburgh moving on to win its sixth Super Bowl.

Can this year's AFC North representatives do similar damage?

The Bengals and Ravens have been unpredictable this season. Both teams have the talent to win in the playoffs. But there are also reasons to make you think each team could be one and done.

The Bengals are backing into the playoffs as losers of three of their past four games. Cincinnati last made the postseason in 2005 and experienced an early exit in the wild-card round, losing to the Steelers. But this year's team appears to be more mature, despite the Bengals not showing up Sunday against the Jets.

Cincinnati quarterback Carson Palmer, 30, realizes winning big games has an impact on how he will be remembered. Palmer has put up gaudy statistics throughout his career, but they haven't translated to playoff victories. This season, Palmer's arm is a complementary piece to Cincinnati's heavy-duty running game, led by tailback Cedric Benson.

A rematch against the Jets will not be easy.

New York is a very physical team which runs the football and plays great defense. The Jets held the Bengals to only 72 yards of offense Sunday. In the playoffs it could come down to which team is able to establish its physicality.

It's no surprise Baltimore is in the playoffs. The Ravens entered the season as a strong Super Bowl contender following last year's successful postseason run. But inconsistent play landed the Ravens a wild card.

Penalties and struggles in the secondary are Baltimore's biggest concerns. The Ravens have to be more efficient in both areas against New England.

This is the third meeting between the Ravens and Patriots in the past three seasons. New England won the first two games by a total of nine points, including a 27-21 victory this season on Oct. 4.

The season-ending knee injury to Patriots receiver Wes Welker could be huge for the Ravens. That should help Baltimore's secondary try to stop dangerous receiver Randy Moss.

With the Ravens and Bengals involved in separate wild-card games, next week will be very interesting for the AFC North. The division has another chance to dramatically impact the conference's playoff landscape.

James Walker | email

ESPN Miami Dolphins reporter

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