AFC North: Marques Colston

Final Word: AFC North

December, 28, 2012
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 17:

[+] EnlargeRay Rice
Andrew Mills/THE STAR-LEDGER via USA TODAY SportsDon't be surprised to see the Ravens ride RB Ray Rice against the Bengals on Sunday.
Running wild: While it's unknown how much the Ravens starters will play, it's proven that Baltimore increases its chances of winning by giving the ball more to running back Ray Rice. After getting fewer than 25 touches in each game during the Ravens' three-game losing streak, Rice got 30 in the Week 16 win over the Giants. Since the Ravens drafted Rice in 2008, they are 23-3 in games in which he gets at least 25 touches, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Rice also is the key to success against the Bengals. He has run for 363 yards in his past three games against them, with 301 of those yards coming before initial contact. That’s the most rush yards before contact for any player against a single opponent since the start of the 2011 season.

Going for the elusive sweep: With a 20-14 win over the Steelers already under their belt, the Browns are looking for their first season sweep of Pittsburgh since 1988. How long ago is that? Cleveland running back Trent Richardson was 3 years old at that time, and the Browns' wins came at two places that no longer exist -- Three Rivers Stadium and Cleveland Municipal Stadium. Since that sweep, the Browns have gone 10-33 (.233) against the Steelers and have been swept by Pittsburgh 11 times.

Sophomore sizzle: Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green has 160 catches in his first two seasons, which is the fourth-most in NFL history. He needs nine catches against Baltimore to surpass Marques Colston for the most receptions during the first two seasons in the league. His 2,381 yards receiving is the sixth-most in a player's first two years in the NFL. With 116 yards receiving this past Sunday, Green has produced five games with at least 100 yards receiving this season. No player in Bengals history has ever had six such games in one season, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Finishing strong: The Ravens and Steelers are among the best in the NFL when it comes to finishing off the regular season. Since 2000, Baltimore and Pittsburgh are 10-2 in the last game of the regular season. Only the Packers, who are 11-1, have a better record. In fact, the Steelers' only losses in the regular-season finale during that span have been to Baltimore. The Ravens have won six straight regular-season finales and 10 of their past 12 overall. The Packers and Chargers are the only other teams to win each of their past six regular-season finales.

Touchdown terror: Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton has thrown 46 touchdown passes in 31 career games. The only quarterbacks who have passed for more in their first two seasons in the NFL are: Dan Marino (68) and Peyton Manning (52), according to ESPN Stats & Information. But, in three career games against Baltimore, Dalton has thrown one touchdown and four interceptions. His minus-3 touchdown-to-interception differential is his worst against any opponent, and his career passer rating against Baltimore is 63.8.
Torrey SmithAP Photo/Gail BurtonRookie receiver Torrey Smith has given the Ravens the deep threat they've tried for years to find.

BALTIMORE -- The Ravens find themselves leading the AFC North race because of the speed of Torrey Smith.

The second-round pick is the wide receiver Baltimore has been desperately searching for over the past decade. Smith is fast. He's a playmaker.

Smith was the difference in the Ravens winning and losing at Pittsburgh. He was the difference between the Ravens losing to the Bengals last season and beating them 31-24 on Sunday.

"In past years, they've been able to put some pressure on us with their coverage, lock us up pretty tightly, and get some pressure with their front four," Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco said. "But with Torrey out there, he definitely has the speed and can hurt them in man-to-man coverage. That helped us out today."

With the game tied at 7-7 in the second quarter, Smith burst past Cincinnati cornerback Nate Clements down the right sideline for a 49-yard over-the-shoulder catch, which set up the go-ahead touchdown. His 38-yard touchdown grab early in the fourth quarter-- which came with him beating a cornerback and splitting two safeties -- put Baltimore up 31-14.

Smith is fast learning how to handle the ups and downs of a first season in the NFL. He's made some big drops, but he's always responded with bigger catches.

The dangerous part of Smith's game is that his confidence is at an all-time high. It was apparent in the huddle right before his fourth-quarter touchdown.

"We all knew it was time for us to get seven," Smith said. "We knew what type of play it was."

Thanks to Smith's six catches for 165 yards, the Ravens (7-3) are in first place and control their playoff fate. They have the same record as the Steelers but hold the tiebreaker advantage by having swept them.

To elevate themselves past the Steelers, the Ravens made it a priority to find a wide receiver to complement Flacco's big arm, which has been the one blemish on the team's spectacular draft résumé. The Ravens have drafted 16 wide receivers -- from Patrick Johnson to Travis Taylor to Mark Clayton -- and none became consistent downfield threats.

Baltimore had to look to free agency to find wide receivers. Defenses respected the likes of Derrick Mason and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, but they fear Smith.

His 27.5 yards-per-catch Sunday should cause the Bengals defensive backs to pull out their hair -- instead of pulling Smith down by his.

"I think we did envision the type of player he was going to be," coach John Harbaugh said. "That's why we drafted him."

Before the season began, if you saw Smith's statistics for the Bengals-Ravens game, you would have expected A.J. Green or Lee Evans to put up those numbers. But Green was inactive with a knee injury, and Evans has been surpassed by Smith on the depth chart because of an ankle injury.

While Green and Atlanta's Julio Jones have garnered most of the attention when it comes to rookie receivers, Smith is starting to close the gap on them after posting the top two receiving performances by a rookie (as far as receiving yards) this season.

He now has two games of at least 150 yards receiving during his rookie season. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the only other rookies in the past 15 years to accomplish this are Randy Moss with the Vikings in 1998 and Marques Colston with the Saints in 2006.

"He's been a guy that we thought could go get the deep ball," Harbaugh said, "He kind of put it in another gear at the end and go chase down a ball."

Smith's speed is different than what Pittsburgh's Mike Wallace shows on the field, according to former NFL wide receiver Qadry Ismail, who is on the Ravens' radio team. Ismail said Wallace accelerates immediately off the line, whereas Smith has that burst at the end to separate from receivers.

Flacco has gotten a feel for Smith's speed and has now thrown four touchdowns over 20 yards to Smith. He hasn't thrown more than three such touchdowns to any receiver in his previous three seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

"Like I've always said, when the ball is in the air, he can separate," Flacco said.

That separation has led to some desperation for opponents. At one point, the Bengals saved a touchdown late in the second quarter when Adam Jones pulled Smith down by grabbing his hair. It's not a penalty because that's considered part of Smith's uniform.

Smith said it didn't hurt.

"I was surprised by it," Smith said. "It actually felt like I was getting pulled down by my jersey."

Is a new haircut in order?

"I honestly thought about it, but my grandma likes it a little too much," he said. "I'm a mama and grandmama's boy, at least for now."

Smith did provide a new look for the Ravens' passing attack against Cincinnati. Flacco has long struggled against the Bengals and their Cover-2 defense, averaging 178 yards passing in going 3-3 against them. Smith nearly matched that passing average by himself.

Some could argue that Smith's production earlier this season caught defenses by surprise. But defensive backs know about Smith now and they're still having trouble containing him.

His 165 yards receiving is third-highest for a Ravens receiver and is the most allowed by Cincinnati this season.

"Coming into the game, we knew he was a guy who could stretch the field," Clements said. "We just had to take away his strength and make him go elsewhere. We didn't do that today, and he made us pay for that."

Bengals-Ravens notes

Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed made a bizarre shout-out at a postgame session with reporters when asked about Jimmy Smith fumbling after making his first career interception. "It reminds me of my rookie year, they slapped it out of my hands and it wound up going back to him. But I’m glad we got it back," Reed said. "I’m kind of surprised you haven’t asked me about the Presidents Cup, though. Congratulations to those guys, Fred Couples and our team. That was huge." Never knew Reed was such a huge golf fan. ... Former kicker Matt Stover became the sixth member of the Ravens organization to be inducted into the team's Ring of Honor. ... George Clooney was spotted at Sunday's game between the Ravens and Bengals. He's dating Baltimore native Stacy Keibler. Yes, this isn't football-related. But this has to be the first time a movie star ever attended a Ravens-Bengals game, right?