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Friday, January 4, 2013
Final Word: AFC North

By Jamison Hensley

NFC Final Word: East | West | North AFC: North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about the AFC wild-card playoffs:

Return of Ray: Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, who announced that he will retire at the end of the season, will play in his first game since tearing his triceps Oct. 14. The Ravens have been better against the run this season with Lewis on the field but worse against the pass, according to ESPN Stats & Information. With Lewis, Baltimore has allowed 3.8 yards per rush and 7.6 yards per pass attempt. Without Lewis, the Ravens have given up 4.1 yards per carry and 6.6 yards per throw. This will mark Lewis' 18th playoff game of his career. In the postseason, Lewis has recorded 185 tackles (an average of 10.8 per game), 13 passes defensed, six forced fumbles, two interceptions, two sacks and one touchdown.

Baltimore's Ray Lewis
Ray Lewis returns from the sidelines in what could be his final game.
Fearsome foursome: What makes the Bengals' defense so effective is its ability to generate a pass rush without having to blitz. The Bengals harass quarterbacks with a front four that includes defensive tackle Geno Atkins and defensive ends Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap. Cincinnati had an NFL-high 37 sacks with a four-man rush and and allowed only eight touchdown passes on such pressure, which was tied for second fewest in the league. The Bengals have to get pressure on Texans quarterback Matt Schaub, who has had success against Cincinnati in the past. Schaub is 2-0 against the Bengals with seven touchdowns and one interception. Of the 16 teams he has faced more than once since 2008, Schaub’s Total QBR of 89.4 against the Bengals is his best against any team.

Different coordinator, different quarterback: Joe Flacco has been a different quarterback in three games under new Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell. The average distance of Flacco's passes under Caldwell has been 7.6 yards downfield, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That's down from his average of 9.8 yards downfield in the first 13 games under Cam Cameron this season. Flacco had the worst completion percentage (40.1) on throws more than 10 yards downfield through Week 14. But, by throwing downfield less often, Flacco's efficiency has improved.

Beware of the tip: Andy Dalton becomes the fourth quarterback in NFL history to start a road playoff game in each of his first two seasons, joining Flacco, Mark Sanchez and Shaun King. It's a return postseason trip for Dalton to Houston, where he was undone by a batted pass at the line of scrimmage. Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt picked off Dalton's pass and returned it for a touchdown, the key moment in yet another playoff loss for Cincinnati. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Dalton has had 32 passes batted down or tipped since entering the NFL, which is third most in the NFL. Five of those batted-down passes have come in two games against the Texans' defense.

Postseason panache: Quarterbacks are always aware of where Ed Reed is on the field. Colts rookie quarterback Andrew Luck should really be wary of the Ravens safety because he steps up in the playoffs. Reed has eight interceptions in 11 playoff games, which ranks as the most among active NFL players and is one shy of tying the all-time mark. Luck finished the regular season with 18 interceptions, one shy of league leaders Tony Romo and Drew Brees. However, Luck had seven potential interceptions dropped by defenders, most in the NFL.