Only four weeks remain in the NFL regular season, and the race for the AFC North is hotter than ever with Baltimore only a half game behind Pittsburgh. With both teams facing difficult schedules, every win becomes much more valuable. Cleveland and Cincinnati have both been eliminated from contention at this point.
Baltimore Ravens (7-5)
The Ravens have fought their way back in the division, winning three straight, but they now face possibly their biggest challenge of the regular season against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Quarterback Patrick Mahomes has lit the league on fire in his first year as a starter, throwing 41 touchdowns to 11 interceptions to emerge as the favorite to win the league MVP. Mahomes has led the Chiefs to a 10-2 record and the third ranked offense in the league.
Still, tight end Travis Kelce is the biggest threat to Baltimore’s defense. Kelce is currently the best tight end in the league with 1,082 receiving yards and nine touchdowns. The Ravens could possibly match a cornerback on Kelce. Wide receiver Tyreek Hill is one of the fastest players in the NFL, making him extremely dangerous as well. Hill will demand safety help at almost all times.
Rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson has yet to lose a game as a starter. Jackson has reinvented Baltimore’s offense, which has rushed for over 200 yards for three weeks straight. Jackson will face his toughest challenge yet at Arrowhead Stadium, one of the loudest environments in football. Luckily for the Ravens, Kansas City’s defense is giving up 122 rushing yards per game this season. Running back Gus Edwards continues to bulldoze through the middle of opposing defenses, while Jackson gashes them with speed on the edge. Running the ball and keeping it away from Mahomes by dominating the time of possession will be key for Baltimore.
Pittsburgh Steelers (7-4-1)
The Steelers suffered a demoralizing loss to the Chargers last week. The once sure fire division champions are now only a half game ahead of Baltimore. Thankfully for Pittsburgh, they face the lifeless Oakland Raiders this week.
The Raiders have not found much success on either side of the ball this year, leading to their abysmal 2-10 record. Quarterback Derek Carr has had a very average season, throwing for only 16 touchdowns and eight interceptions. The Steelers defense should not have too much trouble stopping Oakland. Carr has been sacked a career-high 38 times this season, and Pittsburgh leads the league in sacks with 41.
Facing the Raiders 28th ranked defense presents a golden opportunity for the Steelers offense to rebound. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has played a huge part in the team’s recent struggles, throwing more interceptions than touchdowns in the last three weeks. Running back James Conner is expected to miss a few weeks with an ankle injury, which is a huge blow to Pittsburgh’s offense going forward. Roethlisberger must cut down his passing attempts and continue to run the ball, but that will be harder than ever without their bell-cow back.
A loss on Sunday paired with a Ravens win would put the Steelers in second place in the division. Defeating Oakland would keep them in the lead, regardless of Baltimore’s outcome.
Cleveland Browns (4-7-1)
The Browns suffered a beating from the Houston Texans last week in a 29-13 loss. Today they face the Carolina Panthers, who are looking to keep their playoff hopes alive after dropping four games in a row.
After star tight end Greg Olsen suffered a season-ending foot injury last week for the Panthers, running back Christian McCaffrey deserves the focus of Cleveland’s defense. McCaffrey is extremely dangerous as a runner and a receiver, as he has rushed 163 times for 863 yards and five touchdowns while catching 80 passes for 663 yards and six touchdowns. Quarterback Cam Newton struggled last week against Tampa Bay, throwing four interceptions in a loss. Newton will look to rebound this week to lead his team to the playoffs.
Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield is also coming off of an ugly performance, throwing three interceptions in Cleveland’s loss to the Texans. Mayfield has had a solid rookie season, throwing 18 touchdowns to 10 interceptions, but he must learn to limit the turnovers. This week, he will be facing the Panthers 22nd ranked pass defense, who have 11 interceptions on the season.
Cincinnati Bengals (5-7)
The Bengals suffered another major blow last week when star receiver A.J. Green re-injured his toe and was placed on injured reserve. Cincinnati has now lost their starting quarterback and best receiver in recent weeks, dashing any hope of returning to the playoffs this season.
Things will not get better for the Bengals this week, as they travel to face the 9-3 Los Angeles Chargers. The Chargers will be without running back Melvin Gordon. And while Gordon’s absence is huge, the team was able to overcome it last week when they defeated the Steelers. Wide receiver Keenan Allen is coming off of a big performance, catching 14 passes for 148 yards and a touchdown against Pittsburgh. Allen presents a major challenge for Cincinnati’s 31st ranked secondary. Quarterback Philip Rivers is having one of the best seasons of his career, with 28 touchdowns to only six interceptions.
Jeff Driskel remains the starter at quarterback after the Bengals placed Andy Dalton on injured reserve. Driskel has now lost his top target in Green as well, which does not bode well for the young quarterback in just his second start and against the ninth ranked defense. Neutralizing the pass rush of Los Angeles will be key to finding offensive success for Cincinnati. Since making his season debut just three games ago, Joey Bosa already has three sacks. The Bengals must make Bosa the forefront of their attention.