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AFC North Preview: Week 15

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Oakland Raiders Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

Only three games remain in the 2018 NFL season. Pittsburgh leads the division at 7-5-1, but Baltimore is only half a game behind at 7-6, making every game a must-win now.

Cleveland Browns (5-7-1)

At 5-7-1, Cleveland still has a chance, albeit a very slim one, to make the playoffs. However, winning out will not be enough. The Browns will need help from several teams in order to make it to the postseason, but winning on Saturday is the first step. Cleveland will travel to Denver to face the 6-7 Broncos, who are fighting for a playoff spot as well.

Quarterback Baker Mayfield has lived up to the expectations that come with being drafted first overall, throwing 19 touchdowns to 10 interceptions this season. The Browns have won five times as many games this season as the previous two combined, and Mayfield is the biggest difference maker. Meanwhile, rookie running back Nick Chubb has taken control of Cleveland’s backfield, rushing for 760 yards and eight touchdowns.

Denver’s defense is ranked 24th in the league and has suffered key injuries in recent weeks, most notably the loss of cornerback Chris Harris Jr., who is now out for the season. Von Miller and Bradley Chubb both present major threats from the outside linebacker position, as both Miller and Chubb have double digit sack totals this season.

The Broncos offense suffered a major loss as well recently. Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders was placed on injured reserve after tearing his Achilles in practice. This leaves a major hole in Denver’s offense that rookies Courtland Sutton and DaeSean Hamilton will try to fill. The biggest threat for the Brown’s defense is the Bronco’s undrafted rookie running back, Phillip Lindsay. Lindsay is second in rushing among rookies just behind Saquon Barkley, the second overall pick. Cleveland must prioritize stopping Lindsay and forcing quarterback Case Keenum to win the game through the air without Sanders.

Baltimore Ravens (7-6)

Although the Ravens suffered a crushing defeat against the Kansas City Chiefs last week, the Steelers loss to the Oakland Raiders keeps Baltimore in play for the division. The Ravens are only a half game behind Pittsburgh and have a golden opportunity to take the lead in the AFC North in Week 15 if the Steelers lose to the Patriots. Baltimore must first take care of business at home against the 5-8 Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

With Joe Flacco healthy again, Lamar Jackson was officially named the starting quarterback after going 3-1 as the starter. Baltimore has found their identity with Jackson. The Ravens have the leading rushing attack since Jackson took over. Tampa Bay owns the 20th ranked run defense, allowing 119.4 rushing yards per game. With a rainy forecast in Baltimore for Sunday, the Ravens offense will have the advantage. This will be Jackson’s first start in such weather conditions. Whether or not Jackson can deliver accurate passes in the rain will be key to sustaining drives. Baltimore’s receivers must catch the passes as well, as drops have been an issue all season, especially in the rain.

On defense, the Ravens have one less threat to contain with wide receiver DeSean Jackson being ruled out for Sunday’s game. The Buccaneers have the top ranked passing offense, which could present a major challenge for Baltimore’s secondary, especially if cornerback Marlon Humphrey, who has been listed as questionable, is unable to play. Mike Evans is one of the top receivers in the game, boasting an incredible catch radius at 6-foot-5. Expect the Ravens to dial up the pressure on quarterback Jameis Winston and force him into errant decisions.

Baltimore could take the lead in the division with a win here and a Pittsburgh loss to the New England Patriots.

Pittsburgh Steelers (7-5-1)

After a brutal loss to Oakland, Pittsburgh now faces the 9-4 New England Patriots in an absolutely pivotal matchup.

Barely grasping onto their lead in the division, every game is huge for the Steelers now. For years, the Patriots have remained the biggest hurdle for Pittsburgh. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger must protect the football at all costs and avoid giving Tom Brady more opportunities on offense. Roethlisberger has struggled heavily with turnovers this season, something you absolutely cannot afford against a Bill Belichick coached team. Running back James Conner is likely to miss the game, leaving Jaylen Samuels and Stevan Ridley to fill his shoes. Pittsburgh must stick with the run game, even if it starts slow.

On defense, the Steelers only chance is to effectively pressure Brady. Pittsburgh is currently second in the NFL in sacks with 45. The Steelers do not have the players on the back end to slow Brady, however. A common mistake Pittsburgh has made against New England has been running zone coverage on defense, which Brady has no problem picking apart. Playing tight man coverage and getting to Brady will be key to winning this game.

The Steelers control their own destiny at this point. With the lead in the division, all Pittsburgh has to do is win out to take the AFC North. If they drop this game, the Steelers could be sitting in second place behind the Ravens next week.

Cincinnati Bengals (5-8)

Although the playoffs are pretty much out of the question for Cincinnati, they still have three games to play this season, starting with the 3-10 Oakland Raiders.

Despite losing, quarterback Jeff Driskel has not played poorly since replacing Andy Dalton. Driskel has thrown for 645 yards, three touchdowns and one interception through his first three games. Running back Joe Mixon continues to improve as well as he nears 1,000 rushing yards in his second season. Mixon should be featured heavily on Sunday against Oakland’s 31st ranked rushing defense. Driskel must continue to limit turnovers, which he has done a good job of so far.

The weak link of the Bengals is by far the defense. Cincinnati ranks dead last in total and rushing defense and 29th in passing defense. Quarterback Derek Carr has had a solid season despite only winning three games. Carr has thrown for 3,434 yards, 18 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Jared Cook is one of the better tight ends in the league, catching 61 passes for 825 yards and six touchdowns. The Raiders pulled off a major upset over the Steelers last week, so that momentum could carry over to finish the season strong.