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AFC North Preview: Week 17

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NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Los Angeles Chargers Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Week 17 of the NFL regular season has arrived. Baltimore will secure the division with a win over Cleveland. Pittsburgh’s only hope lies in the Browns, who look to finish with a positive record for the first time since 2007 and ruin the Ravens season.

Baltimore Ravens (9-6)

Baltimore’s playoff destiny rests in their own hands. With a victory over Cleveland, the Ravens will win the AFC North at 10-6 and host a home playoff game for the first time since the 2012 Super Bowl run.

Cleveland cornerback Denzel Ward has been declared out. Ward, the fourth overall pick in 2018, was a deciding factor in the Browns win over the Ravens earlier this season. Ward recorded an interception and a blocked field goal in Week 5 against Baltimore. The Ravens attention on offense must be directed towards defensive end Myles Garrett. The former first overall pick has 12.5 sacks in his second season and has established himself as one of the league’s best edge rushers. Expect Baltimore to pay special attention to Garrett with double teams and chip blocks.

Following one of their best performances of the year, the Ravens defense cannot let up against the red hot Cleveland offense led by rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield. Mayfield has given new life to the Browns franchise, completely changing the culture in his first season. Mayfield, the number one selection in 2018, has thrown for 24 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, making a strong case for Rookie of the Year in the process. Baltimore’s number one ranked defense must make life uncomfortable for Mayfield with pressure, pre-snap movement and disguises.

Cleveland Browns (7-7-1)

At 7-7-1, Cleveland looks to finish the season strong with a win over the Ravens and a positive record.

Baltimore’s top ranked defense will be fired up to exact revenge on Mayfield after their Week 5 loss. After years of being criticized for not being able to close out games, the Ravens defense will want to make sure the same fate does not befall them for a third year in a row. Establishing the run will be critical to slowing Baltimore’s pass rush and will help open up the passing game. The Ravens have a three-headed monster at outside linebacker with Terrell Suggs (seven sacks), Matt Judon (seven sacks) and Za’Darius Smith (8.5 sacks). Baltimore often deploys all three at the same time with Smith moving to an inside pass rush role.

On defense, the Browns will have the task of containing the seemingly unstoppable running attack of the Ravens offense, led by rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson. Jackson has transformed Baltimore’s offense since taking over for Joe Flacco, rushing for over 200 yards in almost every game since become the starter. Jackson himself is averaging 4.8 yards per carry with 605 yards and three rushing touchdowns for the season. Behind him is undrafted running back Gus Edwards, who has rushed for 642 yards and two touchdowns while averaging 5.1 yards per carry. In the passing game, tight end Mark Andrews, who scored a 68-yard touchdown last week, presents the biggest threat with Jackson at quarterback.

Pittsburgh Steelers (8-6-1)

After a loss to the New Orleans Saints last week, Pittsburgh now relies on a Ravens loss in order to make the playoffs by winning the division. First, they must take care of business at home against Cincinnati.

Although the Bengals season has effectively been over for several weeks now, they would love nothing more than to ruin any chance the Steelers have of reaching the postseason by pulling the upset at Heinz Field. Pittsburgh has a history of playing down to opponents under Mike Tomlin, especially this season. The Steelers have lost to both the Oakland Raiders and Denver Broncos this year, who are both far inferior teams. Pittsburgh will also likely be without star receiver Antonio Brown for their season finale.

Cincinnati has been without their star receiver A.J. Green for multiple games, as well as their starting quarterback Andy Dalton. Jeff Driskel has replaced Dalton under center, throwing for six touchdowns to just two interceptions. Running back Joe Mixon will be the focus of the Steelers defense. Mixon has rushed for 1,063 yards and eight touchdowns as well as recording 294 receiving yards and a receiving touchdown in his second season.

Cincinnati Bengals (6-9)

Even though their hopes of making the playoffs were dashed weeks ago, the Bengals have the opportunity to crush the hopes of a hated division rival.

Cincinnati faced a similar situation last season when they played Baltimore in Week 17. The Ravens hopes of making the playoffs were ended when Dalton found wide receiver Tyler Boyd on 4th-and-12 for the game-winning touchdown. With Pittsburgh fans more focused on the outcome of Baltimore’s game, the Bengals would love to remind them that they have a game as well.

With Brown doubtful to play, Cincinnati’s focus shifts to wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. Smith-Schuster has 106 receptions for 1,389 yards and six touchdowns this season, even outperforming Brown. Running back James Conner has enjoyed a solid season as well, rushing for 909 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground. Conner also has 52 receptions for 467 yards and one receiving touchdown. Taking away Conner and Smith-Schuster must be the game plan for the Bengals defense.