AFC North: Jacksonville Jaguars

When: 1 p.m. ET Sunday Where: M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore TV: CBS

This is an AFC matchup between teams headed in opposite directions when the surging Baltimore Ravens (8-5) play host to the fading Jacksonville Jaguars (2-11).

The Ravens have won three of their past four games to keep them in the thick of the AFC playoff race. They are a half-game behind the first-place Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC North, and they can earn at least a wild-card berth if they win their final three regular-season games.

The last-place Jaguars have lost five of their last six games as they eye a top-five draft pick for the fourth straight season. Jacksonville is an NFL-worst 6-17 (.261) in December since 2009.

ESPN Jaguars reporter Michael DiRocco and Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley take a closer look at Sunday's game:

Hensley: The Ravens are vulnerable in the secondary, ranking No. 31 in pass defense. Their biggest problem is defending the deep pass. Can Blake Bortles exploit this?

DiRocco: In theory, yes, but it depends on how well the offensive line performs and how the Ravens attack. Teams have defended the Jaguars by putting eight men in the box to stop the run and daring the Jaguars to beat them by throwing the ball. So far, Bortles hasn’t been able to get it done but that’s partly because of an inconsistent offensive line that has given up 54 sacks, including 15 in the past three games. Not all of those sacks are on the OL – running back Denard Robinson was beaten twice in protection in the New York game and Bortles has held onto the ball too long at times – but the majority are. The Jaguars’ answer has been shorter passes to beat the pressure, but they’ve tried to take shots down field as well. They haven’t hit many, whether it’s because Bortles didn’t make the correct read, pressure forcing him to get rid of the ball quickly, or coverage. Rookie Marqise Lee has really come on the last few weeks and he does have good speed, but he’s not really a deep threat. Rookie Allen Hurns is, however, and three of his six touchdown catches have been from more than 30 yards. If the offensive line can give Bortles a tad more time the Jaguars might be able to hit a few deep shots.

Why are the Ravens struggling so badly against the pass?

Hensley: Do you have a couple hours to talk about this? That's what it would take to explain why the Ravens are on pace to give up the most passing yards in the franchise's 19-year history. There have been injuries. Cornerback Jimmy Smith, the team's top defensive player, went down with a season-ending foot injury in October. The Ravens were down to three healthy corners this week before they signed free agent Antoine Cason. There also has been some bad play. The Ravens' two starting cornerbacks, Lardarius Webb and Asa Jackson, are both in the bottom 20 in Pro Football Focus' rankings. This doesn't even touch upon the problems at safety. The Ravens have a good enough pass rush to overcome the deficiencies in the secondary against non-elite quarterbacks. But they can't be considered a serious Super Bowl contender with these struggles in the secondary.

Speaking of vulnerable spots, the Jaguars have allowed the fifth-most rushing yards in the NFL. What has been the biggest problem with their run defense?

DiRocco: Whenever I’ve asked about this issue the answer the players always give is run fits. Essentially, they weren’t properly filling their assigned gaps because they were either getting blocked, running around blocks, or trying to do more than their responsibility on the play. That was a big problem early in the season, when they gave up 480 yards in the first three games. They solved that issue in the next four games, giving up just 292 yards and that averaged out to 110.3 yards per game allowed through the first seven games – a solid number. Then middle linebacker Paul Posluszny was lost for the season with a torn pectoral muscle. Since then, with little-used fourth-year player J.T. Thomas manning the middle, the Jaguars have allowed 159 yards per game rushing. Some of that has been run fits, but another problem has been missed tackles. That has been an on-again, off-again issue all season, especially in the secondary. Big gains have resulted when defensive backs miss tackles, and safeties Johnathan Cyprien and Josh Evans have been the biggest violators.

The Ravens have three former Jaguars in key roles: Eugene Monroe, Daryl Smith and Justin Forsett. It's a bit of a surprise that Forsett has played as well as he has. What sparked him? Was it just a matter of opportunity, which he didn't get in Jacksonville last year because he was injured?

Hensley: It really is a matter of opportunity and being healthy this year. Forsett averaged 4.9 yards per carry in his five NFL seasons before coming to the Ravens. The problem was, he never received more than 118 carries in a season. This season was the first time he really got a break in his career. He went from No. 3 on the depth chart to the starter after Ray Rice was abruptly released and Bernard Pierce was injured. Forsett has been the most valuable player on the Ravens because this team wouldn't be in the hunt for a playoff berth without him. He is the NFL's third-leading rusher and is the league's best big-play runner this year. This has the makings of a bad reunion for the Jaguars, who have given up a league-worst 15 runs longer than 20 yards.

The Jaguars have lost nine games by double digits, and the talk about low morale has been a hot topic on your blog. The Ravens are 43-11 at home since 2008 (second-best record over that span). What has to happen for the Jaguars to pull off this upset?

DiRocco: To answer that you only have to look at the Jaguars’ two victories. In beating Cleveland and the New York Giants, the Jaguars forced six turnovers and turned those into four touchdowns and a field goal. The offense just isn’t consistent enough to generate more than one or two scoring drives without help. In fact, the Jaguars have scored only two offensive touchdowns in the past three games, neither of which began with an opponent turnover. The defense scored twice against the Giants on fumble recoveries. To beat the Ravens, the Jaguars are going to have to force some turnovers inside Baltimore territory and come away with touchdowns while at the same time taking care of the football. They’ve had just one turnover-free game this season (against the Giants) and Bortles has thrown a league-high 16 interceptions.

Jamison, you wrote earlier in the week that coach John Harbaugh is at his best as a coach when the Ravens face adversity. That obviously rubs off on the team. So, do you expect the Ravens to make the playoffs and do some damage?

Hensley: It depends on when you ask me this question. After the Ravens won in New Orleans, I thought they were going to win the division. After they lost to San Diego, I didn't feel they were going to make the postseason. Now, after they won in Miami, I can see them winning out and earning at least a wild-card berth. Where I've been consistent is forecasting their fate in the postseason. The glaring weakness in the secondary will be their downfall. I can't see them beating the likes of Tom Brady, Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck with this defensive backfield. But, when it comes to beating a rookie like Bortles, that's a different story.

CINCINNATI -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Cincinnati Bengals' 33-23 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars:
  • Hill holds court: Jeremy Hill was a popular interview subject Sunday afternoon. For nearly 45 minutes, the rookie running back chatted with various reporters about his career day. He rushed 24 times for 154 yards and two touchdowns in relief of Giovani Bernard, who sat because of a pair of injuries. Hill was still dressed, shoulder pads and all, nearly the whole time. It was just before a radio interview that he finally took off his pads and jersey. Most of the time, Hill stood directly in front of Bernard's locker (which is next to his). Bernard tried to wait him out to give his congratulations in person but eventually took off. (He'll see him Monday, anyway.) While Hill chatted with reporters, some players shouted their support as they walked behind cameras or leaned between the mass of bodies to offer up fist bumps. Cornerback Adam Jones was one of those who butted in for a bump.
  • Sanu on Hill's dance: Receiver Mohamed Sanu has been known to bust a move or two when he scores. In the preseason, he unveiled his version of the "Shmoney" dance, one made popular by rapper Bobby Shmurda. After Hill scored the first of his two touchdowns, he did his version of that dance. So what did Sanu think about Hill's rendition? "Have you seen it?" Sanu asked, smiling. "It's pretty awesome." Hill, who earlier this season did Ickey Woods' "Ickey Shuffle," also pulled off the "Dougie" dance after he scored his second touchdown.
  • Special-teams mentality: Nico Johnson was signed as a free agent Oct. 15, days before the Bengals were down two linebackers in their starting rotation. Still, he didn't think he'd see the field as a starter for a long while. He had to digest the Bengals' playbook first. The Bengals thought he was ready and started him Sunday. "My mindset was special teams, special teams, special teams," Johnson said. "That was my mindset that I would come in and make my effect on special teams and make the best out of a great opportunity." He had one tackle in place of Rey Maualuga.
  • Jags a 'good team': Veteran Bengals defensive end Wallace Gilberry thinks the 1-8 Jaguars are on the cusp of greatness. "That's a good team," he said. "I don't care what nobody says. They're young, and when they find out how to win, people are going to have to deal with them. Mark my words."

CINCINNATI -- A few thoughts on the Cincinnati Bengals' 33-23 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars at Paul Brown Stadium:

What it means: It wasn't the prettiest of wins for the Bengals, particularly considering they were playing the one-win Jaguars. But at this stage of the year, a win is a win. The Bengals will take this 10-point victory and hope it provides a little momentum entering Thursday's game against Cleveland. This win also means the Bengals can win the games they are supposed to win, even when without some of their best players. Running back Giovani Bernard and linebacker Vontaze Burfict were among those who were hurt.

Stock watch: After drawing ire for a drop and a pair of mental miscues early in the season, tight end Jermaine Gresham might soon start fielding praise. He has been a key piece to the Bengals' offense in recent weeks. Against the Jaguars, he caught five passes for 36 yards, pushing his season total to 33 receptions. Each time he had a catch, Gresham was good about spinning, juking, breaking tackles and falling forward for additional hard-fought yards.

Game ball: Right when the Bengals needed a fourth-quarter spark, their rookie running back provided one. Because of his 60-yard touchdown run in the middle of the final period, Jeremy Hill earns this week's game ball. The play came on the Bengals' first offensive play after a Jaguars running back Denard Robinson pulled Jacksonville to within three with a 5-yard touchdown run. It was just the game-changing play the Bengals needed after quarterback Andy Dalton threw a bizarre interception on their previous drive, on a pass that bounced off offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth's back. Hill, who was playing in place of Bernard, had 24 rushes for a career-high 154 yards and two touchdowns.

Dropped pick-offs: Sunday's result could have been a lot worse for the Jaguars after the Bengals dropped four potential interceptions. Linebacker Emmanuel Lamur dropped two, including one deep in Jacksonville territory. Cornerback Terence Newman also dropped an interception in the first half that he ended up bobbling to himself before it fell to the ground. Dropped interceptions have been problems for the Bengals this year. Lamur's drop at New England stalled momentum early in that loss, and Leon Hall's drop did the same in the loss at Indianapolis. Safety George Iloka did intercept a pass Sunday that effectively iced the game with 3:55 remaining.

What's next? In their shortest week of the regular season, the Bengals are back in action Thursday night when they host the Cleveland Browns. It will be the first meeting of the season between the AFC North rivals, and the first division game the Bengals have played this season that hasn't been against the Ravens. The game also closes out a three-game stretch of home contests. After Thursday, the Bengals go on the road for three straight. The Bengals split with the Browns last season, winning the meeting in Cincinnati 41-20.

So begins the Jacksonville Jaguars' gauntlet.

One week after a two-touchdown defeat to their in-state rival Miami Dolphins, the Jaguars on Sunday begin a treacherous three-game stretch of their schedule against a trio of teams with winning records -- and that all look like prime postseason candidates.

Up first, the Cincinnati Bengals, an organization that found itself at a unique crossroads late in last Sunday's game against Baltimore. Down four with less than four minutes remaining in a division game, the Bengals needed quarterback Andy Dalton to take them on a miracle comeback drive. He did. If he hadn't, the Bengals likely would have lost and fallen to last in the AFC North.

Instead, they're back in first.

ESPN's Jaguars reporter Michael DiRocco and Bengals reporter Coley Harvey are here to preview this matchup:

Coley Harvey: Mike, Jags QB Blake Bortles has four pick-sixes this year to go along with his 12 overall interceptions. How much of his growth hinges on how well he can take pressure? Many of his struggles have come against blitzes, and you have to think Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther wants to expose that.

Michael DiRocco: Bortles has struggled against the blitz. Though he is completing nearly 60 percent of his throws against five or more rushers, he has thrown five interceptions, has thrown no touchdown passes and has been sacked nine times. His Total QBR is a paltry 2.8 against five or more rushers. This isn't confined to just Bortles, though, because nearly every rookie QB will struggle against pressure. However, the Jaguars need to see improvement over the final eight games. His decision-making has to be better, and the one thing offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch wants to see is Bortles not continue to make the same mistakes. There are going to be interceptions because it's part of the learning process, and it's also because Bortles has a bit of gunslinger in him and likes to take chances. That's partly why he leads the NFL with 12 interceptions. Fisch would like to see that number drop to six over the season's second half. It's a rough process, but the only way Bortles can grow is to go through it. It would be a problem if he wasn't better in the second half of the season than he was in the first half.

Coley, A.J. Green says he expects to play against the Jaguars. More than quarterback Andy Dalton, is Green the key to the Bengals' offensive success, not only this week but going forward?

Harvey: To be honest, Mike, he isn't. Yes, Green is a Pro Bowler and he is a talented player and having him will bring added life to this offense, but we can't overlook the fact this unit has played well without him this season. Green has missed parts of four games this season because of a nagging big-toe injury, and in his place the Bengals have just rolled out a strong group of receivers, running backs and tight ends. Mohamed Sanu has been the most direct replacement for Green, catching 21 passes for 383 yards and a touchdown in Green's absence. Since Sanu has served as a runner on reverses, and passed balls in addition to catching them, he has racked up 460 yards of total offense in relief of Green. That's good enough for 31.3 percent of the Bengals' entire offensive production in the games Green has missed. Even if Green returns, expect Sanu to factor in similar ways this week and on down the line. Still, it can't be disputed that Green's potential addition this weekend will help any offensive success Cincinnati has.

Mike, Jacksonville's defense currently ranks as the best in the league in red zone territory. What happens when the Jags get pinned deep that allows them to prevent giving up touchdowns?

DiRocco: The Jaguars' defensive line, notably tackles Sen'Derrick Marks and Roy Miller, has played well all season, but especially in the red zone. Teams are averaging just 2.08 yards per rush against the Jaguars in the red zone. In addition, the Jaguars have allowed teams to convert just 27.3 percent of third-down plays in the red zone, which is fifth in the league. They've also intercepted two passes in the end zone. What's funny is the Jaguars have given up six touchdown passes of 20 or more yards, which shows the secondary has been more susceptible to getting beat deep than having trouble in the red zone. The pass rush has helped in the red zone, too. The Jaguars' 25 sacks are tied with Minnesota for second in the NFL behind Buffalo (28).

Which is the real Bengals' defense: the one that held opponents to 11 points per game in the first three games or the unit that gave up 35.7 points over the next three games?

Harvey: If I had a good answer for that one, Mike, head coach Marvin Lewis, Guenther and the rest of the defensive staff might try to find a job for me. Seriously, it's been one of the most perplexing issues of this season for the Bengals. They came out strong the first three weeks, stopping the run and just outmuscling each of the teams they played. Not only did it look like the Bengals were as good under Guenther as they were under the venerable Mike Zimmer, but they looked better. And then came the bye week. A Week 4, early-season interruption derailed the Bengals, and it appeared to hit the defense the hardest. In the first three games after the bye, they were outscored 107-54. Two of the teams, the Patriots and Colts, picked up more than 500 total yards. All three rushed for more than 100.

I'd say the real Bengals' defense is somewhere in the middle of the fast start and the atrocious post-bye follows. Now that players are starting to get healthy again, I'm thinking it might be closer to the unit we saw at the start of the season.

What has Denard Robinson's past two games meant to the balance of Jacksonville's offense, Mike?

DiRocco: The Jaguars' passing offense is dependent on play-action for it to be effective, and until the past two weeks, the play-action fake really meant nothing to opposing defenses. Through the first six games, the Jaguars averaged 69.5 yards per game rushing. In the past two, they've averaged 180.5 yards per game. Most of that has come from Robinson, who has run for 235 yards and one touchdown. He's doing a much better job of running tough: breaking tackles, running through arm tackles, moving the pile forward and falling ahead for an extra yard. It's no coincidence that the Jaguars' first victory came in a game in which Robinson rushed for 127 yards and a touchdown. Had Bortles not thrown two pick-sixes last week against Miami, the Jaguars probably would have won that game, too -- and Robinson had 108 yards rushing. If Robinson can continue to be effective running the ball, that will allow Fisch to take some pressure off Bortles.

Geno Atkins looked very good against Baltimore. Is he all the way back from the ACL tear, and what kind of impact does he have on the defense?

Harvey: I'd say Atkins is back from the season-ending ACL injury he suffered exactly one year ago Friday, Mike. As you mentioned, he played quite well against the Ravens. Guenther called it Atkins' best performance of the season, and you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who disagreed. Atkins played faster, with more explosion and a bit of his old fire in that game. He had two tackles for loss, a sack and a forced fumble that came when he was one step into the backfield before the ball carrier had time to decide which way he was going to run. It's safe to say after six virtually unproductive games that he's finally all the way back.

NFL Draft: The Top Five

March, 31, 2014
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The first five choices in the NFL draft remain up in the air, with three quarterbacks, two linebackers, two offensive tackles and a receiver all considered a possibility for the Houston Texans, the St. Louis Rams, the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Cleveland Browns or the Oakland Raiders. What will happen? Check back in May.

Until then, the five NFL Nation reporters from each of the top five teams will get together periodically to offer their thoughts on what they would do. Your comments are welcome.

Here's the first look:

1. Texans: Tania Ganguli picks Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina. Of all of them, this is the player most worthy of the top pick. His talent is transcendent and the Texans need another pass-rusher. If they aren't sold on Clowney, I'd trade this pick to someone who is.

2. Rams: Nick Wagoner picks Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson. I would give strong consideration to one of the top two offensive tackles but this is a rare opportunity to get the No. 1 receiver the Rams have lacked since Torry Holt's heyday. Since the Rams also have the 13th pick, I'd look to address the offensive line. Of course, trading down would also be a possibility.

3. Jaguars: Mike DiRocco picks Khalil Mack, LB, Buffalo. There's a lot of temptation to take one of the quarterbacks, but general manager David Caldwell and coach Gus Bradley don't believe any of them are ready to play right away. Despite adding players to the defense in free agency -- ends Chris Clemons and Red Bryant and linebacker Dekoda Watson -- the Jaguars still need a lot of help. Mack has the versatility to rush the passer and play in coverage. Plus, the defense needs to get faster and Mack fits that bill, too.

4. Browns: Pat McManamon picks Blake Bortles, QB, Central Florida. The first three picks from the ESPN.com reporters have put the Browns guy in a bind. Their preferred draft order should read Watkins, Mack, Clowney, but all three are gone. (If I'm the Browns and this happens, I might pull a Bill Belichcik, throw a hissy fit, trade out of the pick and take Craig Powell, Jr.) The three top guys on my board are gone. Which leaves Greg Robinson or a quarterback. Though none of the quarterbacks are exciting, Bortles has the size and arm strength and best potential of the three. I'm picking for the future, a selection that cements Brian Hoyer as the starter.

5. Raiders: Paul Gutierrez picks Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M. Well, this is not at all how I thought this would go. The Raiders need a playmaker, a Watkins-type for newly acquired Matt Schaub to throw the ball to in this revamped offense. But since he's gone, if I had my druthers, I'd trade down and pick up Mike Evans to become Schaub's Andre Johnson 2.0. But since we're not trading in this particular exercise, I suppose I could just gamble and use the pick on Evans, right? Thing is, those two stud tackles are still there and Matthews could be the best player in the entire draft, regardless of position. You build a team on the lines, so I'm going with Matthews at No. 5 for the Raiders to continue their "reconstruction" … for now.

Live blog: Jaguars at Browns

December, 1, 2013
12/01/13
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Join our ESPN.com NFL experts as they break down the Jacksonville Jaguars' visit to the Cleveland Browns. Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 1 p.m. ET. And, be sure to visit our NFL Nation Blitz page for commentary from every game, as well as fan photos and the latest buzz from Twitter. See you there.

Season of coaching change in AFC North

February, 24, 2011
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 Pat Shurmur and Jay Gruden AP PhotoPat Shurmur, left, and Jay Gruden are two of the new faces in the AFC North.
The offseason has just begun, but the coaching carousel has been spinning for all four teams in the AFC North.

Often the struggling teams make significant coaching changes, and that was the case with the Cincinnati Bengals (4-12) and Cleveland Browns (5-11). But playoff teams like the Baltimore Ravens (12-4) and even the Super Bowl runner-up Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4) also experienced some turnover on their staff.

Here is a look at each change and what it means for the division:

Cleveland Browns

In: Head coach Pat Shurmur, defensive coordinator Dick Jauron and a new staff.

Out: Former head coach Eric Mangini, former defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and former offensive coordinator Brian Daboll.

What happened? Mangini entered this past season on the hot seat and went 5-11 for the second consecutive year. There were a lot of philosophical differences between Mangini and Browns president Mike Holmgren. So when the team wasn't winning, it made for an easy decision to go in a different direction. Enter Shurmur, who was a surprise hire for Cleveland. Shurmur has no prior head-coaching experience and wasn't on the radar of other teams. The Browns have pretty much cleaned house and hired a new staff, which includes Jauron and veteran defensive assistant Ray Rhodes.

Analysis: Last year, Holmgren was dumbfounded by some of the things the Browns were doing, particularly on offense. But Holmgren and Shurmur share many of the same views, which will give Holmgren more say in what goes on, and I think being on the same page is important for any team. The Browns are one of the few teams this year that will change both their offense and defense. Cleveland will go to a West Coast offense under Shurmur, who did not hire an offensive coordinator and will call the plays. The Browns also will switch to a 4-3 defense, which is something they haven't run since 2004. Shurmur is taking on a lot of responsibility as a rookie head coach and de facto offensive coordinator, which raises some concerns. Cleveland hopes veteran coaches like Jauron and Rhodes will take care of the defense, giving Shurmur one less thing to worry about. In terms of personnel, the Browns have a lot of work to do. They need better receivers on offense if they plan to pass more and playmakers at defensive end to run a 4-3 scheme.

Cincinnati Bengals

In: Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, receivers coach James Urban.

Out: Former offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski, former receivers coach Mike Sheppard.

What happened? Changes were inevitable for Cincinnati's coaching staff this season. There was a lot of unrest among players internally who didn't like the scheme on offense. The Bengals entered the season with playoff aspirations but had an abysmal four-win campaign. Quarterback Carson Palmer was so unhappy that he demanded a trade after the season. Receivers Terrell Owens publicly criticized the coaching staff several times and starting tailback Cedric Benson said he was not returning if Bratkowski was still the offensive coordinator. Bratkowski was let go and later hired by the Atlanta Falcons, and Sheppard went to the Jacksonville Jaguars. Gruden, a former UFL head coach and the brother of former NFL coach Jon Gruden, was hired as offensive coordinator, and Urban was hired as receivers coach from the Philadelphia Eagles.

Analysis: Cincinnati will be the second team in the division implementing a West Coast offense. Gruden also says he wants to make sure Cincinnati has a power running game, which is needed in this division. When the Bengals were at their best in 2009, they ran the football effectively and played tough defense. Cincinnati went away from that last year and had an awful season. How Gruden's offense translates from the UFL to the NFL remains to be seen. Cincinnati also has to handle a lot of personnel issues. Will Palmer retire? If so, who will be the new quarterback? Should the team trade Chad Ochocinco? Will Benson return? Cincinnati will have a very busy offseason trying to figure out these questions before putting together its new offense.

(Read full post)

Ravens and Steelers playoff scenarios

December, 21, 2010
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The postseason scenarios in the AFC North are narrowing with just two weeks left in the regular season.

Here is what the Pittsburgh Steelers (10-4) and Baltimore Ravens (10-4) can clinch in Week 16.

Steelers can clinch the AFC North and first-round bye with:
  • A PIT win and BAL loss
Ravens can clinch a playoff spot with:
  • BAL win or tie vs. CLE
  • KC loss + JAX loss or tie OR
  • KC loss + IND loss or tie OR
  • SD loss or tie + JAX loss or tie
  • SD loss or tie + IND loss or tie

Pittsburgh is already in the playoffs via strength of victory tiebreaker.

Seven-step drop: Ray Rice explodes

December, 20, 2010
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Here are seven notes and observations from Week 15 in the AFC North:
    [+] EnlargeRay Rice
    Mitch Stringer/US PresswireRay Rice rushed for 153 yards in Sunday's win over the Saints.

  • Baltimore Ravens tailback Ray Rice entered Week 15 with fewer than 20 carries in each of his previous five games. But it appears that helped Rice, as he showed he had fresh legs in late December. Rice looked energized and was ready for the heavy workload in a 30-24 win over the New Orleans Saints. He rushed for a season-high 153 yards and a touchdown on 31 carries. He also led the team in receiving with five catches for 80 yards. It was a throwback performance for Rice, who put up these kind of numbers more often last season when the Ravens didn't have as many weapons. But getting the ball back in Rice's hands should continue to be a focal point for Baltimore's offensive coordinator Cam Cameron.
  • If the season ended today, the Ravens (10-4) would travel to face the Indianapolis Colts (8-6) in the playoffs at Lucas Oil Stadium. Despite Indianapolis' record, we like Baltimore's chances better against any other playoff contender. The Colts have been an awful matchup for the Ravens. Quarterback Peyton Manning is 8-2 in his career against Baltimore, including Indianapolis' playoff win last season. The Kansas City Chiefs or Jacksonville Jaguars would be easier playoff opponents.
  • We received a lot of emails regarding Carson Palmer's future since the AFC North blog reported the quarterback would not accept a pay cut to stay with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2011. Although there are no guarantees, it does increase the possibility that Palmer will wear another uniform next season. We came up with several logical destinations for Palmer. The Oakland Raiders, where former Bengals assistant Hue Jackson is the offensive coordinator, could be one option. The San Francisco 49ers, Minnesota Vikings and Arizona Cardinals are teams that could be searching for quarterback help. It's very early, however. The Bengals may choose to pay Palmer $11.5 million and make him one of the NFL's highest-paid players next season. But investing that much in a struggling quarterback is very risky.
  • The Bengals did a smart thing by giving young, unproven players meaningful reps in their 19-17 victory over the Cleveland Browns. Tailback Bernard Scott (eight carries, 40 yards) and receivers Andre Caldwell (four catches, 89 yards) and Jerome Simpson (two catches, 30 yards) contributed, as Cincinnati tries to figure out who stays and who goes this offseason. Caldwell was particularly impressive. After Terrell Owens (knee) went down, Caldwell led Cincinnati in receiving and made big receptions, including a well-designed 53-yard screen pass.
  • Browns rookie quarterback Colt McCoy reached a contract escalator Sunday. McCoy needed to play 35 percent of Cleveland's offensive snaps this year -- which is the equivalent of 5.6 games -- for his fourth-year salary to increase from approximately $500,000 to $1.15 million. That's a $650,000 raise. McCoy made his sixth start against the Bengals and will remain Cleveland's starter the rest of the season. Considering McCoy was not expected to play this season, it's an unexpected accomplishment for the third-round pick.
  • Here are several additional things I learned about the Browns: McCoy has nice touch and a good play-action fake, Pro Bowl kick returner Josh Cribbs is more hurt than he's letting on, and John St. Clair is not the answer at right tackle.
  • The Pittsburgh Steelers' loss to the New York Jets likely ensures Pittsburgh won't have the option to rest starters in Week 17. Baltimore and Pittsburgh (10-4) share the same record, but the Steelers own the tiebreaker. The Steelers host the Carolina Panthers (2-12) and the Ravens travel to face the Browns (5-9) in Week 16. Both 10-win teams are favored, which would set up a division race down to the final weekend.

Seven-step drop: Time to 'flex' Bengals

December, 13, 2010
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Here are seven notes and observations from Week 14 in the AFC North:

  • Let's start with a prediction: We fully expect the Cincinnati Bengals (2-11) to have their Week 16 Sunday night game against the San Diego Chargers (7-6) "flexed" to an earlier time. The game, which is in danger of a blackout in Cincinnati, has no business on prime-time television with the way the Bengals are playing. They have lost an NFL-high 10 games in a row and there are much better matchups in Week 16. Potential replacements are the New York Jets (9-4) against the Chicago Bears (9-4) and the New York Giants (8-4) against the Green Bay Packers (8-5). (Update: Bengals flexed.)
  • [+] EnlargeTerrell Owens
    AP Photo/Don WrightTerrell Owens hasn't been pleased with the Bengals' play calling the past two weeks.

  • We agree with veteran receiver Terrell Owens that Cincinnati's offense has become too predictable. Owens, who has played for four other teams and in some good offenses throughout his career, lashed out at the Bengals' play calling for the second straight week. After a good first drive by the Bengals, the Pittsburgh Steelers caught on to what Cincinnati was trying to accomplish. As Owens mentioned afterward, Cincinnati offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski didn't make proper adjustments at halftime and, as a result, the game quickly got out of hand.
  • The Steelers (10-3) are in great position to land the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye in the AFC playoffs. But it's unlikely they will catch the New England Patriots (11-2) for the top seed. Pittsburgh is one game behind New England. But the Patriots hold the head-to-head advantage, so it's essentially a two-game lead with three games left. On the flip side, the Steelers own a two-game lead over the two other division leaders -- the Jacksonville Jaguars (8-5) and Kansas City Chiefs (8-5) -- with three games remaining. The biggest threat to Pittsburgh's second seed is the Baltimore Ravens (8-4), who can get within a game by beating the Houston Texans on Monday night. (Create your own scenarios with our NFL Playoff Machine.)
  • Three Steelers defenders have scored TDs this season, and the team is 2-0 in those games. In addition to Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley and safety Troy Polamalu, defensive end Brett Keisel scored a touchdown against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers earlier this year. That prompted Keisel to take a jab Sunday at his other eight defensive starters without touchdowns. "What's taking them so long [to score]?" Keisel said, laughing.
  • Ravens Pro Bowl tailback Ray Rice is on a seven-game drought without posting 100 yards rushing. "Monday Night Football" would be a perfect time to snap that streak. Rice last eclipsed the 100-yard mark with a 133-yard effort on Oct. 10 against the Denver Broncos. Rice hasn't had 20 or more carries in the past month, and got only nine carries last week in a loss to Pittsburgh. Here are five more things to watch tonight for the Ravens.
  • The Cleveland Browns (5-8) project to win just six games this season after Sunday's ugly loss to the lowly Buffalo Bills. Cleveland plays three division games to end the season: at Cincinnati (2-11), vs. Baltimore (8-4) and vs. Pittsburgh (10-3). There are a lot of questions about the future of Browns coach Eric Mangini, who went 5-11 last year. A 6-10 record won't look good on his résumé, which means Mangini probably must pull off major upsets down the stretch to impress Cleveland president Mike Holmgren.
  • Finally, we'd like to give a special "Seven-step drop" congrats to Browns tailback Peyton Hillis, who eclipsed the 1,000 yards rushing for the first time in his career. Hillis has been, by far, Cleveland's MVP this season. He has had fumbling issues, which showed up again in the loss to Buffalo. But the Browns may only have had one or two wins this year if they had not the offseason trade with Denver to get Hillis for quarterback Brady Quinn.

Steelers updated playoff scenarios

December, 10, 2010
12/10/10
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Thursday's win by the Indianapolis Colts (7-6) was a major blow to the Pittsburgh Steelers (9-3) clinching a postseason berth in Week 14.

Pittsburgh entered the week with five ways to earn a playoff spot. But the Colts' 30-28 win over the Titans eliminated four of those options.

Here is an updated version of the only way the Steelers can now clinch an early playoff berth Sunday:
  1. Pittsburgh wins + Jacksonville loss or tie + New England win or tie + Miami Dolphins loss or tie.

As far as opponents, the Jaguars (7-5) host the Oakland Raiders (6-6), the Patriots (10-2) travel to play the Chicago Bears (9-3) and the Dolphins (6-6) play New York Jets (9-3) on the road.

AFC North Week 11 decisive moment

November, 23, 2010
11/23/10
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» NFC Decisive Moments: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Despite lacking Pro Bowl-caliber talent, the Cleveland Browns' defense has played tough, fundamentally sound football most of this season. That is why it was surprising to see everything break down during the worst possible time in Sunday's 24-20 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Cleveland held a three-point lead in the fourth quarter. Jacksonville (six turnovers) was sloppy all game but outplayed the Browns in the final two minutes. Running back Maurice Jones-Drew ignited the Jaguars late with a 75-yard screen pass, which is this week's decisive moment in the AFC North.

Jones-Drew caught the ball on the right side, dodged several would-be tacklers and reversed field to the left for an impressive 75-yard reception. It is, by far, the longest reception of Jones-Drew's career. The only thing that prevented a 76-yard touchdown was Cleveland rookie cornerback Joe Haden's hustle to catch Jones-Drew from behind. The running back would later score on a 1-yard touchdown run that put Jacksonville (6-4) ahead for good.

It would be unfair to say Cleveland (3-7) lost this game on one play, particularly when the defense forced turnover after turnover but the offense failed to capitalize. In a league in which so many games come down to the fourth quarter, Cleveland's defense had a late lapse in execution and Jacksonville took advantage.
The Cleveland Browns haven't ruled out rookie quarterback Colt McCoy (ankle) for Sunday's game against the Carolina Panthers, but his status remains "up in the air" this week, a source told ESPN.com's AFC North blog.

McCoy sprained his left ankle in the third quarter of a loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Browns aren't expected to make a firm decision on the rookie third-round draft pick until the end of the week.

McCoy started the past five games for Cleveland (3-7) and went 2-3 in that span. If he cannot play against the Panthers (1-9), the Browns will have to turn to either Seneca Wallace or Jake Delhomme. Both veteran quarterbacks also suffered ankle sprains that sidelined them this season.

Wrap-up: Jaguars 24, Browns 20

November, 21, 2010
11/21/10
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Here are some thoughts on the Jacksonville Jaguars' 24-20 come-from-behind win against the Cleveland Browns:

What it means: The Browns once again fail to handle expectations after getting a lot of press for playing tough against the NFL's elite. Cleveland generated some buzz with big wins over New Orleans and New England. But to truly take the next step, the Browns have to beat teams like Jacksonville. In the end, the Browns are just 3-7 and chances look slim to finish at .500 this season.

What I liked: I liked that the Browns forced six turnovers to give their offense a chance to score points. Cleveland's defense faltered down the stretch and will get some blame for the late collapse. But overall the Browns did their job defensively most of the game. Cleveland running back Peyton Hills also did a good job of catching the ball out of the backfield with a team-high 95-yards and a touchdown.

What I didn't like: The Browns' offense only got into the end zone once and their running game surprisingly was non-existent. It was a major reason why Cleveland couldn't hold the lead. Jacksonville kept turning over the football but it also held Hillis to 48 rushing yards on 23 carries (2.3 yards per attempt) to get more chances. A few extra plays by the Browns offensively would have sealed this one. But it's a good lesson for a young team trying to learn how to win consistently.

What's next: This loss kills a lot of momentum for the Browns, but they have a chance to get back on the winning track against the lowly Carolina Panthers (1-9). Cleveland, which has a two-game losing streak, has its easy portion of the schedule coming up and needs to collect as many victories as possible.

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