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Friday, December 24, 2010
Final Word: AFC North

By JamesWalker

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

Here are five nuggets of knowledge about Week 16:

Joe Flacco
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco is growing into a leadership role in his third season.
Fiery Joe: What's gotten into Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco lately? Flacco, who earned the nickname "Joe Cool" to describe his temperament, has been very fiery. In the past few weeks, Flacco has argued with officials and gotten into a heated exchange with veteran receiver Derrick Mason on the sidelines. In his third season, Flacco is playing well and showing more emotion than ever, and it's part of his evolution as an offensive leader in Baltimore. Is this a good thing? "I think so," Ravens defensive end/linebacker Terrell Suggs said in a conference call this week. "We have a very loose locker room, and it's good to see Joe have a little bit of fire to him."

Stopping the run: Ravens running back Ray Rice is coming off his most complete game of the season with 233 total yards and two touchdowns. He will present a stiff challenge for the Cleveland Browns' run defense, which has struggled. The Browns have been pushed around at the line of scrimmage the past two weeks, allowing 380 rushing yards in losses to the Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals. Cleveland has been a tough team all season, but you have to wonder if that toughness is starting to fade down the stretch.

Third-down woes: Another reason Cleveland's defense is wearing down: The offense can'támove the chains. In the past three games, the Browns are an abysmal 6-for-32 (18.7 percent) on third-down conversions. Cleveland cannot sustain long drives and, even after getting turnovers, usually settles for a field goal or quickly gives the ball back to the other team. Browns offensive coordinator Brian Daboll is on the hot seat after not being able to get his group going all year.

Young receivers: With Terrell Owens (knee) on injured reserve and Chad Ochocinco (ankle) ailing, expect to see a lot more from third-year Bengals receivers Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell. They were taken in the second and third rounds, respectively, in 2008 and projected to be major contributors by now. But opportunities and production have been sparse. Simpson and Caldwell got extended playing time last week against the Browns,ácombining for six receptions for 129 yards. Both are auditioning for bigger roles in 2011.

Extended rest: After picking up a 27-3 victory against the Carolina Panthers, the Steelers get 10 days to rest for their regular-season finale against Cleveland on Jan. 2. Pittsburgh will look to avenge last year's 13-6 loss in Cleveland, which helped keep the Steelers out of the playoffs. The game will be meaningful for Pittsburgh in the standings if Baltimore beats the Browns on Sunday.