1. Eric Mangini, Cleveland Browns head coach: Mangini entered the 2010 season on the hot seat, and if he doesn't retain his job, we may look back at the past two weeks as a turning point. The Browns are 5-9 and looked listless in back-to-back losses to inferior opponents: the Cincinnati Bengals (3-11) and Buffalo Bills (4-10). Each team entered its game against Cleveland with two wins. The Browns also enter the next two weeks as underdogs against the Baltimore Ravens (10-4) and Pittsburgh Steelers (10-4). These are must-win games for Mangini, who needs to impress Browns president Mike Holmgren.
2. Browns' run defense: Cleveland's defense, which has been scrappy all season, has lost its edge and physicality in recent weeks. The Browns have allowed 380 rushing yards against Buffalo and Cincinnati. Now some are wondering if Cleveland is softening down the stretch. Bengals tailback Cedric Benson had a big day against the Browns, which we will get to below. A season-ending injury to linebacker and defensive leader Scott Fujita hurts Cleveland. But the loss of one player is no excuse for continually getting pushed around.
3. Steelers' special teams: For the most part, the Steelers have improved their kick coverage. But old problems showed up last week in a loss to the New York Jets. Pittsburgh allowed returner Brad Smith to take the opening kick 97 yards for a touchdown, which set the tone for the rest of the game. New York receiver Jerricho Cotchery also averaged 16 yards per punt return. In a close game, these hidden yards mattered.
1. Ray Rice, Ravens running back: We've written about Rice's performance all week. So there's not much to add. He had 233 total yards and two touchdowns in a win over the New Orleans Saints. The Ravens made it a point to get Rice the ball on the ground and through the air. He should continue to play a major role in the offense as Baltimore makes its postseason run.
2. Cedric Benson, Bengals running back: The Ravens weren't the only team to go retro. Cincinnati also reverted back to its 2009 form by giving the Benson a heavy workload. He recorded a season-high 150 yards on 31 carries, which took Benson over the 1,000-yard mark for the second consecutive season. The Bengals broke their 10-game losing streak by running the football. Expect Cincinnati to try to keep that momentum going with Benson this week against the San Diego Chargers.
3. Carlos Dunlap, Bengals defensive end: If Dunlap played for a better team, he would be getting more publicity for coming on late in the season. The rookie is hot, recording six sacks in the past four games. Dunlap entered the draft as a first-round talent but had questions about his consistency, which dropped him into the second round. The Bengals are pushing the right buttons with Dunlap, who has played hard in the past month.