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State of the AFC North: Week 16

The stakes are higher than ever heading into the final week of the regular season.

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Los Angeles Chargers Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

After a huge victory over the Chargers on Saturday night, the Ravens (9-6) jumped the Steelers (8-6-1) for first place in the division. Pittsburgh came up short in New Orleans, falling to the Saints by three points.

It’s a quite miraculous development given where these two teams were several weeks ago. After Week 10, the Ravens were 4-5 and their playoff hopes were quickly evaporating. The Steelers, however, were 6-2-1 and held a comfortable division lead following a blowout victory over the Panthers on Thursday night.

Cleveland was eliminated from playoff contention following the Titans victory on Saturday, but earned a season sweep of the Bengals after defeating them again on Sunday. The Bengals will finish last in the division for the first time 2010.

Ravens defeat Chargers: 22-10

Huge statement

In a primetime, nationally-televised matchup, the Ravens proved up the challenge of facing perhaps the most complete team in the NFL. If that wasn’t enough, the Ravens made a significant statement to all their doubters.

Since Lamar Jackson took over as the starting quarterback, week after week the media has claimed Baltimore’s style of winning was “not sustainable” and that the Ravens were simply taking advantages of poor defenses.

However, the Chargers boasted a top-ten run defense and one of the more talented overall units in the league. Baltimore rushed for a combined 159 yards on 4.5 YPC and Jackson threw for a season-high 204 passing yards. If that isn’t a statement, it’s hard to say what is.

Hello, old friend

In years past, the Ravens most successful teams have been led by a dominant defense. Baltimore’s defense in 2000, when the Ravens won their first Super Bowl, was one of the best defensive units of all time. While the current Ravens defense pales in comparison to these days of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, similar shades are beginning to emerge.

Baltimore’s top-ranked defense traveled into a hostile environment on Saturday night and completely dismantled one of the most high-powered offenses in the league. Philip Rivers, whose MVP candidacy had skyrocketed in recent weeks, was flustered all night.

Rivers was sacked four times, recorded a quarterback rating of 51.7, and threw for a season-low 181 yards. On top of that, he threw zero touchdown passes and two interceptions. The Chargers only touchdown came after a Ravens fumble at their own 20-yard line.

If Baltimore’s defense can continue to play at this level, there’s no limit to how far the Ravens could advance in the postseason.

Browns defeat Bengals: 26-18

Bucking the trend

For the past seven seasons, the Browns have festered in the basement of the AFC North, finishing below the Ravens, Steelers, and Bengals. For the first time since 2010, however, the Browns will not finish last in the division regardless of what happens in Week 17.

Cleveland has reached seven wins on the year, which is more victories than they recorded in each of the past three seasons combined (4). The last time the Browns won seven games was in 2014.

If the Browns can manage to pull the upset against the Ravens next week, they’ll finish above .500 for the first time since 2007, when they won 10 games. Whether it’s Baker Mayfield, John Dorsey, or a collective effort from top to bottom, the culture in Cleveland is clearly changing.

Spoiler Season

Speaking of Week 17, the Browns upcoming matchup is setting up to be one full of headlines and fireworks. Cleveland travels to Baltimore with a chance to knock the Ravens out of the division lead and the playoffs.

The Browns ultimate goal of making the playoffs themselves is no longer in reach, but unseating a bitter divisional rival would be a solid consolation prize. Cincinnati found themselves in nearly the exact same situation last season, facing the 9-6 Ravens on the road in Week 17.

Now, it’s the Browns turn to have a chance at vengeance. It won’t be easy; Baltimore has won five of their past six games and will be playing behind a raucous home crowd. However, Cleveland did defeat the Ravens earlier this season.

Bengals lose to Browns: 26-18

Comeback falls short

For the first three quarters of Sunday’s game, the Bengals looked lifeless and completely dead in the water. Cincinnati was shut out by the Cleveland defense and the rout appeared to be on as the Browns led 23-0 heading into the final quarter of play.

However, while they ultimately came up short in the end, the Bengals put forth a valiant comeback effort. Led by quarterback Jeff Driskel, the Bengals scored 18 points in the fourth quarter and made it a one-possession game.

Driskel only threw 19 passes, but completed 13 of them for 133 yards and two touchdowns. It was arguably Driskel’s most efficient game since taking over as the starter and his quarterback rating of 123.4 was actually higher than Baker Mayfield, who put up a rating of 121.9.

Like the Browns, but different

Much like Cleveland, the Bengals again have a chance to play spoiler in the final week of the regular season. Facing Pittsburgh on the road, the Bengals can knock the Steelers out of the playoffs with a victory.

It’s an uphill battle for sure, especially given the way each team has performed in recent weeks. The Bengals have been in a downward spiral for quite some time, while the Steelers knocked off the Patriots and took the Saints to the brink in their own building.

Rest assured, the Ravens and their fans will be rooting for the Bengals. If the Bengals can pull off the upset, the Ravens win the division regardless of what happens in their matchup with Cleveland.

Steelers lose to Saints: 31-28

Dynamic passing attack

Despite the end result, the true potential of the Steelers passing attack was on full display against the Saints. Ben Roethlisberger had one of his best performances of the season, and Pittsburgh’s dynamic duo of Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster were electric.

Playing catch up against the Saints, Roethlisberger threw the ball a whopping 50 times, completing 33 of them for 380 yards, three touchdowns, and zero interceptions. “Big Ben” also recorded a QBR of 84.0 and a 108.8 rating.

Brown reminded everyone that he belongs near, if not at the top of the wide receiver discussion, catching 14 receptions for 185 yards and two touchdowns. Smith-Schuster didn’t find the endzone, but recorded 11 catches for 115 yards.

Yikes …

As hard as it is to believe, the Steelers are in serious danger of missing the playoffs. After entering the weekend as the 4th seed in the AFC, the Steelers fell all the way to 8th after Sunday’s loss, now trailing the Colts and Titans.

Pittsburgh has two clear paths to the postseason now, both of which require a victory over the Bengals next week. The first; winning the division, meaning the Steelers need the Browns to defeat the Ravens. The second; the wildcard, which requires a tie between the Colts and Titans next Sunday.

As it currently stands, neither scenario seems particularly likely, especially the second one. Pittsburgh will be rooting for the Browns to pull off an upset. If they can’t, the Steelers will be sitting on their couch come January for the first time since 2013.