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Wednesday, January 2, 2013
Don't expect much noise from AFC North

By Jamison Hensley

This weekend should be a banner one for the AFC North. As for the rest of the postseason, don't expect much.

In the first round, the Bengals and Ravens drew the matchups they wanted. Cincinnati travels to face a Houston team that's unraveling. Baltimore plays at home against a Colts team that has a rookie quarterback and the NFL's 26th-ranked defense.

This could lead to the Bengals' first playoff win since 1990 and the Ravens' fifth straight season with at least one postseason victory. That would be quite an achievement for a Bengals team that lost four straight this season, and a Ravens team that backed into the playoffs. Beyond the wild-card round, the AFC North won't make much noise.

Joe Flacco
Joe Flacco and the Ravens enter the playoffs this season with a roster ravaged by injuries.
The Ravens are too banged up and the Bengals have too many question marks on offense. That's not a desirable combination when you're going up against the likes of Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in the divisional playoffs.

There's no question the Ravens have experience and motivation on their side. Baltimore was one failed catch away from getting to the Super Bowl a year ago.

The expectations for the Ravens would be different if their injury situation was different, especially on defense. Their best cornerback (Lardarius Webb) is done for the season, their most-feared pass-rusher (Terrell Suggs) is playing with one arm because of a biceps injury, their team leader (Ray Lewis) hasn't played since Oct. 14 because of a triceps tear, and their most talented defensive lineman (Haloti Ngata) hasn't been his dominant self because of knee and shoulder injuries. On offense, Baltimore's leading receiver (Anquan Boldin), best offensive lineman (Marshal Yanda) and Pro Bowl fullback (Vonta Leach) are all dealing with injuries.

When you think about it, the Ravens have done a spectacular job of winning the division and going to the playoffs with this extensive injury list. Leading up to last season's AFC title game, the Ravens had one player on the injury report (safety Ed Reed). It's just unreasonable to think the Ravens can put together a strong run when so many of their star players are limping.

Baltimore just doesn't have the feel of a team that is primed to go far in the playoffs. The Ravens lost four of their last five games in the regular season, and no team has gone to the Super Bowl after slumping like that.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh isn't concerned about the lack of momentum.

"It's a whole new season," he said. "It all starts fresh. It's the playoffs. We're all 0-0 at this point."

Harbaugh added, "Whatever team plays the best in the playoffs is going to win it. So if you want to call it getting hot, it's pretty important. Starting this week, whoever plays the best will be the champion."

Based on the past month, the Bengals look like a team that is ready to make a stronger run than the Ravens. Few teams have been hotter than the Bengals. Cincinnati has won seven of its past eight games. The only loss was by one point to Dallas.

Over those past eight games, the Bengals have allowed an average of 12.8 points. Over the past three games (all wins), the Cincinnati defense has recorded nine turnovers, nine sacks and three touchdowns.

“It’s fun to be on the sidelines and watch our defense make plays,” Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton said, “but we’ve got to be able to play well on both sides of the ball.”

That's where the Bengals are vulnerable. This is a playoff-caliber defense. The offense isn't on the same level. There are question marks with Dalton and running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis.

Dalton has taken a step back from his rookie season. He has turned over the ball 20 times (16 interceptions and four fumbles). In his past two full games, he has fumbled twice and been intercepted twice. Dalton has failed to complete half of his passes on third down (47.5 percent) this season, and has had 32 passes batted or tipped since entering the NFL, which is the third-most in the league over that span.

Green-Ellis has been the one carrying the offense in the second half of the season, gaining more than 100 yards in four of his past six games. But he injured his hamstring during pregame warm-ups Sunday and didn't practice Tuesday. Green-Ellis won't be at full strength even if he plays, which puts more pressure on Dalton.

“We definitely need to play better," Dalton said. "We haven’t put our best games out there the last couple, but we’ve been getting wins. Most importantly, we have to do whatever it takes to win the game. We obviously need to step up a little bit more offensively. Whatever it takes to win the game. That’s all that matters going in to the playoffs.”

The AFC North is known for having teams get deep into the playoffs. Over the past four years, four teams have advanced to the AFC title game. But not this time. This is the year for either Manning or Brady, not the Ravens or Bengals.