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Friday, December 4, 2009
Final Word: AFC North

By James Walker

NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 13:

Cedric Benson
Cedric Benson will rejoin a crowded Bengals backfield.
'Big Ben' is back: Amid controversy and plenty of national headlines, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger returns to the starting lineup Sunday against the Oakland Raiders. Team captain Hines Ward questioned the decision to pull Roethlisberger one day before Pittsburgh’s loss to the Baltimore Ravens. But Ward said this week that the issue has been resolved. The best way for the Steelers to truly move on is to get back on the winning track and for Roethlisberger to have a big game. Their three-game skid has caused a lot of discontent for a proud group that’s not used to losing this time of year. This game against Oakland is virtually a must-win for the Steelers (6-5), who have a small margin of error if they want to get into the postseason.

Benson rejoins crowded field: Another player who is returning to the starting lineup, but with less attention, is Cincinnati Bengals starting tailback Cedric Benson. He missed the past two weeks with a hip injury. Cincinnati’s offense has run the ball well without Benson, which makes you wonder how carries will be distributed between Benson, former Pro Bowler Larry Johnson and rookie Bernard Scott. All three tailbacks have had 100-yard games this season. Benson wasn’t too happy with the recent signing of Johnson. It will be interesting to see how Cincinnati's coaching staff handles this sensitive matter the rest of the season.

Protections issues: If the Baltimore Ravens (6-5) want to pull off the upset Monday and beat the Green Bay Packers (7-4) at Lambeau Field, the Ravens must apply constant pressure on Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Green Bay's offense is red hot, averaging 32 points the past two weeks. But the Packers’ biggest weakness has been protecting Rodgers, who has been sacked an astounding 44 times. Baltimore has been inconsistent in rushing the passer. But this is a golden opportunity for the Ravens to turn up the heat against a team that hasn’t blocked well all season.

The Clayton factor: In the first four games after the bye week, Baltimore Ravens receiver Mark Clayton had only five catches for 58 yards. Then Clayton exploded for seven catches for 129 yards in last week’s huge win over Pittsburgh. The Ravens (6-5) need more of that from their former first-round pick if they expect to make a push to the postseason. Clayton has been one of the great enigmas in the AFC North. He’s had big performances over his five-year career but usually disappears for weeks afterward. Clayton's biggest game before Sunday was in Baltimore's season opener against the Kansas City Chiefs, when he had five catches for 77 yards and a touchdown.

New rushers: With the season-ending concussion to Jamal Lewis, the Cleveland Browns will now turn to backups Jerome Harrison and Chris Jennings for the remainder of the season. Both Harrison and Jennings have shown a few flashes this year but are averaging only 3.6 and 3.4 yards per carry respectively. The coaching staff pretty much knows what it has in Harrison, who is a smaller, change-of-pace type of runner who struggles with pass protection. Look for the team to give Jennings a lot of touches down the stretch to find out what the former CFL product is made of.