- Jamison Hensley, ESPN Staff Writer
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Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 17:
Stretching the field: Joe Flacco beat the Cincinnati Bengals earlier this season by throwing deep. He connected on three passes of more than 35 yards, including a 38-yard touchdown to Torrey Smith in which he split safeties Chris Crocker and Reggie Nelson. But stretching the field hasn't happened as much as some expected this season, at least not consistently. Flacco's 25.4 completion percentage on throws that traveled more than 20 yards is the worst of any quarterback with at least 50 attempts since 2008, according to ESPN Stats & Information. This isn't anything new to Flacco, whose success rate in 2008 (25.5 completion percentage) ranks as the second-worst over the past four seasons.
Not giving any gifts: While a lot of attention has centered on Cedric Benson's fumbling problems (five in two weeks), Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton has improved as far as protecting the ball. The rookie second-round pick has thrown one interception in his past five games, a total of 140 pass attempts. This impressive stretch started after Dalton was picked off a career-high three times in Baltimore. Since that last meeting, the Baltimore Ravens have had four interceptions in five games. The last time Dalton was picked off at home was Nov. 13, when he threw a fourth-quarter interception against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Pressuring without all the pieces: The Steelers have had to be creative in getting to the quarterback because they haven't been at full strength for most of the season. Their top two pass-rushers, James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley haven't played a full game together since Sept. 25 because of injuries and a suspension. Still, Pittsburgh's defense has produced the most duress for quarterbacks since Week 10 (causing pressure on 26.8 percent of dropbacks), according to ESPN Stats & Information. This has been the result of an increase in blitzing. The Steelers have rushed five or more on 47 percent of opponents' pass plays over the past eight weeks, the third-highest rate in the NFL.
Hillis back on track: The Cleveland Browns' Peyton Hillis has recently looked like the running back from last season. He has a total of 211 rushing yards in two games after producing just 346 yards rushing in his previous seven this season (that's 49.4 yards per game). Hillis is once again powering his way up the middle of defenses. He has 57 carries in between the tackles the last four games; no other player has more than 38 over that span, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The Steelers' run defense is looking to rebound from last Saturday, when they gave up 103 yards rushing to the St. Louis Rams' Steven Jackson. It's the third time this season that a running back has gained more than 100 yards rushing against Pittsburgh (Ray Rice and Arian Foster were the others).
Sinking in Cincinnati: The toughest spot for Baltimore to win lately has been Paul Brown Stadium. The Ravens have lost on five of their past six trips there, including the past two. Flacco has thrown one touchdown and six interceptions in his past two games in Cincinnati. The Ravens have had their struggles on the road this season, with a 3-4 record and losses at the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Seattle Seahawks. But Baltimore has played its best away from home when traveling inside the division. The Ravens have won four straight road games in the AFC North. Of course, the last divisional road loss was at Cincinnati in Week 2 of last season.
10hEric D. Williams