AFC North: 2013 NFL Week 17 Double Coverage

Edwin Baker and Jason WorildsAP Photo, USA Today Sports ImagesCan Edwin Baker and the Browns bury the slim playoff hopes of Jason Worilds and the Steelers?
The Browns and Steelers finish the regular season Sunday at Heinz Field and renew what had once been one of the most contentious rivalries in the NFL.

The rivalry took a hiatus after Art Modell moved the Browns franchise to Baltimore, and the luster hasn’t returned to it since the NFL returned to Cleveland in 1999. The Steelers have lost to the Browns just five times since 1999, and Cleveland hasn’t won in Pittsburgh since 2003.

The Browns will try to snap a nine-game losing streak Sunday at Heinz Field and extinguish what remains of the Steelers’ playoff hopes. NFL Nation reporters Pat McManamon (Browns) and Scott Brown (Steelers) take a closer look at the 1 p.m. ET game.

Scott Brown: Pat, what type of effort and performance do you expect to see out of the Browns on Sunday?

Pat McManamon: Well Scott, you’ve seen how these late-season games between these teams have gone. This should not be any different than the past four -- which were ugly. It also should be pretty similar to what we saw against the Jets. The Browns were lifeless, lackluster and gave every impression they have their cars packed and ready to get out of town -- if not physically, then mentally.

A team that loses constantly and starts losing at the end of the season has a hard time pulling it together. All are true of the Browns. The coaches are trying, but the players ... well ... this could be like a lot of season finales against the Steelers: ugly.

Do folks in Pittsburgh marvel at the Browns' annual struggles? It’s like the winter [solstice]. It comes every year.

Brown: I think older fans who remember the Browns teams before they were uprooted are actually a little bit wistful about what Cleveland’s struggles have meant for this rivalry. It has become too one-sided for the Browns to even be in the conversation of the Steelers’ chief rival, and that is sad given the proximity of the two working-class cities, the Browns’ history and how passionate their fans are despite the franchise’s struggles since the NFL returned to Cleveland.

I wonder if younger fans here look at the Browns the way they did the Pirates when the latter endured two decades of losing. They don’t see the tradition, the great fan support. They see a franchise that can’t get out of its own way and is not one to be taken seriously. All of that could change if the Browns continue to build on what appears to be a solid nucleus and add the obvious missing piece sooner rather than later.

Speaking of which, how close are the Browns to winning and is it simply a matter of getting the right quarterback to pull everything together?

McManamon: A few weeks ago it would have been convenient to say the Browns were a quarterback away. That was the simple solution. It also was the wrong solution. A quarterback is needed, yes, but so is a lot more. And once the Browns let center Alex Mack and safety T.J. Ward leave via free agency -- there has been no effort to sign them -- there will be two more self-created holes to fill.

The Browns need a quarterback, a running back, a fullback, a second and third receiver, two or three offensive linemen, a second corner, a safety and perhaps another inside linebacker. Or two. If that doesn’t sound like a two- or three-year rebuilding project, it’s hard to say what does.

The Steelers need a ton of help to reach the playoffs. Do you think it’s possible?

Brown: It’s possible, but still very unlikely. First things first, the Steelers have to take care of their own business and beat the Browns. I do think they will win, but it is anything but a guarantee. The Steelers have had some bad losses this season, and anyone who thinks the Browns can’t add another one to their total needs only to be referred to games against the Vikings, Raiders and Dolphins.

If the Steelers won any one of those three games they wouldn’t have needed nearly as much help as they do to get into the playoffs. As it stands, the Steelers need to beat the Browns and also for the Jets, Bengals and Chiefs to win. It sounds like the Chiefs are going to rest some of their key starters, so even if the three things that need to happen in the 1 p.m. ET games come through, the Steelers might not get the cooperation they need from Kansas City in San Diego. I will say this: The Steelers would love to take their chances on the Chiefs in the late-afternoon game, but I’m not sure they get wins from both the Jets and the Bengals.

Pat, given the futility that has plagued the Browns’ organization, do you think it ever reaches a point where a significant numbers of fans will desert the team because they are so fed up with losing?

McManamon: What’s amazing is it hasn’t happened yet, Scott. The Browns treat their fans like sheep, and the sheep just keep coming back. Six years in a row of 11-loss seasons add up to six years in a row of frustration. Empty promise has built on empty promise. A good portion of the fan base does seem turned off, but just as many are (again) excited about having a high draft pick. It’s mind-boggling. The Browns smack their fans in the face over and over and over, yet they keep coming back to be smacked again. Call them loyal, call them lemmings. They just keep coming back.

What’s the future for Pittsburgh? The Steelers seem to be in a period of transition. Can they do it on the fly and still continue the winning tradition?

Brown: I’m a lot more optimistic for the Steelers’ future than I was a couple of months ago. The offense has really come together, and I think it has a chance to carry the team while the Steelers retool their defense. The Steelers have a lot of youth on offense, starting with rookie running back Le’Veon Bell, and the line is relatively young too. If it could ever stay healthy, it could develop into a strength, and the Steelers may take a left tackle with one of their top picks in the 2014 draft.

The biggest reason I don’t think the Steelers are facing a rebuilding period: Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is still in his prime and has played at a very high level this season. If the Steelers’ record was better, we’d be talking about this probably being Roethlisberger’s best season, and he said earlier this week that he feels his best football is still ahead of him.

Pat, if I’m convinced of anything in the NFL it is this: If you have a quarterback, you have a chance. Look at the respective paths the Browns and Steelers have taken since the former passed on Roethlisberger in the 2004 draft to take tight end Kellen Winslow. It is a case study in how important quarterbacks are in the NFL.

Joe Flacco and Andy DaltonGetty ImagesJoe Flacco and Andy Dalton will need to come up big if they hope to emerge victorious on Sunday.
Thanks to the Baltimore Ravens' loss to the Patriots and the Cincinnati Bengals' win over the Vikings on Sunday, much of the drama has been snatched away from this weekend's regular-season finale between the Ravens and Bengals.

Cincinnati has already locked up a playoff spot and the AFC North crown. The winner-take-all scenario for Sunday's season finale no longer exists. If the Ravens are going to join the Bengals in the postseason, and perhaps back at Paul Brown Stadium for the wild-card round, a win this week will be crucial. There still is a lot riding on this must-win game for them.

In the season's first meeting between these teams, it took a last-second Hail Mary touchdown to take the game to overtime. In the extra period, a Justin Tucker field goal allowed the Ravens to walk off with the division victory at home.

As we get you set for this latest AFC North matchup, we turn to ESPN.com Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley and Bengals reporter Coley Harvey for more.

Harvey: Jamison, what do you think the mindset of the Ravens is after their worst loss under coach John Harbaugh?

Hensley: The Ravens are moving on as quickly as possible, and they have to do that in order to have a chance at beating the Bengals in Cincinnati. Baltimore has struggled enough on the road this season (going 2-5) that it can't have lingering memories of getting beaten up by the Patriots. The Ravens understand they lost their shot at winning the AFC North and controlling their playoff fate. But if they can clinch a playoff berth (and it will take some help), the Ravens control their destiny again. The Ravens' history is they don't dwell on getting blown out. The Ravens are 9-0 in games following a loss by double digits.

The Bengals have an impressive trend going as well with at least 40 points in four straight home games. What's been the key to Cincinnati's success at home?

Harvey: That was the most-asked question in the locker room following Sunday's 42-14 win over the Vikings, and the Bengals could only attribute it to one thing: their fans. Initially, part of you doesn't want to believe that's possible. After all, there were a number of empty seats Sunday. But when you actually stop and think about it, the players may be right. When the Bengals' defense is on the field on third down, "The Jungle" as they call it, seems to come to life. Full or not, the stadium gets fairly loud, and it seems like opposing offenses have had all sorts of confusion during the most important parts of the games they've played in Cincinnati. The Bengals have a league-best 22.5 percent third-down conversion rate at home. They also rank second in the league in scoring at home, posting an average 34.4 points per game at Paul Brown Stadium. Only the Broncos are better inside their home venue.

Quarterback Andy Dalton has been key in helping them run up the score that often. So having said that, how do you think the Ravens plan to defend Dalton?

Hensley: In the earlier meeting with the Bengals, Baltimore held Dalton to a 52.2 passer rating, the second worst of his career. The Ravens were relentless with their pressure, recording five sacks and hitting Dalton nine times. But the Baltimore defense has been in a pass-rush rut lately. The Ravens have produced four sacks in their past four games. There has been a lack of pressure off the edges. Terrell Suggs ended a six-game drought by getting to Tom Brady on Sunday. Elvis Dumervil, who has been dealing with an ankle injury, has one sack in his past five games. And the Ravens' best interior rusher, Art Jones, suffered a concussion on Sunday and it's unknown whether he'll play against the Bengals.

Speaking of concussions, what's the latest on linebacker Vontaze Burfict? Has he been the defense's MVP this season?

Harvey: Quickly to your point about pressuring Dalton, that will most certainly have to be the Ravens' game plan against him. He hasn't faced a pass rush quite as challenging as Baltimore's since that game, and that's one reason he's been so successful recently. Pro Football Focus said he was pressured only eight times on his 41 dropbacks against the Vikings.

Back to Burfict. As we're filing this, there isn't much of an update on Burfict other than the fact that he has spent part of the week under concussion protocol. It's not clear when he picked up the possible concussion, but one of his last plays Sunday came when he delivered an accidental helmet-to-helmet blow on Matt Cassel as the quarterback was sliding at the end of a scramble. We'll see how he keeps progressing throughout the week, but I'd bet on Burfict playing. He hasn't missed a game this season, and clearly hates being off the field. Still, with much of the Bengals' postseason desires already wrapped up, I wouldn't be surprised if he doesn't play all game even if he is healthy enough to.

Speaking of injuries, how has Joe Flacco's knee injury affected his play recently?

Hensley: Flacco has had his worst season in the NFL, so I'm not saying he struggled solely because of a sprained left knee. But the injury obviously has affected his mobility and ability to step into throws. Flacco didn't complete his second pass Sunday until the second quarter. Now he has to go to Cincinnati, where he has had his problems in the past. Flacco is 2-3 at Paul Brown Stadium with a 66.8 passer rating. He has completed 57.5 percent of his passes there with four touchdowns and six interceptions. The key for Flacco is limiting his mistakes. He's thrown a career-worst 19 interceptions, seven more than in any of his previous five seasons. With the Ravens' current playoff situation, there is little margin of error for Flacco and the Ravens.

This is the Bengals' first AFC North title since 2009, and the first for Dalton and A.J. Green. How is a young team like the Bengals handing this success?

Harvey: Honestly, they're handling it quite well. Aside from their traditional post-win "Who Dey" chant, you didn't hear any other celebrating coming from the locker room following Sunday's win. By the time reporters were allowed in, word began trickling among the team that the Dolphins had just lost, giving them an official berth to the postseason. When players were asked about the meaning of clinching a playoff spot, they were a little excited, but mostly reserved. There was unfinished business, they felt.

For as young as the Bengals are, with their exhaustive list of second-, third- and fourth-year contributing players, it's still a group that has seen enough postseason disappointment to know that the journey isn't yet complete. The past two seasons, the Bengals have made it to the wild-card round and were immediately bounced out. They don't want that to happen again this year.

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