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Friday, December 11, 2009
Final Word: AFC North

By James Walker
ESPN.com


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Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 14:

Collision course: Expect a hard-hitting contest Sunday between the Cincinnati Bengals (9-3) and Minnesota Vikings (10-2). These are two of the most physical teams in the league, and both have a lot to prove. Minnesota is trying to rebound from a tough loss to the Arizona Cardinals, and Cincinnati is out to show it deserves to be among the elite. Points might be at a premium as both teams have top-10 defenses. The Bengals are ranked fourth in the NFL and first in points allowed. The Vikings are eighth but will be without middle linebacker E.J. Henderson. Therefore, look for the Bengals to shorten the game by giving tailback Cedric Benson 30-plus carries, which would keep the ball out of the hands of  Vikings quarterback Brett Favre and tailback Adrian Peterson.

Jason Bridge/US PRESSWIRE
The Bengals will do everything they can to keep the ball out of Adrian Peterson's hands.


Division wrap: The magic number for the Bengals is one to clinch the AFC North division. This would be the first time Cincinnati accomplished that feat since 2005, which was also the team’s last playoff appearance. The Pittsburgh Steelers (6-7) were eliminated from the division race Thursday in a loss to the Cleveland Browns (2-11). The Baltimore Ravens (6-6) have to win out and Cincinnati would have to go 0-4 the rest of the way for the Ravens to clinch it, because the Bengals own the head-to-head tiebreaker.

Favorable schedule: Despite losing six of their past nine games, the Ravens (6-6) are in a favorable spot when it comes to their schedule. Baltimore plays teams with losing records in its final four games. It starts Sunday against the struggling Detroit Lions (2-10). After that, the Ravens play the Chicago Bears (5-7), Pittsburgh (6-7), and the Oakland Raiders (4-8). These are all considered winnable games for the Ravens, who likely have to run the table to extend their season.

Landmark for Holmes: Although Steelers receiver Santonio Holmes was in no mood to celebrate, he accomplished a goal Thursday that he has waited for his entire career. Holmes caught six passes for 93 yards against Cleveland to go over 1,000 yards receiving for the first time. He barely missed the milestone several times in the NFL and at college at Ohio State. This has been Holmes’ most consistent year to date with Pittsburgh.

Cleveland's D shows up: The Browns entered Week 14 ranked last in total defense. But the unit had its most impressive performance of the season Thursday, holding the Steelers to 216 yards. With nothing to lose, Cleveland defensive coordinator Rob Ryan constantly brought pressure and the defense recorded eight sacks of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Six different players notched sacks. It was the highest team total for Cleveland in seven years.