Seven-step drop: Ray Rice explodes

Here are seven notes and observations from Week 15 in the AFC North:

  • Baltimore Ravens tailback Ray Rice entered Week 15 with fewer than 20 carries in each of his previous five games. But it appears that helped Rice, as he showed he had fresh legs in late December. Rice looked energized and was ready for the heavy workload in a 30-24 win over the New Orleans Saints. He rushed for a season-high 153 yards and a touchdown on 31 carries. He also led the team in receiving with five catches for 80 yards. It was a throwback performance for Rice, who put up these kind of numbers more often last season when the Ravens didn't have as many weapons. But getting the ball back in Rice's hands should continue to be a focal point for Baltimore's offensive coordinator Cam Cameron.

  • If the season ended today, the Ravens (10-4) would travel to face the Indianapolis Colts (8-6) in the playoffs at Lucas Oil Stadium. Despite Indianapolis' record, we like Baltimore's chances better against any other playoff contender. The Colts have been an awful matchup for the Ravens. Quarterback Peyton Manning is 8-2 in his career against Baltimore, including Indianapolis' playoff win last season. The Kansas City Chiefs or Jacksonville Jaguars would be easier playoff opponents.

  • We received a lot of emails regarding Carson Palmer's future since the AFC North blog reported the quarterback would not accept a pay cut to stay with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2011. Although there are no guarantees, it does increase the possibility that Palmer will wear another uniform next season. We came up with several logical destinations for Palmer. The Oakland Raiders, where former Bengals assistant Hue Jackson is the offensive coordinator, could be one option. The San Francisco 49ers, Minnesota Vikings and Arizona Cardinals are teams that could be searching for quarterback help. It's very early, however. The Bengals may choose to pay Palmer $11.5 million and make him one of the NFL's highest-paid players next season. But investing that much in a struggling quarterback is very risky.

  • The Bengals did a smart thing by giving young, unproven players meaningful reps in their 19-17 victory over the Cleveland Browns. Tailback Bernard Scott (eight carries, 40 yards) and receivers Andre Caldwell (four catches, 89 yards) and Jerome Simpson (two catches, 30 yards) contributed, as Cincinnati tries to figure out who stays and who goes this offseason. Caldwell was particularly impressive. After Terrell Owens (knee) went down, Caldwell led Cincinnati in receiving and made big receptions, including a well-designed 53-yard screen pass.

  • Browns rookie quarterback Colt McCoy reached a contract escalator Sunday. McCoy needed to play 35 percent of Cleveland's offensive snaps this year -- which is the equivalent of 5.6 games -- for his fourth-year salary to increase from approximately $500,000 to $1.15 million. That's a $650,000 raise. McCoy made his sixth start against the Bengals and will remain Cleveland's starter the rest of the season. Considering McCoy was not expected to play this season, it's an unexpected accomplishment for the third-round pick.

  • Here are several additional things I learned about the Browns: McCoy has nice touch and a good play-action fake, Pro Bowl kick returner Josh Cribbs is more hurt than he's letting on, and John St. Clair is not the answer at right tackle.

  • The Pittsburgh Steelers' loss to the New York Jets likely ensures Pittsburgh won't have the option to rest starters in Week 17. Baltimore and Pittsburgh (10-4) share the same record, but the Steelers own the tiebreaker. The Steelers host the Carolina Panthers (2-12) and the Ravens travel to face the Browns (5-9) in Week 16. Both 10-win teams are favored, which would set up a division race down to the final weekend.