I’ll credit the NFL schedule makers for once.
The AFC North certainly still held its share of drama leading up to these games, and it was rewarding to see two compelling games to close out the regular season, with both divisional and playoff implications. The spoiler factor was still very much in play, as well as a battle for respectability.
It’s been a great season in the AFC North, and those of us that follow it religiously should be very thankful that we ride a wave of superior football, while the rest of the league (looking squarely at you, NFC South) flounders in mediocrity.
Here’s a look at last weekend’s decisive action. Enjoy.
Cleveland Browns @ Baltimore Ravens
Sunday, December 28, 1:00pm
Final: Ravens 20, Browns 10
Credit to both sides here, as the Browns, with little to play for except pride, gave the mostly-listless Ravens all they could handle for three quarters and certainly made it a game to remember next season, while the Ravens managed to rally and play enough respectable football to pull out the late victory against a spirited upset-minded Browns team.
As mentioned, the Ravens were offensively challenged for most of the day, and were trailing 10-3 entering the fourth quarter. Quarterback Joe Flacco appeared to be suffering a hangover from his sound beating the previous week, and the team appeared primed to let a playoff opportunity slip away before they generated 17 unanswered points to close out the game and remove any drama. Flacco’s final numbers – 22-36, 312 yards, two touchdowns – belie how mediocre his first three quarters were, although, in a disturbing trend, his receivers dropped a number of key completions to skew those totals a bit. Running back Justin Forsett managed 119 yards rushing and was the only consistent factor for the Ravens offensively.
The Browns countered with rookie quarterback Connor Shaw, who survived a game of attrition to earn his first NFL start, and to his credit, he fared rather well in the face of a good pass rush. Showing some poise and escapability, Shaw completed 14 of 28 passes with one interception, but stayed focused and appeared ready to seal the upset. Shaw also rode a strong effort from the Cleveland running game, including 94 yards and their lone touchdown from tailback Terrence West. Wideout Taylor Gabriel led the team with 66 yards receiving, much of which was gained on a key 49-yard third down completion in the third quarter. To his credit, Shaw outplayed underwhelming and controversial fellow rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel in almost every facet.
Both teams were, by and large, very good defensively, with the Ravens depending on their consistent pass rush (four sacks, two by defensive end Pernell McPhee). Browns cornerback Joe Haden had an excellent day in defending three passes, while his fellow defenders harassed Flacco much of the day, forcing him to move out of the pocket and throw under duress. Browns linebacker Craig Robertson collected nine tackles while shadowing Forsett much of the day. Both teams combined for 13 punts, a testimony to their solid defensive efforts.
What’s Next: The Ravens travel to Pittsburgh to rekindle their playoff hopes of beating the Steelers at home (Saturday, January 3, 8:15pm, NBC).
Cincinnati Bengals @ Pittsburgh Steelers
Sunday, December 28, 8:30pm
Final: Steelers 27, Bengals 17
In a business-like victory, the Steelers seized control of the division and potentially changed their playoff fortunes by taking the third AFC postseason seeding, which gives them at least one home playoff game. The Bengals showed their puzzling tendency to wilt in prime time in full force, which can’t fill their fanbase with much confidence.
The Steelers established an early lead on wideout Antonio Bryant’s punt return for a touchdown, and he highlighted an excellent day by catching a 63-yard clinching touchdown pass in the fourth quarter in the midst of his 128 much-needed yards. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was solid in passing for 312 yards and two touchdowns, albeit with one interception and fumble that led to ten Cincinnati points. The Steelers also suffered the loss of top rusher Le’Veon Bell to a knee injury in the third quarter after Bell had collected 100 combined yards on the day. Of note was Pittsburgh’s ill-advised fourth quarter punt fake, which saw punter Brad Wing toss an interception to Bengals defender Dane Sanzenbacher.
Cincinnati seemed effective on offense and defense for much of the game, but, after pulling within three points in the fourth quarter, they squandered away their winning chances on a costly fumble by wideout A.J. Green, who left the game with concussion symptoms shortly after. Running back Jeremy Hill totaled 100 yards rushing on 23 carries, but was unable to break into the end zone. Quarterback Andy Dalton threw for two touchdowns, but also for two interceptions as he was obviously forcing the ball to Green rather than using his available – and open – options. Tight end Jermaine Gresham, long considered an underachiever, had three catches and a touchdown.
Each team played reasonably well defensively, with Pittsburgh supplying a good deal of pressure on Dalton with three sacks, including one by resurgent linebacker Sean Spence, whose well-documented recovery from knee surgery proved effective. Steelers cornerback Brice McCain picked up both of their interceptions and provided excellent coverage most of the day in defending two other passes to go along with his three tackles. Pro bowl linebacker Lawrence Timmons led the team with eleven tackles. Cincinnati was not able to generate much pressure on Roethlisberger, and instead loaded up in the secondary to stop Pittsburgh well-documented passing game. This resulted in a season-high seven passes defensed by the Bengals, who might have survived if not for a blown coverage by cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, who simply fell down on the decisive fourth quarter Roethlisberger touchdown pass to Brown.
What’s Next: The Steelers host the Ravens (Saturday, January 3, 8:15pm, NBC) in a reprise of their annual grudge match, while the Bengals travel to Indianapolis (Sunday, January 4, 1:00pm, CBS) to take on the Colts.