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Friday, December 16, 2011
Final Word: AFC North

By Jamison Hensley

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

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 15:

Steelers' backup plan: Ben Roethlisberger's status is uncertain for Monday night's game at San Francisco because of a high ankle sprain, and the Steelers have been preparing Charlie Batch and Dennis Dixon to play. If Roethlisberger can't go, here's a word of advice for Batch and Dixon: Be careful with the ball around the 49ers. San Francisco is tied for second in the league in interceptions and has at least one interception in 11 of 13 games, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The 49ers are the only defense in the NFL to have more than one player with at least five interceptions (Dashon Goldson and Carlos Rogers). The Steelers quarterbacks who have started in place of Roethlisberger since 2004 have thrown 13 interceptions in 14 games.

Ray Lewis
The Ravens should get team leader Ray Lewis back after the linebacker missed four games with a toe injury.
Return of Ray: The Ravens expect linebacker Ray Lewis to come back after missing four games with a toe injury. This should bolster the middle of a defense that has been its strong area all season. According to ESPN Stats & Information, no team has allowed fewer yards per rush between the tackles than the Ravens this season (3.4) and Baltimore is the only team not to allow a run of 20 yards or longer up the middle. Baltimore will get challenged by San Diego running back Ryan Mathews, who has rushed for more than 100 yards in three straight games. On runs in between the tackles this season, he is the top five in yards per rush (5.2) and 20-yard gains (seven).

Homesick Browns: Cleveland won its first road game of the season, beating the winless Colts. It has been a disaster away from home ever since. The Browns have lost five straight road games, mainly because of their play in the fourth quarter. Cleveland lost at Cincinnati despite entering the fourth quarter with a three-point lead and fell at Pittsburgh after being within four points of the Steelers for almost the entire final quarter. A loss at Arizona would mark the third straight season with at least six road losses for the Browns.

Run down Rams: Cedric Benson needs eight rushing yards to become the fifth Bengals running back to reach 4,000 for his career. Let's just say the odds are in his favor. The Rams have the NFL's worst run defense, allowing 156.8 yards a game on the ground. St. Louis is the only defense to give up 200-yard rushing games to two backs (Dallas' DeMarco Murray and Arizona's Beanie Wells). That works in Cincinnati's favor. The Bengals are 11-1 when Benson carries the ball at least 25 times.

The James Harrison factor: The key to beating the 49ers is getting pressure on quarterback Alex Smith. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Smith has been sacked 20 times in three losses and only 19 times in 10 wins. The Steelers' pass rush took a major hit when James Harrison was suspended one game for his helmet-to-helmet shot on Browns quarterback Colt McCoy. Over the past five games -- all of the ones that LaMarr Woodley (hamstring) has failed to play or finish -- Harrison has accounted for six of the Steelers' 10 sacks.