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AFC North Preview: Week 16

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

Two weeks remain in the NFL regular season. The Pittsburgh Steelers remain atop the AFC North at 8-5-1, albeit only a half game ahead of Baltimore. Both teams face huge challenges this week with their playoff hopes and division title on the line.

Baltimore Ravens (8-6)

The Ravens will face the red-hot Los Angeles Chargers (11-3) on Saturday night. The Chargers have three extra days of rest after defeating the Kansas City Chiefs on Thursday Night Football in Week 15. With the division title and top seed in the AFC on the line, Los Angeles will come fully prepared.

Baltimore’s top-ranked defense will have their hands full with the Chargers sixth-ranked offense, led by MVP candidate Philip Rivers at quarterback. Rivers is enjoying one of the best seasons of his career, throwing for 3,951 yards and 31 touchdowns to just eight interceptions. Rivers is surrounded by top-level talent on offense. Running back Melvin Gordon and wide receiver Keenan Allen are among the top of their positions and are both expected to return from injury against the Ravens.

On the other side of the ball, rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson will face his toughest test yet against the eighth-ranked defense of Los Angeles. Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram pair for one of the best pass rushing duos in the league. Rookie safety Derwin James made the Pro Bowl in his first season and is a top candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year. The Chargers eighth-ranked run defense will look to force Jackson to throw by limiting Baltimore’s rushing attack.

The Ravens can take the lead of the division with a win over Los Angeles and a Pittsburgh loss.

Pittsburgh Steelers (8-5-1)

The Steelers pulled off the major upset win against the New England Patriots last week to remain in first place of the division. This week they will face an ever tougher challenge, however, as they travel to New Orleans to face the 12-2 Saints.

In one of the toughest environments in football, Pittsburgh’s defense will have to find a way to slow New Orleans multi-headed offense, led by quarterback Drew Brees, who is firmly in the talks for MVP as well. Brees’ biggest strength this season has been protecting the football, only throwing five interceptions to 31 touchdowns. At wide receiver, Brees’ most reliable target is Michael Thomas, who is quietly one of the best receivers in the league with 1,267 receiving yards and eight touchdowns this season. Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram provide an extremely lethal one-two punch of speed and power from the backfield.

One of the biggest keys to the Saints success has been the defensive turnaround as of late. The unit which struggled heavily to open the season is now the 11th-ranked total defense in the NFL. Second-year cornerback Marshon Lattimore is the cornerstone of the secondary and defensive end Cameron Jordan leads the front seven with 12 sacks on the year. New Orleans has the number-one ranked rush defense as well, which could pose a challenge for Pittsburgh’s offense, who will be without starting running back James Conner yet again. Jaylen Samuel stepped up in Conner’s absence last week, however, rushing for 142 yards against New England.

No matter the outcome of Baltimore’s game, the Steelers will remain on top of the division with a win over the Saints.

Cleveland Browns (6-7-1)

Winners of two straight, Cleveland’s playoff chances are still mathematically alive, although the odds are extremely slim. The Browns will have to win their remaining two games along with the Ravens, Colts and Titans losing this week, the Dolphins losing one of their remaining games, and a Colts-Titans tie in Week 17 in order to sneak into the playoffs as a wild card.

The first task for Cleveland is taking care of their own business at home against the 6-8 Cincinnati Bengals this Sunday. This should be an easier assignment, given the key injuries Cincinnati has suffered to quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green. Jeff Driskel has replaced Dalton under center and has thrown four touchdowns to two interceptions. Wide receiver Tyler Boyd has stepped up in Green’s absence with 1,027 receiving yards and seven touchdowns in his third season. Second-year running back has become the team’s workhouse in the backfield, nearing 1,000 rushing yards.

The Browns offense will not have a hard time against the Bengals last-ranked defense, who are allowing 29.5 points and 413 yards per game this season. Despite such a horrid season on defense, Cincinnati still fields one of the best pass-rushing duos in the league in Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap. The two have 18 sacks between them for this season. Cleveland must make neutralizing the pass rush their main priority, which can help be accomplished by running the football.

Cincinnati Bengals (6-8)

The Bengals may be out of the playoff race, but they still have a chance to spoil any hope remaining for the Browns this season.

Pressuring quarterback Baker Mayfield will be key in this game. Mayfield, selected first-overall, has thrown for 3,065 yards, 21 touchdowns and 11 interceptions as a rookie. Although he has enjoyed a very good rookie season, he has struggled with turnovers at times. Stuffing the run game and collapsing the pocket around Mayfield could force him into making bad decisions.

Driskel will have to be careful with the football as well against Cleveland’s defense. Rookie cornerback Denzel Ward, selected fourth-overall, will likely shadow Boyd across the field. The real danger is defense end Myles Garrett though. Garrett, the 2017 number-one pick, has 12.5 sacks in his second season and has developed into one of the best edge rushers in the game.