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AFC North Preview: Week 12

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Cleveland Browns Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Pittsburgh Steelers (5-5)

Pittsburgh enters Week 12 fighting for their playoff lives after a loss to Cleveland last week. The Steelers will be without two of their top players on offense, WR JuJu Smith-Schuster and RB James Conner against Cincinnati this Sunday in a must-win AFC North matchup.

Second-year QB Mason Rudolph is coming off of an abysmal performance against the Browns in which he threw four interceptions in a 21-7 loss. Rudolph has been the center of recent controversy regarding his altercation with Cleveland DE Myles Garrett on Thursday Night Football, but he must maintain his focus and rebound on the field in order to keep Pittsburgh in the playoff hunt. Even without Smith-Schuster in the lineup, Rudolph should have a much easier time against the last-place defense of the Bengals.

On the opposite side of the ball, the defense of the Steelers could be in for a big day against a Cincinnati offense led by rookie quarterback Ryan Finley. The Bengals rank 27th in total offense and have only gotten worse since Finley took over the starting job for quarterback Andy Dalton. Look for Pittsburgh’s pass rush, particularly outside linebacker T.J. Watt, to wreak havoc on Sunday.

Cincinnati Bengals (0-10)

Cincinnati continues to trudge along under rookie head coach Zac Taylor in a season filled with disaster and disappointment. Will they be able to get their first win of the season this Sunday against an injured Steelers team?

WR A.J. Green has yet to suit up for the Bengals this season due to a lingering ankle injury, although Taylor was unwilling to rule Green out for the rest of the season just yet. WR Auden Tate and TE Drew Sample are both inactive for Sunday’s game as well, leaving Cincinnati bare in the receiving game.

The defense of the Bengals will have an easier task in front of them with both Smith-Schuster and Conner out with injuries and center Maurkice Pouncey suspended, although nothing seems to be an easy task for them this season as they rank dead-last in total defense and rushing defense.

Cleveland Browns (4-6)

The Browns enjoyed a big win over a divisional rival last week and will look to continue their potential playoff push this week against the 2-8 Miami Dolphins.

Cleveland’s offense, particularly QB Baker Mayfield has played much better in recent weeks, giving fans hope that the unit is beginning to click at last and can begin to play up to their immense potential envisioned this offseason. RB Kareem Hunt has been a key factor in the Browns’ newfound offensive success since returning from suspension, both as a runner and in the passing game. Mayfield and WR Odell Beckham Jr. are still ironing out the kinks of their connection on the field, however.

In the aftermath of Cleveland’s Thursday night win over Pittsburgh in Week 11 came an indefinite suspension for Garrett for his actions against Rudolph. Losing Garrett is a massive blow to the front seven and pass rush of the Browns, especially with defensive end Olivier Vernon set to miss Sunday’s game against Miami.

Baltimore Ravens (8-2)

The Ravens enter Week 12 as the hottest team in the NFL with a six-game win streak, the longest active streak in the NFL. QB Lamar Jackson continues his MVP campaign on Monday night against the 6-4 Los Angeles Rams. Los Angeles enters this game desperate to keep their playoff hopes alive at 6-4 while Baltimore looks to hold possession of the second seed in the AFC.

CB Marcus Peters will face his former team for the first time since being traded to the Ravens earlier in the season. Rams S Eric Weddle will also face his former team of three years after being released this offseason. Both defenses are playing at a high level in recent weeks, although the offense of Los Angeles has taken a step back this year while Baltimore has skyrocketed in that department.

The fifth-ranked rushing defense of the Rams will take on the challenge of stopping the top-ranked rushing offense of the Ravens. Baltimore is currently averaging 203.1 yards rushing per game, seemingly able to run the ball at will on their opponents. DT Aaron Donald will be key to slowing down the Ravens juggernaut offense, particularly as a pass rusher. Meanwhile, DT Michael Pierce is likely to miss Monday’s game for Baltimore.