Entering Week 13, only two teams remain competitive in the race to win the AFC North. With only five games to go, the margin for error becomes extremely slim for Baltimore and Pittsburgh as they head into a difficult final stretch. After losing three games in a row and now their quarterback for the season, Cincinnati’s playoff hopes are all but forgotten. Meanwhile, Cleveland has found their fire with consecutive wins, albeit a tad too late in the season.
Baltimore Ravens (6-5)
Winners of their last two games, the Ravens travel to Atlanta to face the 4-7 Falcons for what should be Lamar Jackson’s first road start. Jackson has led his team to victory in his first two starts at home, but playing on the road presents a whole new plethora of challenges for the rookie quarterback.
Baltimore has formed a new run-first identity on offense with Jackson and running back Gus Edwards leading the helm. Edwards has rushed for over 100 yards in back-to-back games. Edwards straight forward, hard-nosed running style pairs well with Jackson’s elusive outside speed. Jackson has also shown the ability to remain poised and deliver passes from inside the pocket, but his decision making and accuracy are still in question. Jackson has faced poor defenses in each start so far, and that will continue on Sunday with Atlanta’s 28th ranked defense. Unfortunately for the Ravens, the low ranking unit will receive a boost from the return of linebacker Deion Jones.
Baltimore’s defense will have a much harder challenge against the Falcon’s offense. Despite losing star running back Devonta Freeman and becoming one-dimensional, quarterback Matt Ryan has led Atlanta to the fourth ranked passing offense. Ryan has a slew of talented targets to throw to, most notably All-Pro receiver Julio Jones who has recorded six-straight 100 yard games. Rookie receiver Calvin Ridley has been a big addition as well, leading the team with eight receiving touchdowns. Wide receiver Mohamed Sanu and tight end Austin Hooper are also viable threats through the air. Defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale will have his hands full crafting a game plan to contain Ryan and his weapons.
In a tight race for the sixth seed into the playoffs, winning on the road and improving to 7-5 would be huge for the Ravens postseason chances.
Cincinnati Bengals (5-6)
The biggest loss for Cincinnati was not their 35-20 defeat by the Browns last Sunday, but rather quarterback Andy Dalton’s season-ending thumb injury, which effectively ends the Bengals shot at the playoffs. They now face a team trending in the opposite direction, the 5-6 Denver Broncos, who have entered the playoff hunt with consecutive wins.
Third-year quarterback Jeff Driskel will replace Dalton under center. Driskel made his regular season debut last week after Dalton’s injury and nearly led the team to a comeback. Fortunately for Driskel, star receiver A.J. Green will return from a three-game absence. Green paired with second-year receiver Tyler Boyd will give Driskel a pair of great targets, while running back Joe Mixon will continue to carry the load on the ground and relieve pressure from the quarterback.
Cincinnati’s defense has been by far the team’s biggest weakness, ranking dead last in the league in total defense. The Bengals are currently allowing 147.5 rushing yards per game on defense, the second worst in the NFL. They will have their hands full this week with rookie running back Phillip Lindsay. An undrafted Lindsay took the league by surprise by earning the Broncos starting running back job over third-round pick Royce Freeman. Lindsay has rushed for 780 yards and six touchdowns so far this season. Cincinnati’s game plan will have to start with stopping him on the ground and forcing quarterback Case Keenum to step up and win the game with his arm.
A win on Sunday would improve the Bengals to 6-6, keeping them in the playoff race.
Cleveland Browns (4-6-1)
Cleveland has found confidence behind rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield, winning two in a row. Although it is virtually too late to sneak into the playoffs, winning games now will have a momentous impact for next season. Unfortunately, the Browns will have to travel to Houston this week to face the red-hot Texans, winners of eight-straight games.
Since the firing of head coach Hue Jackson, Mayfield has blossomed. In his last three games, Mayfield has thrown nine touchdowns to only one interception. Cleveland went 2-1 during that stretch. Houston has a pair of elite pass rushers in J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney, who have a combined for 16.5 sacks on the season. The Browns must contain these two at all costs on Sunday and protect Mayfield.
Cleveland’s attention on defense must go to quarterback Deshaun Watson and his favorite target DeAndre Hopkins. Watson and Hopkins have established themselves as one of the most dangerous duos in the NFL in just Watson’s second year. Hopkins, an exceptional route runner with an unbelievable catch radius, is one of the top receivers in the game. Watson is one of the best young quarterbacks as well, capable of explosive plays at any second, both with his legs and his arm.
Upsetting the Texans will go a long way in building confidence for this young Browns team.
Pittsburgh Steelers (7-3-1)
The Steelers suffered a disappointing loss last Sunday, but things will not get any easier this week as they face the 8-3 Los Angeles Chargers.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will have to protect the football better this week. Roethlisberger threw a pair of interceptions last Sunday, one of which was a highly questionable decision in the red zone, ending the game. The Chargers currently have the eighth ranked passing defense. Defensive end Joey Bosa has given the defense a huge boost in his long awaited return as well, recording two sacks against the Arizona Cardinals. Bosa and Melvin Ingram combine for one of the best pass rushing duos in the NFL. Successfully running the ball with James Conner will help keep the pass rush at bay.
Pittsburgh dodged a bullet on defense as star running back Melvin Gordon suffered a knee injury last week against the Cardinals and is expected to miss some time. Gordon was enjoying a strong season, nearing 1,000 rushing yards. Austin Ekeler will pick up the starting running back duties now, though he does not present the same threat as Gordon. Quarterback Philip Rivers is having one if, if not the best, seasons of his career, throwing for 3,119 yards, 26 touchdowns and only six interceptions, leading his team to the fifth ranked offense in the league.
With a slate of tough upcoming opponents, the Steelers have little room for error. Pittsburgh would greatly increase their odds of winning the division by improving to 8-3-1.