The regular season came to a close this past week, and the final conclusion in the AFC North is one many envisioned many months ago — the Bengals and Ravens in the playoffs, the Steelers and Browns not.
In Week 18, Cincinnati defeated the Ravens at home by 11 points, officially securing a home playoff game next week on top of the division title for a second straight season. The Ravens rested several key starters and were forced to start their third-string quarterback.
Meanwhile, the Steelers took care of business against the Browns with a 14-point win. However, while they will finish above .500 yet again, they did not receive the help they needed around the AFC to sneak into the postseason.
Result: Loss to Pittsburgh Steelers, 14-28
The Browns had already been eliminated from playoff contention heading into Week 18, but had the chance to play spoiler against a division rival. Unfortunately, they came up short in that effort with a disappointing conclusion to an up-and-down season.
After jumping out to a 7-0 lead in the second quarter, Cleveland’s offense went into a dry spell. Their next three full possessions resulted in a punt and two interceptions. During this stretch, the Steelers scored 20 consecutive points to take a commanding advantage.
The Browns made it a one-possession game again later in the fourth quarter, but their defense then surrendered a 14-play, 75-yard touchdown drive, which was the nail in the coffin. Cleveland wasn’t totally outclassed statistically but the two mid-game turnovers were costly.
Their offensive line also struggled in pass protection, as Deshaun Watson was sacked seven times for a total loss of 57 yards. As was the case for many games this season, the Browns’ efficiency running the ball did not result in enough offensive output to win, and they struggled in other areas.
Result: Win over Cleveland Browns, 28-14
The Steelers were faced with another must-win situation in the season finale and capped off a strong second-half run with a fourth straight victory. It did not earn them the No. 7 seed in the AFC, but it did ensure the 16th consecutive winning season under head coach Mike Tomlin.
Pittsburgh’s offense got off to a slow start with a fumble on their opening drive followed by back-to-back punts. However, their defense kept them in striking distance early, which helped as they came to life offensively in the middle of the afternoon.
A touchdown drive late in the second quarter sparked a 20-0 run that gave them a multiple-possession lead by the fourth quarter. The Steelers finished with 10 first downs via passing and 10 on the ground, while converting 9-of-15 third down attempts. Their commitment to the run continued, as they rushed 37 times for 148 total yards.
Defensively, turnovers and sacks helped fuel a strong effort. Pittsburgh’s two forced interceptions resulted in 10 key points, and they sacked Watson seven times on the day. Alex Highsmith and Cameron Heyward wreaked havoc, combining for 16 total tackles, 4.5 sacks and seven quarterback hits.
Result: Win over Baltimore Ravens, 27-16
While they technically already had the division title locked up before this game, the Bengals were playing to avoid a potential coin flip to decide the host site of next week’s wild card matchup. They were able to do that and even the score with the Ravens on the season.
Cincinnati seized momentum early in the game by scoring 17 straight points, 14 of which came directly off back-to-back interceptions. Then, just before halftime after the Ravens scored a touchdown, the Bengals added another score via a strip-sack and fumble recovery in the end zone.
This afforded them a 24-7 advantage at halftime. The Bengals’ offense flatlined in the second half, as they scored just three points and had five three-and-outs. They also lost a fumble at their own nine yard line. Cincinnati ultimately gained only 15 first downs, were 5-of-15 on third down and had just over 250 yards of total offense.
Their defense, though, was able to limit the Ravens to field goals only, which negated the damage and kept their lead at multiple possessions. The Bengals will look to re-kindle their offensive momentum from the past few weeks this Sunday.
Result: Loss to Cincinnati Bengals, 16-27
The Ravens rested three of their key offensive starters in this game in J.K. Dobbins, Kevin Zeitler and Mark Andrews. Anthony Brown Jr. made his first career start at quarterback in place of the injured Tyler Huntley, with Lamar Jackson still nursing a knee injury.
As such, the Ravens struggled offensively in the first half. Their three turnovers resulted in all three of the Bengals’ touchdowns before halftime. In the second half, they cleaned up the mistakes and found more success moving the ball. However, they again settled for field goals instead of touchdowns, which limited their comeback effort.
Defensively, the Ravens put up a strong effort despite allowing 27 points. They played physical and limited an explosive Bengals’ offense to low outputs in terms of yards, conversions, etc. They played physical and allowed just 55 rushing yards on the day.
The Ravens were clearly more concerned with this upcoming week’s playoff matchup than the Week 18 finale. However, despite losing by 11 points, there are some positive things they can take away from the performance heading back into Cincinnati for Wild Card weekend.