After a first half of the season full of highs, lows, and surprises, the AFC North is beginning to play out the way many had envisioned at the beginning of the year, at least in terms of pecking order.
Pittsburgh (7-4-1) lost their second straight game to an AFC West team, blowing a substantial lead to the Los Angeles Chargers at home. The Ravens (7-5), who won their third straight game on Sunday, are now just 1⁄2 game back from first place.
Elsewhere, the Bengals (5-7) continue to move in the opposite direction. Cincinnati’s playoff hopes are now all but gone after another loss to the Broncos at home. Cleveland (4-7-1) saw their two-game winning streak snapped by the Texans.
Ravens defeat Falcons: 26-16
Defense sets the tone
Baltimore’s defense has clearly benefited from the Ravens improved rushing attack. Thanks to the offense dominating the time of possession, they’ve spent far less time on the field and are well-rested as a result. It showed on Sunday.
Atlanta entered this contest on a three-game losing streak, but they still boast a talented offensive unit featuring a premier quarterback and arguably the league’s top receiver in Julio Jones. However, the Ravens completely shut them down in every facet.
Jones was limited to just 2 catches for 18 yards, both of which came on the opening drive. Matt Ryan threw for only 131 yards, and the Falcons running backs combined for 34 yards on 15 carries. The Falcons didn’t score an offensive touchdown until late in the fourth quarter, at which point the game was out of reach.
Lending a hand
The Ravens playoff hopes received a major boost in Week 13, not only by their own victory, but at what transpired around the rest of the league. The Colts, who entered the weekend with the same record as Baltimore at 6-5, were shutout by the Jaguars on the road.
While the Dolphins and Titans improved to 6-6, they’re still a game behind Baltimore in the wild card race. As it currently stands, the Ravens occupy sole possession of the sixth seed in the AFC at 7-5.
Along with the Dolphins, Titans, and Colts in the hunt is Denver, who also stands at 6-6 following another victory. Baltimore holds the tiebreaker advantage over both the Broncos and Titans, which could prove important down the stretch.
After the Chargers defeated the Steelers on Sunday night, the Ravens are now just 1⁄2 game back of Pittsburgh. With four games remaining in the season, Baltimore has an outside shot of winning the division and hosting a playoff game.
Texans defeat Browns: 29-13
Regression to the mean
The Browns were riding high entering Week 13 after two consecutive victories, including a revenge triumph over Hue Jackson and the Bengals. However, they fell back to earth on Sunday in a big way, particularly in the first half.
Cleveland was held scoreless in the first two quarters and outscored 23-0. Baker Mayfield tossed three interceptions, including one that was returned for a touchdown by Zach Cunningham. Houston’s offense scored on four of their first five drives.
Mayfield was much better in the second half and finished with a career-high 397 yards passing. However, it was not enough to overcome the Browns dismal start. Fellow rookie Nick Chubb was stifled on the ground for the first time, gaining just 31 yards on 9 carries.
According to multiple sources, the Browns are reportedly interested in hiring Mike McCarthy as their next head coach and may already be working on a deal. McCarthy was fired by the Packers on Sunday night just minutes after their loss to the Arizona Cardinals.
McCarthy was the head coach in Green Bay for 13 seasons. During his tenure, the Packers made the playoffs nine times and won a super bowl. However, he’s come under fire this season for his lack of innovative playcalling and the Packers struggles.
There’s a number of ways the Browns could go with their head coaching search, but McCarthy seems to be a logical fit. GM John Dorsey was a member of the Packers organization when Green Bay won the super bowl in 2011.
Broncos defeat Bengals: 24-10
Jeff Driskel’s first start
In place of the injured Andy Dalton, third-year veteran drew his first career start and performed about as well as expected. Driskel completed 25/38 passes for 236 yards and a touchdown, while also tossing an interception and finishing with a QBR of 18.2.
Driskel may have done more damage if he had the services of A.J. Green, who exited the game in the first quarter and did not return. However, he couldn’t take advantage of a Broncos defense missing their top cornerback in Chris Harris Jr.
Driskel evidently isn’t in Cincinnati’s long-term plans, and that much did not change after Week 13. Driskel is a decent NFL backup, but nothing more. He’ll likely continue to produce similar results over the rest of the season.
Marvin’s farewell tour
It was expected, but reports over the weekend suggest Marvin Lewis is likely to be fired following the conclusion of the 2018-19 season. While it comes as no surprise, Cincinnati has given Lewis plenty of chances in the past.
Could this finally be the time we see the Bengals move in a different direction? The Bengals have completely fallen out after beginning the season 4-1. While injuries have not helped the situation, the Bengals are set to miss the playoffs for the third consecutive season.
Lewis’ playoff struggles have been well-documented, as he’s yet to win a postseason game during his 16-year tenure in Cincinnati. Unless the Bengals decided to accept Lewis’ team option, we could be looking at two new head coaches in the division next season - and potentially more.
Chargers defeat Steelers: 33-30
Tale of two halves
In a primetime matchup against one of the top teams in the AFC, the Steelers appeared up to the challenge early. Pittsburgh jumped out to an early lead and held a 23-7 advantage at halftime. The offense was clicking and the Steelers defense held Los Angeles to just one score.
However, the flip was scripted entirely in the second half. After the Chargers scored and converted a two-point conversion to cut the lead to eight, Desmond King returned a 73-yard punt for a touchdown.
Philip Rivers and Justin Jackson led a 7-play, 79-yard scoring drive to give Los Angeles a 30-23 advantage late in the fourth quarter. Pittsburgh responded, but the Chargers ultimately kicked the game-winning field goal as time expired.
It was a disappointing finish to an important matchup with potential playoff implications on the line. Pittsburgh has now lost two games in a row with matchups against the Patriots and Saints looming.
James Conner injury
Pittsburgh’s offense suffered a potentially significant blow late in the fourth quarter. After receiving a screen pass, running back James Conner landed awkwardly on his right leg and was forced to exit the game.
The exact severity of his injury is unknown, but it’s currently being labeled a “right leg contusion”. If Conner were forced to miss any time, Jaylen Samuels would likely step into a bigger role. Samuels caught 3 passes for 20 yards and a touchdown on Sunday night.
Conner is amongst the league’s leading rushers this season. Prior to exiting, Conner had rushed for 60 yards and scored two touchdowns.