AFC North: 2012 Week 15 coverage

DALLAS -- A few thoughts on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 27-24 loss to the Dallas Cowboys at Cowboys Stadium:

What it means: This one had to hurt. The Steelers could’ve moved to within a game of the first-place Baltimore Ravens with a victory. Instead, they’re bringing up the rear in the race for a wild-card spot. At 7-7, Pittsburgh is now two games behind Indianapolis and one behind fellow AFC North rival Cincinnati. That’s not a good place to be with two games left in the season.

The Good: As talented as tight end Heath Miller is, the Steelers aren’t going to reach the playoffs with him as their primary receiver. He caught five passes for 74 yards in the first half while only one wideout -- Antonio Brown -- produced a reception. This game turned when the Steelers found a way to get their big-play receivers involved. Mike Wallace had a huge 60-yard catch in the third quarter to set up a touchdown. Jericho Cotchery had a key 21-yard reception that led to a seven-yard grab by Brown that gave the Steelers a 24-17 lead. These efforts didn’t just energize the Steelers, they reinforced the notion that big plays are the only way this team is going to generate offense.

The Bad: Special teams killed Pittsburgh on Sunday. First, Cowboys linebacker Victor Butler stripped Antonio Brown on a potential, game-breaking punt return midway through the fourth quarter. Dallas tight end John Phillips recovered the fumble at the Pittsburgh 44-yard line and DeMarco Murray tied the game at 24 on a 3-yard touchdown run seven plays later. If Brown had held onto that ball, the Steelers could’ve clinched the game. Pittsburgh also avoided another near disaster when Cowboys returner Dwayne Harris produced a 39-yard return with 47 seconds remaining. That return gave Dallas a shot at winning the game in regulation but the Steelers forced the Cowboys to punt.

The Ugly: No question about this one. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw an ill-fated pass on the second play of overtime and Cowboys cornerback Brandon Carr snared it on a diving interception. Carr’s 36-yard return set up the game-winning, 21-yard field goal by Dan Bailey. For all of Big Ben’s big plays on this evening, that was the mistake he couldn’t afford to make.

The Usual: The Steelers have struggled to run the ball all season. Nothing changed on Sunday. Aside from a 22-yard gain by Isaac Redman, Pittsburgh gained just 47 yards on 16 carries.

Wrap-up: Redskins 38, Browns 21

December, 16, 2012

My thoughts on the Cleveland Browns' 38-21 loss to the Washington Redskins:

What it means: The Browns' faint playoff hopes ended along with their three-game win streak. This drops the Browns to 5-9 and clinches their 12th losing season in 14 years since returning to the league. The 38 points were the second most allowed by Cleveland this season (the Browns gave up 41 points to the Giants). The Redskins (8-6) won their fifth straight game to move into a tie for first place in the NFC East.

No RG III, no problem: The Browns thought they had caught a break when Robert Griffin III was ruled out with a knee injury. But Cleveland couldn't stop a rookie fourth-round quarterback making his first start. Kirk Cousins completed 26 of 37 passes for 329 yards and two touchdowns, looking quite comfortable throwing off rollouts. This is a Browns defense that had allowed four offensive touchdowns during the three-game winning streak.

Weeden again struggles at home: For some reason, quarterback Brandon Weeden has played poorly at Cleveland Browns Stadium and that trend continued Sunday. Weeden was 21-of-35 for 244 yards with two interceptions and four deflected passes. The game turned when Weeden was intercepted on the second play of the second half. After the interception was returned to the Browns' 15-yard line, the Redskins needed three plays to get into the end zone -- on an Alfred Morris 3-yard run -- to go ahead 17-14.

Mixed day for Richardson: Rookie running back Trent Richardson scored two touchdowns, including one in which he carried most of the Redskins defense into the end zone. He now has 11 rushing touchdowns this season, which surpassed Jim Brown for a new Browns rookie record. Brown reached his mark in 12 games while Richardson needed 14. Outside of the scores, Richardson was held in check. He finished with 28 yards on 11 carries.

What's next: The Browns play their last two games of the season on the road, starting with a trip to Denver (11-3). The Broncos have won nine straight.

BALTIMORE -- My thoughts on the Baltimore Ravens' 34-17 loss to the Denver Broncos:

What it means: After starting off with a 9-2 record, the Ravens continued their downward spiral with their worst home loss in the five-year John Harbaugh era. It marks Baltimore's first three-game losing streak since 2009. It's also the first time in five years that the Ravens have lost consecutive games at home. The Ravens (9-5) have watched their lead in the AFC North dwindle to one game over the Cincinnati Bengals (8-6). Baltimore still could clinch a playoff berth if the Pittsburgh Steelers lose at the Dallas Cowboys this afternoon.

Floundering Flacco: The change in offensive coordinators didn't immediately get Joe Flacco out of his slump. Two Flacco turnovers resulted in 10 points for the Broncos. Flacco fumbled for the third straight game and he had an interception returned 98 yards for a touchdown in the final minute of the first half. Before getting some yards during garbage time, Flacco was 16-of-34 for 148 yards through three quarters.

Manning's mastery continues: Peyton Manning still owns the Ravens. His winning streak was extended to nine games over Baltimore. Manning wasn't particularly sharp, finishing 17-of-28 passing with 204 yards with one touchdown. It marked the first time the Broncos have won in Baltimore since 1983, when Denver and a rookie quarterback named John Elway beat the Colts.

Rough debut for Caldwell: It was a miserable first impression for Jim Caldwell, who was in his first game taking over for Cam Cameron as offensive coordinator. The Ravens didn't get their first first down until eight minutes left in the first half and didn't reach the end zone until the fourth quarter. It marked only the second time that the Ravens had been shut out in the first half.

Banged-up defense: Despite the score, the Ravens' defense played surprisingly well under the circumstances. Baltimore was playing without its top three tacklers -- safety Bernard Pollard and inside linebackers Jameel McClain and Dannell Ellerbe -- all of whom were inactive. It was a matter of the Ravens defense breaking down at the end. In the third quarter, cornerback Cary Williams quit on a 51-yard touchdown pass to Eric Decker and the run defense couldn't get off blocks as Knowshon Moreno scored on a 6-yard touchdown run.

Beaten-up offense: The injuries are piling up for the Ravens' offense, too. Torrey Smith, Baltimore's top deep threat, and backup running back Bernard Pierce were both knocked out of the game with concussions. Their availability is unknown for next Sunday. This is an offense that is already without guard Marshal Yanda, who has a significant ankle injury.

What's next: The Ravens play host to another Manning when they face the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants.

Rapid Reaction: Bengals 34, Eagles 13

December, 13, 2012

PHILADELPHIA -- My thoughts on the Cincinnati Bengals' 34-13 victory at the Philadelphia Eagles:

What it means: Capitalizing on five Eagles turnovers, the Bengals improved to 8-6 and moved a half-game ahead of the Steelers (7-6) for the sixth and final playoff spot in the AFC. This also ended a nine-game losing streak in prime time for the Bengals. Cincinnati is now 5-2 on the road and secured back-to-back winning road records for the first time since 1975-76. The Bengals won for the fifth time in six games.

Defense turns around game with turnovers: The Eagles gave this one to the Bengals with their sloppy play. Four turnovers in a five-minute stretch in the second half turned a three-point deficit (13-10) into a 21-point lead (34-13). Trailing 13-10, cornerback Leon Hall made his first interception in 17 games and returned it 44 yards, which set up a touchdown run by Andy Dalton. Two plays later, Pat Sims forced a fumble and Wallace Gilberry returned it 25 yards for the Bengals' first defensive touchdown of the season. The Bengals scored 24 points in a span of 3 minutes, 23 seconds.

Offensive drought: Before the turnover party by the Eagles, the Bengals' offense was stuck in neutral. In a seven-drive stretch, Cincinnati had four three-and-outs, two fumbles (both by Dalton) and one kneel-down. In the second quarter, the Bengals had as many first downs (two) as turnovers.

Keep on running: Running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis went over 100 yards for the fourth time in five games. Green-Ellis had a quick start to the game, gaining 46 yards in the first quarter on eight carries.

Usual strong start: A forced fumble by Carlos Dunlap and a blocked punt by Dan Herron led to 10 points in the first 7 minutes, 9 seconds. In the first quarter of the past six games, Cincinnati has outscored opponents 62-9.

There's the boom: Herron, a rookie sixth-round pick, lived up to his nickname, Boom. On the first punt of the game, Herron showed his power by pushing wide receiver Marvin McNutt into punter Mat McBriar to block the kick. That led to a field goal and increased the lead to 10-0. It was the Bengals' first blocked punt in the regular season since DeDe Dorsey in 2007.

What's next: The Bengals have 10 days before they play at the Steelers (7-6) in what could decide the final playoff spot in the AFC. Pittsburgh plays at Dallas on Sunday.