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Thursday, November 19, 2009
AFC North playoff forecast

By James Walker
ESPN.com

Palmer/Lewis/Roethlisberger
A lot has to happen, but it's still possible for three AFC North teams to land a spot in the playoffs.
It's obvious that the AFC North is one of the stronger divisions in football.

The Cincinnati Bengals (7-2), Baltimore Ravens (5-4) and defending champion Pittsburgh Steelers (6-3)  have winning records, star power, good quarterback play and hard-nosed defenses.

But can the AFC North get three teams into this season's playoff field?  The AFC North blog and Scouts Inc. examine the possibilities.

Cincinnati Bengals (7-2)

With the Denver Broncos fading, the Bengals are now the NFL's biggest surprise through nine games.  Cincinnati, with a strong running game and physical defense, is built like an AFC North team for the first time under coach Marvin Lewis.

Perhaps the biggest feat for Cincinnati is that it is  4-0 against the Ravens and Steelers, which gives the Bengals the head-to-head tiebreaker and makes it very hard to be surpassed by either rival down the stretch. Cincinnati is essentially two games ahead of Pittsburgh and three games ahead of Baltimore with seven games remaining.

"That’s huge," said Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. "I think [a playoff berth] is more or less clinched for Cincinnati with that win over Pittsburgh last week. They'll probably sweep the division, although the wins against the Browns are inconsequential. But when you look at the rest of their schedule, it doesn't look that difficult."

The remaining schedule leans heavily in Cincinnati's favor. The Bengals have a golden opportunity to pad their playoff résumé in games against the Oakland Raiders (2-7), Cleveland Browns (1-8) and Detroit Lions (1-8) in the next three weeks.

If Cincinnati takes care of business, it will be 10-2 after this stretch and in prime position to secure a home playoff game and a possible bye. Even one slip-up would give the Bengals a solid 9-3 mark with four games remaining, which would make them very hard to catch in the AFC North.

Cincinnati has been known to choke in the past. But these aren't the same old Bengals.

Scouts Inc. on Cincinnati's chances of making playoffs: 85-90 percent

Comment: "They’re in unless something major happens, like Carson Palmer goes down," Williamson said.

Pittsburgh Steelers (6-3)

The Steelers had their season-best five-game winning streak snapped in Week 10 by the Bengals, but remain in good standing at 6-3. But after getting swept by Cincinnati, the defending Super Bowl champions could be aiming for the wild-card route to the playoffs.

"They’re very dangerous, and they’re still a contender," Williamson said. "I don’t think it would faze them one bit to go back to Cincinnati -- they’ve won a ton of games in that stadium -- or to go to Indianapolis or anywhere. If Troy Polamalu is healthy, they can play with anybody."

When it comes to the three AFC North playoff hopefuls, Pittsburgh’s schedule is in the middle. The Steelers don't have it as tough as the Ravens, but they don't have as many cupcakes remaining as Cincinnati, either.

The toughest challenge will be two rivalry games with the Ravens. These are always among the most physically demanding on Pittsburgh's schedule. Last season, the Steelers edged the Ravens in a trio of classic meetings, which included a win in the AFC Championship Game that propelled Pittsburgh to its sixth Super Bowl title.

Baltimore may need to repay the favor and sweep Pittsburgh this season to leapfrog the Steelers. The outcome of both meetings could lead to only one of these AFC North rivals making the postseason.

Scouts Inc. on Pittsburgh's chances of making playoffs: 75-80 percent

Comment: "They’re probably a 10- or 11-win team when it's all said and done. That’s going to get them into the playoffs and they’re going to be dangerous," Williamson said.

Baltimore Ravens (5-4)

Several close losses early in the season have put the talented but inconsistent Ravens in a tight spot.

Baltimore must go at least 5-2 in its final seven games to finish 10-6 and have a shot at one of the two wild-card spots. Working in its favor are head-to-head tiebreakers over the Broncos (6-3) and San Diego Chargers (6-3). There is a good chance the Ravens will be chasing one of those teams in the final weeks of the regular season.

But Houston Texans (5-4), Jacksonville Jaguars (5-4), Miami Dolphins (4-5) and New York Jets (4-5) are in the wild-card mix as well.

The recent knee injury to Pro Bowl defensive end/linebacker Terrell Suggs is a huge blow to Baltimore. Browns quarterback Brady Quinn hit an unsuspecting Suggs low after throwing an interception, knocking Suggs out for an extended period.

"Suggs is pretty close to irreplaceable on that defense," Williamson said. "Everybody knows he’s a good pass-rusher. But everybody doesn’t realize how sound he is against the run and how much he has improved as a coverage player. Suggs does a lot of things for them, and he's the key that allows them to switch from a 3-4 to a 4-3 in a whim."

Baltimore's tough stretch starts Sunday with a meeting against the 9-0 Indianapolis Colts. The Ravens also have two meetings against the Steelers and a road game against the Green Bay Packers (5-4) on Dec. 7. Baltimore must at least split those four games and run the table against the Raiders, Chicago Bears (4-5) and Lions for its best shot.

Scouts Inc. on Baltimore's chances of making playoffs: 40-45 percent

Comment: "I don’t feel good about Baltimore's chances. ... Two games with Pittsburgh, Sunday against Indy and at Green Bay. I would pick against them in every one of those games right now," Williamson said.