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State of the AFC North: Week 15

All four AFC North squads pick up a victory and the division race heats up.

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Baltimore Ravens Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The Browns victory over the Broncos Saturday night, their sixth win of the season, kicked off a successful weekend for the entire division. While it’s a longshot, Cleveland still has an outside shot to earn a playoff berth.

Cincinnati got back into the win column for the first time since Week 8, snapping a five-game losing skid with a 30-16 victory over the Raiders. Although their season is all but over, they face two remaining division matchups against the Browns and Steelers.

Elsewhere, the Steelers picked up a huge victory over the Patriots to remain 12 game ahead of Baltimore atop the division. The next two weeks will ultimately decide which teams wins the division. Whichever team doesn’t could either earn the 6th seed or miss the playoffs entirely.

Browns defeat Broncos: 17-16

Ugly but effective

Amidst the frigid, high-altitude conditions of Mile High Stadium, the Brown ground out a victory in what was largely a defensive struggle. Cleveland’s defense proved up the challenge and made impact plays throughout the contest.

While the two teams were relatively even in first downs and total yards, Cleveland picked off Case Keenum twice, courtesy of Jabrill Peppers and T.J. Carrie. Peppers also recorded a sack, along with Jamie Collins Sr.

The Browns gameplan of containing emerging running back Phillip Lindsay proved effective. Lindsay rushed for just 24 yards on 14 carries. Without a viable rushing attack, Keenum was forced to throw 48 times and averaged just 5.4 yards per attempt.

So you’re saying there’s a chance?

It’s hard to believe but with two games remaining in the season, the Browns are still alive in the playoff race. They need a lot to go their way and have to win out themselves, but it’s quite remarkable given where they were not too long ago.

In order for Cleveland to have any shot, both the Ravens and Steelers would have to lose out. The Browns also need help from the Titans and Colts who, like the Ravens, are 8-6.

In all likelihood, the Browns will not make the playoffs. However, they’ve won four out of their past five games after sitting at 2-6-1 earlier in the season. Cleveland fans should feel confident in their team as the season winds to a close.

Ravens defeat Buccaneers: 20-12

Three-Headed monster

For much of the first half on Sunday, Baltimore’s offense was sloppy and struggled to the move the ball with consistency. Marty Mornhinweg had Lamar Jackson dropping play to throw often out of the shotgun, which proved to be an ineffective strategy amidst sloppy, rainy conditions.

However, once Baltimore established the running game, Jackson settled in and their trio of dynamic rushers took over the game. Gus Edwards led the way with 104 yards on 19 carries and a touchdown.

Jackson totaled 95 yards on the ground, and Kenneth Dixon was once again efficient with his carries (4.4 YPC). Baltimore totaled a whopping 242 yards and averaged 4.9 yards per carry as a team. Despite a fairly identifiable offensive gameplan, Baltimore has found similar success on the ground in five straight games.

They’ll face their toughest test of the season next week against the Chargers, which is shaping up to be a must-win game. Los Angeles boasts a top-10 ranked rushing defense with players like Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram, and Derwin James.

Humphrey comes up huge

After a shaky performance against the Chiefs, Marlon Humphrey bounced back on Sunday in a big way. As has been the case all season, Humphrey was far and away the best defensive player on the field and made impact plays.

Humphrey not only limited Chris Godwin and Adam Humphries to a combined 4 receptions for 23 yards, but he held his own against Pro Bowl receiver Mike Evans. Early in the fourth quarter, Humphrey undercut Evans route to come up with his first interception of the season.

The sophomore cornerback has been stellar in all but a few occasions this season and is quietly emerging as one of the best in the league at his position. Baltimore will need Humphrey to come up big again next week.

Humphrey will likely be matched up often with Keenan Allen, assuming he can recover from a hip injury in time to suit up on Saturday. Los Angeles also has talented complimentary receivers in Mike Williams and Travis Benjamin.

Bengals defeat Raiders: 30-16

Stop the bleeding

It’s been a long time the Cincinnati Bengals have found themselves on the winning side of a football game. Prior to Sunday’s matchup, the Bengals had lost five consecutive games and their last win came against the Buccaneers on October 28.

Flash forward to over a month later, and the Bengals finally got back in the victory column in convincing fashion. After hanging tough with the Chargers in Week 14, Cincinnati led from start to finish against the Raiders and earned a 30-16 victory.

At 6-8 and last in the division, it’s too late for the Bengals to actually make anything out of this season. However, if the last two games are any indication, don’t expect Marvin Lewis’ squad to go out quietly against the Browns and Steelers.

Spread the wealth

Without Andy Dalton and A.J. Green in the lineup, it’s no secret that the Bengals offense has suffered. Their passing attack simply is not the same and they’ve been forced to rely heavily on the run game. Luckily, Joe Mixon has responded.

Jeff Driskel didn't have a very strong performance, completing just 14/33 passes for 130 yards with a touchdown and one interception. While his play left much to be desired, he certainly spread the ball around to nearly every receiver on the team.

Nine different Bengals players were targeted on Sunday and only two failed to record a reception. Despite leaving the game early with an injury, Tyler Boyd led the team in receiving with 4 catches for 38 yards and a touchdown.

Steelers defeat Patriots: 17-10

Pittsburgh earns clutch win

On the heels of a three-game losing streak, it appeared the Steelers season was on the brink of slipping away entering Sunday’s matchup against the Patriots. However, the script has completely flipped following Pittsburgh’s win.

It wasn’t a flawless victory, but it’s undoubtedly their biggest of the season thus far. With a road matchup against the Saints awaiting, the Steelers desperately needed a win to maintain their hold on first place in the division.

Pittsburgh’s defense held the dynamic New England offense to a season-low 10 points, seven of which came in the opening portion of the first quarter. The Steelers also came up with a huge interception in the fourth quarter, intercepting Tom Brady in the redzone.

Cause for concern?

The Steelers victory will make the headlines, and rightly so. However, the play of Ben Roethlisberger over the past five weeks should be somewhat alarming for Pittsburgh fans. The yardage and touchdowns are still there, but turnovers have been an issue.

Roethlisberger threw two interceptions on Sunday and if not for a dominant performance from his defense, they likely would have proven costly. “Big Ben” has now thrown eight interceptions in the past five games, three of which he threw multiple picks in.

His 235 passing yards against the Patriots were his lowest mark of the season. Luckily, running back Jaylen Samuels had a career-best performance in place of James Conner. Samuels rushed 19 times for a whopping 142 yards, adding 30 more yards receiving.

Roethlisberger is a seasoned veteran with no shortage of meaningful, must-win games in December. Therefore, it’s reasonable to expect him to buck this turnover trend, but it remains concerning nonetheless.