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AFC North Preview: Week 9

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

As Week 9 of the NFL season arrives, the AFC North remains in a heated competition. The Pittsburgh Steelers lead at 4-2-1. The Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens are both right behind at 4-4. The Cleveland Browns have seemingly fallen out of contention and fired head coach Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley this week. Baltimore and Pittsburgh engage in another installment of their classic rivalry on Sunday, while Cleveland faces the seemingly unstoppable Kansas City Chiefs and Cincinnati enjoys a bye week.

Pittsburgh Steelers (4-2-1)

The Steelers have won three straight games since their 26-14 home loss to the Ravens in Week 4. After a rocky start to the season, Pittsburgh now has a chance to extend their division lead by getting revenge on Baltimore this afternoon.

In their last matchup, it was wide receiver John Brown who torched the Steelers secondary with three catches for 116 yards and a touchdown. Quarterback Joe Flacco found little resistance, throwing for 363 yards and two touchdowns. Containing Brown and pressuring Flacco will be key for Pittsburgh’s defense, with both starting tackles having been declared out for the Ravens.

On offense, the Steelers must commit to the running game with James Conner. Conner only rushed for 19 yards on a measly nine carries against Baltimore previously. Establishing the run will help to open up wide receivers Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster in the passing game. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger must protect the football as well against the Ravens stingy defense.

Baltimore Ravens (4-4)

After losing two straight and falling to 4-4, Baltimore now hosts Pittsburgh in a game with huge postseason implications.

The Ravens defense shut down the Steelers offense for the most part in their last matchup, shutting them out in the second half. Cornerback Jimmy Smith has been struggling since returning from a torn Achilles, and Marlon Humphrey has missed several games with a hamstring injury. Humphrey will be vital in stopping Brown if he is able to play on Sunday. Meanwhile, Baltimore’s defense will need to contain Conner on the ground and force Roethlisberger to win the game through the air.

On the other hand, establishing the run game on offense will be pivotal to free up the deep passing attack. With Ronnie Stanley and James Hurst both out, the offensive line must protect Flacco at all costs. Outside linebacker T.J. Watt currently has seven sacks on the year, so the Ravens must find a way to neutralize him on the edge. Taking advantage of Pittsburgh’s linebackers in coverage should be a focus of Baltimore’s offense.

Cleveland Browns (2-5-1)

After firing Hue Jackson and Todd Haley, interim head coach Gregg Williams must rally his team against the 7-1 Chiefs.

Quarterback Patrick Mahomes has led Kansas City to the third ranked offense. Mahomes is the favorite for MVP so far this season, throwing for 26 touchdowns in just eight games. Mahomes is also surrounded by an excellent supporting cast on offense. Wide receiver Tyreek Hill is possibly the most dangerous speed threat in the league, Travis Kelce is possibly the best tight end, Sammy Watkins is a big, strong receiver on the outside and Kareem Hunt is one of the best running backs in the game in just his second year. The Browns defense, ranked 28th in the NFL, is going to have an uphill battle in stopping Mahomes and the Chiefs offense.

On the flip side, Kansas City’s defense is ranked 31st in the NFL, allowing 26.5 points per game. While Cleveland’s offense is only ranked 24th in the league, Mayfield should be able to exploit the Chiefs pass defense, currently ranked 29th. Wide receiver Jarvis Landry will play a big role in the Brown’s offense finding success.