AFC North: 2013 Week 17 Rapid Reaction

Rapid Reaction: Cincinnati Bengals

December, 29, 2013

CINCINNATI -- A few thoughts on the Cincinnati Bengals' 34-17 victory against the Baltimore Ravens.

What it means: It may not have been pretty, but the Bengals' victory Sunday was just what they needed to build a little momentum entering the postseason. All week players and coaches talked about how they didn't plan on packing it in despite having already earned a playoff berth and another division title. They had every intention of playing their starters throughout the ballgame and doing whatever they could to beat their AFC North-rival Ravens, thereby helping keep the defending league champions out of the playoffs. If the win itself was the good, the bad and ugly were the four turnovers and poorly struck punt the Bengals had in the ballgame. If a team is going to have those miscues, it has to be glad to have them in a win. They could serve as good motivation for Cincinnati, too, as the Bengals look to correct their issues as they get ready for postseason.

Stock watch: Andy Dalton -- Falling. It's hard to truly say the Bengals quarterback's stock is trending downward since he threw for two touchdowns and was close to going beyond the 300-yard mark for a sixth time this season, but he didn't look as good Sunday as he had for most of the rest of the month. Along with his prolific passing numbers, Dalton also threw four interceptions. His first interception came on a deep ball on the game's first play. That pass was slightly underthrown as receiver Marvin Jones had to slow his stride in order to get underneath the ball. When he did, he had the ball ripped from him by Corey Graham. The next interception was the result of miscommunication between Dalton and receiver A.J. Green. They will need to clean that up heading into the postseason. Dalton's performance also came on the same day he set Bengals single-season records in passing yards and touchdowns.

Near-costly Shank: Bengals punter Shawn Powell, brought on two weeks ago in the wake of Kevin Huber's season-ending jaw injury, had a near-costly shank on a third-quarter punt. As he reached back to kick the ball, it appeared his foot got caught in the turf before swinging through and glancing off the ball. When the ball left his foot, it hooked immediately to the left, sailing over the Bengals' sideline and into the first two rows of stadium seats. Altogether, the punt traveled 10 yards, two yards shy of the first down marker the Bengals would have needed to reach if they went for it on fourth-and-12. On the ensuing Ravens drive, Baltimore scored and added a two-point conversion to tie the game. The sequence ended up not hurting the Bengals after all.

Dre's day: Backup cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick had the best performance of his young career, coming away with two interceptions late in the ballgame. Both pickoffs came on consecutive plays on consecutive drives. The second opened the Ravens' second-to-last drive and resulted in an interception return for a touchdown with about four minutes remaining that effectively put the game out of reach.

What's next? The playoffs are up next for the Bengals, who won't know their opponent until the conclusion of Sunday's late afternoon games. They either will play Pittsburgh or San Diego next week at Paul Brown Stadium. If the Patriots lose later Sunday afternoon, Cincinnati will have the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye.

Rapid Reaction: Baltimore Ravens

December, 29, 2013

CINCINNATI -- A few thoughts on the Baltimore Ravens' 34-17 loss at the Cincinnati Bengals.

What it means: The Ravens (8-8) failed to make the playoffs for the first time in coach John Harbaugh's six seasons. Baltimore's five-year run of reaching the postseason, which was the longest current streak in the NFL, ended when the Ravens lost and the Pittsburgh Steelers routed the Cleveland Browns. The Ravens would've made the playoffs with a win because the Miami Dolphins lost at home to the New York Jets. That will sting the most for the defending Super Bowl champions.

Stock watch: Falling: Fourth-quarter defense. This has been a bad trend for the Ravens, whose defense has been great for three quarters but then has a major lapse in the fourth. After the Ravens tied the game at 17 (on a Marlon Brown touchdown catch and a Ray Rice two-point conversion), the defense allowed the Bengals to march 90 yards on 12 plays to take the lead on Andy Dalton's 1-yard touchdown run. The Ravens never regained momentum.

Flacco sets (bad) record: Joe Flacco, the reigning Super Bowl MVP, threw three interceptions in the fourth quarter to set a Ravens single-season record. He finished with 22 interceptions on the season, three more than any other Ravens quarterback. The record is indicative of the lack of support around Flacco and the pressure on him to make plays. The Bengals tacked on a field goal off Flacco's first turnover to extend the lead to 27-17. His third one, which was thrown behind Torrey Smith, was returned 21 yards for a touchdown.

Failing to capitalize on turnovers: The Ravens' secondary had only eight interceptions in the first 15 games. On Sunday, Baltimore's defensive backs picked off Dalton four times. These turnovers could've been more damaging for the Bengals. But the Ravens managed just three field goals off the interceptions.

Deep trouble: The Ravens' 6-0 lead in the first quarter disappeared when A.J. Green caught a 53-yard touchdown pass. Ravens rookie safety Matt Elam was burned so badly that he tried to hold Green to stop the Pro Bowl receiver from getting behind him, and he missed on that, too. It was the 17th pass of at least 40 yards completed against Ravens, which leads the NFL.

What's next: The Ravens' season is over. They are the fifth defending Super Bowl champion not to make the playoffs over the past 11 seasons.

Rapid Reaction: Pittsburgh Steelers

December, 29, 2013

PITTSBURGH -- A few thoughts on the Pittsburgh Steelers20-7 win over the Cleveland Browns.

What it means: The Steelers somehow stayed alive for the sixth and final spot in the AFC playoffs. They controlled the game they had to win to finish 8-8 and then got the help they needed from the Jets and Bengals. Even if the Steelers don’t make the playoffs -- they need the Chiefs to beat the Chargers in San Diego -- they finished strong and have something to build on going into the offseason. The Steelers won eight of their last 12 games following the franchise’s first 0-4 start since 1968.

Stock watch: Le’Veon Bell may have been the best player on the field, and he closed out his first NFL regular season with a flourish. Bell rushed for 90 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries, and he took over the game on the Steelers’ second touchdown drive. Bell ran for 41 yards on the 14-play, 67-yard drive that gave the Steelers a 14-0 lead. He displayed his blend of patience and power on a gray, rainy day made for running the ball. Bell, who missed the first three games with a foot injury, closed the season with 214 rushing yards in the Steelers’ final two games. He also broke the record for yards from scrimmage by a Steelers rookie that Franco Harris established in 1972.

Fond farewell: If defensive end Brett Keisel played his final game at Heinz Field, the 12-year veteran went out in style. Keisel registered a sack and a forced fumble on the same play in the first quarter, and he helped the Steelers shut out the Browns until the final few minutes of the game. Keisel and free safety Ryan Clark are among the players who will be unrestricted free agents after this season; neither is likely to return. Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders also faces an uncertain future as an impending free agent, although he played against the Browns despite nursing a sprained knee. Sanders caught two passes for 26 yards.

What a season: Antonio Brown established one record and nearly broke another as he added the exclamation point to the best season ever by a Steelers wide receiver. Brown, who caught nine passes for 87 yards, became the first player in NFL record with at least five receptions and 50 receiving yards in every regular-season game. His 1,499 receiving yards are a franchise single-season record. Brown also finished with 110 catches, two fewer than the 112 grabs Hines Ward had in 2002.

Injury update: Jason Worilds did not play because of an abdominal pull he suffered in Weel 16, and nose tackle Steve McLendon (ankle) and wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery were among the players who left this game because of injuries. Despite the absence of Worilds, who led the team with eight sacks this season, the Steelers dropped Browns quarterback Jason Campbell three times.

What’s next: The Steelers are headed to Cincinnati or New England -- if the Chiefs can upset the Chargers. Kansas City is not playing a bunch of key starters since it is already locked into the No. 5 playoff seed, and quarterbacks Alex Smith and Jamaal Charles are among the Chiefs who are not dressing for the game.

Rapid Reaction: Cleveland Browns

December, 29, 2013

PITTSBURGH -- A few thoughts on the Cleveland Browns' 20-7 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers:

What it means: The Browns set a new standard of futility in a season of futility. For the first time in team history, the Browns lost seven games in a row to end a season. Although there was a lot of chatter about the future of Rob Chudzinski, this kind of season does not reflect well on anyone with the team, from the owner through the CEO to the GM to the coach to the players. Call it a collective flop. And to think there was a point when some thought the Browns might win the division.

Chudzinski chatter: The way the season ended led to a lot of speculation about unhappiness and dissatisfaction in the front office, which led to gamelong buzz about Chudzinski and whether he might be let go after the season. The Browns initially declined to comment on the rumors but by the fourth quarter put out a statement that said: "Our focus is on the game today. We will not discuss any evaluation of the season until this upcoming week."

Stock watch: Browns fans can enjoy life again: The talk is again about the draft. The team that has gone six years in a row with at least 11 losses and has averaged four and a half wins per season in those seasons can point its fans to the most exciting time of year. That's the draft, when fans annually regain belief in anything related to an orange helmet.

Josh and the flu: Josh Gordon played the season finale with the flu. It showed. After every play, he got up the way Jim Brown used to -- slowly and with discomfort. Chudzinski said after the game that Gordon needed IV fluids before the game. Gordon finished with seven receptions for 80 yards.

Corners out: The Browns started the game without Joe Haden at cornerback. They finished without Buster Skrine. With both corners out, Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers' passing game had to contend with Julian Posey and rookie Leon McFadden. That is a tough challenge for a defense.