Rashard Mendenhall has 528 yards and four touchdowns in five starts this season.
Huge stakes: Forget about the Indianapolis Colts against the New England Patriots. The bigger game that involves higher stakes this week is the marquee matchup between the Cincinnati Bengals (6-2) and Pittsburgh Steelers (6-2). This game has the potential to decide the AFC North division champion for 2009. The division champ also will have a home game in the postseason. The Bengals won the first meeting 23-20, with a furious rally in the fourth quarter. These are two very deep teams that no one will want to face in January. But for right now, the rest of the NFL gets to see them beat each other up one more time.
Mendy is trendy: As big of a surprise as Cedric Benson is with the Bengals, an equally strong case can be made for Steelers tailback Rashard Mendenhall. The 2008 first-round pick has fit right into Pittsburgh’s offense since becoming a starter in Week 4. Mendenhall has 528 yards and four touchdowns in five starts and has shown a good combination of quickness and power. Mendenhall had arguably his best performance of his career last week in a win against the Denver Broncos when he rushed for 155 yards and 22 carries (7.0 average). He got stronger in the second half and closed any hopes of a Denver comeback. Mendenhall was inactive for the first meeting against Cincinnati due to poor practice habits.
Next man up: The Bengals also announced Friday that starting safety Roy Williams is out for the year with a forearm injury. This makes backup safety Chinedum Ndukwe the starter for the remainder of the season. Williams was one of Cincinnati’s biggest free-agent acquisitions in the offseason but only played in four games. He was the second player to go to injured reserve this week, joining receiver Chris Henry. Ndukwe has played in all eight games, including four starts, with 35 tackles and 1.5 sacks this season.
Slow starters: One reason the Baltimore Ravens (4-4) are struggling is because of their notoriously slow starts. In four of Baltimore’s losses, the Ravens have been outscored in the first half by a combined score of 51-17. The Ravens didn’t score more than seven points in the first half of either of those games. Baltimore faces another slow-starting team in the Cleveland Browns this week, as the Ravens look to change that trend in a must-win game.
Swan song: Monday will mark the final time Browns tailback Jamal Lewis plays against former teammate Ray Lewis and the Ravens. The two won a Super Bowl together in 2000 and had a lot of success in Baltimore. But Jamal Lewis, 30, said he is retiring after the season. He joined the Browns in 2007 to try to win another championship. But Cleveland never made the playoffs in Jamal Lewis’ tenure and the team is now 1-7. The tailback has been very outspoken recently, particularly about Browns head coach Eric Mangini. It will be interesting to see how well Jamal Lewis plays in the final eight games of his stellar career.