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AFC North: Three Teams For Two Spots

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As we roll into December and pass the three-quarter mark of the season, the AFC North is down to a three-team field. While Baltimore is all but a lock to win the division, holding a two game lead heading into the final leg of 2012, both Pittsburgh and Cincinnati sill have healthy playoff chances. After what was a huge week for the division, the playoff picture for the three contenders is as murky as ever.

BALTIMORE RAVENS

Taking Their Licks

After battering Steelers backup quarterback Byron Leftwich just two weeks ago at Heinz Field, the Ravens had to be pretty confident taking on third-stringer Charlie Batch with Pittsburgh coming off an eight-turnover game in Cleveland. But with a golden opportunity to put the division pretty much out of reach, Baltimore’s offense sputtered yet again. Joe Flacco, who goes from bordering on elite to edging toward unwatchable, was pretty thoroughly outplayed by Batch. Under 50 percent passing on the day, Flacco flat out struggled to move the ball for much of the game. He also committed Baltimore’s costliest mistake, a fumble in the fourth quarter that led to points for the Steelers.

Wild Card Wilderness

With the loss, Baltimore could be looking at playing in the Wild Card round of the playoffs. Of the three teams sitting at 9-3 (Denver and New England being the other two), the Ravens have the toughest schedule. Three of their four remaining games are against teams with winning records, and the other team happens to feature Robert Griffin III. After watching Batch move the ball with consistency, John Harbaugh can’t be excited about seeing RGIII, the Manning bros and Andy Dalton in successive weeks. Even more worrisome, Baltimore might be doing it without their best pass rusher. Terrell Suggs tweeted Monday night that he was getting a second opinion on his arm injury. It seems like a good guess that if the first diagnosis had been positive, there wouldn’t be a need for a second one.

CINCINNATI BENGALS

Comeback Cats

The Bengals pulled off something they hadn’t had to break out of their bag during their current four-game winning streak—a come-from-behind W. As they’ve done for four straight weeks now, Cincy clamped down on defense and shut out the Chargers in the second half. That gave Andy Dalton just enough breathing room to engineer two scoring drives late in the fourth quarter. While AJ Green was his usual awesome self, he was kept out of the end zone for the second straight week. No matter—Jermaine Gresham once again stepped up for Dalton and snuck in for a TD, while BenJarvus Green-Ellis is finally looking like the difference maker he was signed to be (the Law Firm racked up his third straight 100-yard game). With a nasty defense, weapons stepping up around Green and Dalton continuing his maturation, does anyone want to see the Bengals?

Forging Their Path

Of the three teams in the North race, the Bengals can do the most to create their own destiny. Their next two games come against a Dallas team that you never know what to expect from and Philadelphia, a team that has packed it in for the year. Should Baltimore falter against their stiff upcoming schedule, Cincinnati has an outside shot to pull even with the Ravens in their Week 17 matchup if they take care of business leading up to that. Even if they don’t catch Baltimore, the Bengals are still locked into battle for that sixth spot with Pittsburgh, and can take a firm grasp of it should they win their Week 16 clash.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

Grit and Grind

The Steelers just pulled off their biggest win of the year, notched their first win against the Ravens without Ben Roethlisberger on the field since the QB came into the league. And they did it behind the 37-year-old arm of Charlie Batch, on the road against a team that hadn’t lost at home since Week 13 of the 2010 season. While the Steelers made their share of mistakes—an Emmanuel Sanders fumble on a play on which he wasn’t touched, a Batch pick in the end zone—they were bailed out by veteran play throughout the game. On offense, Heath Miller made an incredible dive to the pylon to tie up the game and Batch was on point when it came to winning time. James Harrison gave Batch the chance to engineer two drives that totaled 10 points by making the biggest play of the game. With the Steelers down a touchdown, Harrison tore through the Ravens line to get a strip sack of Flacco. 10 minutes later, the Steelers strolled out of the Ravens’ house with a win.

The Waiting Game

No matter how incredible Batch’s effort was, he’s not going to be the guy to lead the Steelers to the playoffs—that would be Roethlisberger. The problem is, no one is sure when Big Ben will be back on the field. While rumors swirled that he might play against the Ravens, team doctors wouldn’t clear Roethlisberger. Reports came out that he had been cleared, but team sources disputed that. It’s anyone’s guess whether he’ll be able to go against San Diego in Week 14; if not, the Steelers just have to hope they can keep pace with Cincinnati in the playoff race.

Brett Weisband is TDdaily’s AFC North blogger. Follow him on Twitter @weisband.