Happy non-denominational holidays!
At long last, the fortunes of the AFC North are somewhat tangible. This past weekend in the AFC North offered lessons in accountability, and showed who’s prepared, who’s taking things seriously, and who’s already looking forward to the draft.
If nothing else, we can all agree that while this season has been nerve-wracking, it’s been entertaining as well, and for our beloved division to post three squads with winning records means things are going well. Let’s hope that success carries into the playoffs.
Here’s a recap of the Week 16 action. Enjoy.
Baltimore Ravens @ Houston Texans
Sunday, December 21, 1:00pm
Final: Texans 25, Ravens 13
While the Ravens haven’t exactly played the role of Goliath this season, the Texans certainly played the part of David by, bluntly stated, smacking the Ravens around in an improbable outcome in a game started by notable fourth string quarterback Case Keenum, who was last seen hunting gators in the Bayou. The Ravens clearly showed a lack of preparation; indeed, they appeared to take the Texans for granted, which is unforgivable for a team that had designs on seizing the divisional crown.
Offensively, the Ravens were simply inept. Sugarcoating this “performance” would be doing my readers a disservice, as the Texans and MVP candidate J.J. Watt thoroughly dominated the line of scrimmage in sending starting tackles Eugene Monroe and Rick Wagner to the sidelines (status TBD). Quarterback Joe Flacco was particularly awful, tossing three interceptions in his own red zone and posting a 0.0 quarterback rating by halftime. Flacco had no help from the running game, as starting back Justin Forsett logged a total of 19 yards, or his receivers, who dropped eight passes and ran sloppy routes.
The Ravens’ defense, in the vernacular, played “well enough to win”, but when faced with three opposing possessions that started inside their own red zone, they had little choice but to give up points. Considering that the Texans scored only one offensive touchdown all day, it’s safe to assume that they did their jobs. Nose tackle Brandon Williams was particularly effective, collapsing the pocket up the middle on almost every rushing play. Linebackers Terrell Suggs and Pernell McPhee created solid pressure off the edges and enabled the maligned Ravens secondary to make a few plays, including safety Darien Stewart’s first interception of the year.
What’s Next: The Ravens host the nothing-to-lose Browns (Sunday, December 28, 1:00pm, CBS) and their quarterback of the week.
Cleveland Browns @ Carolina Panthers
Sunday, December 21, 1:00pm
Final: Panthers 17, Browns 13
The storyline of this game centered around the quarterbacks, as Panthers QB Cam Newton was starting less than two weeks after suffering two back fractures, and Browns QB Johnny Manziel was seeking redemption from his horrid first career start. One QB lived up to his billing. The other, not so much…
The Browns battled valiantly throughout but were simply overmanned at quarterback. Manziel again struggled, albeit not quite as badly, in completing three passes on eight attempts for a net gain of 32 yards before leaving with a hamstring injury during the second quarter. Backup Brian Hoyer fared somewhat better in throwing for a career-long 81-yard touchdown to tight end Jordan Cameron, giving the Browns a brief fourth-quarter lead. The Browns managed only 84 yards and no touchdowns on the ground against a suddenly-stout Panthers defense, including 55 yards from rookie back Isaiah Crowell.
The Browns’ defense played reasonably well against the pass, limiting Carolina to 195 net passing yards, but were manhandled against the run, allowing Panthers’ back Jonathan Stewart to total 122 yards and Newton, in his wounded state, to rush for 63 and a touchdown. They were particularly stingy in the points department, however, eliminating the Panthers’ scoring chances on six of their nine total drives, although they were aided by a missed field goal early. The Browns did manage an improbable interception from defensive end Billy Winn.
What’s Next: The Browns travel to Baltimore (Sunday, December 28, 1:00pm, CBS) with hopes of snuffing out Baltimore’s fading playoff chances.
Kansas City Chiefs @ Pittsburgh Steelers
Sunday, December 21, 1:00pm
Final: Steelers 20, Chiefs 12
On a day when the Steelers’ offense didn’t play particularly well, the defense, often out of sorts this season, managed to secure the win and a playoff berth with an excellent pass rush and an overall effort.
The Steelers accumulated a total of 282 offensive yards, which has been a rare sight this season, as the Chiefs controlled the time of possession and limited the opportunities for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (25 passing attempts) and running back Le’Veon Bell (63 rushing yards, 9 receiving yards, one TD). Standout wideout Antonio Brown caught seven passes for 72 yards and a touchdown in what can be seen as a pedestrian day for him. The best accolade that could be applied to the Steelers offense would be “timely”, as they seemed to get points when they sorely needed them, including a late field goal drive that essentially sealed the win.
Defensively, the Steelers also were “timely”, shutting down the Chiefs consistently in the red zone and forcing a huge, momentum-changing fumble in the third quarter. Despite giving up 311 mostly innocuous yards to Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith, the Steelers limited standout running back Jamaal Charles to 29 rushing yards on 9 carries, a season low. The linebackers seemingly did the rest, with Jason Worilds and James Harrison combining for 3.5 sacks while relentlessly chasing Smith out of the pocket for much of the afternoon.
What’s Next: The Steelers host the division rival Cincinnati Bengals (Sunday, December 28, 8:30pm, NBC) in a battle for the AFC North crown.
Denver Broncos @ Cincinnati Bengals
Monday, December 22, 8:30pm
Final: Bengals 37, Broncos 28
In a bit of a script reversal, the Bengals showed up and played reasonably well during a prime time appearance, something they had routinely failed in doing under head coach Marvin Lewis. The weather and defense certainly lent a hand in deposing the climate-challenged Broncos and the fading specter of former MVP quarterback Peyton Manning.
The Bengals perhaps should have been a bit more conservative on offense early, as quarterback Andy Dalton attempted several ill-advised throws, including an interception for a touchdown to Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib. The Bengals were able to respond on the ground with an excellent effort by rookie running back Jeremy Hill (22 carries, 147 yards), including an 85-yard scamper to tie the score at 7 apiece. Dalton, who lost trusted wideout A.J. Green early, settled down and produced two touchdown drives, aided by a defense-shortened field much of the evening.
This was a standout moment for the Bengals’ defense, who shut down the Broncos in almost every conceivable fashion, forcing Manning into four interceptions, including three late, where Manning has been typically deadly. The recipient of his last two errant passes was oft-criticized cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, who may have enjoyed a redemption for not just his team, but also his career. The Bengals managed two sacks, both in the fourth quarter, to end drives, as end Carlos Dunlap provided consistent backfield pressure most of the evening. The Broncos rushing game was also limited, as rusher C.J. Anderson handled the ball much more often than he should have (26 touches) on a sloppy, rain-filled night.
What’s Next: The Bengals travel to Pittsburgh (Sunday, December 28, 8:30pm, NBC) for a shot at the AFC North title.