Here are seven notes and observations from Week 14 in the AFC North:
Let's start with a prediction: We fully expect the Cincinnati Bengals (2-11) to have their Week 16 Sunday night game against the San Diego Chargers (7-6) "flexed" to an earlier time. The game, which is in danger of a blackout in Cincinnati, has no business on prime-time television with the way the Bengals are playing. They have lost an NFL-high 10 games in a row and there are much better matchups in Week 16. Potential replacements are the New York Jets (9-4) against the Chicago Bears (9-4) and the New York Giants (8-4) against the Green Bay Packers (8-5). (Update: Bengals flexed.)
We agree with veteran receiver Terrell Owens that Cincinnati's offense has become too predictable. Owens, who has played for four other teams and in some good offenses throughout his career, lashed out at the Bengals' play calling for the second straight week. After a good first drive by the Bengals, the Pittsburgh Steelers caught on to what Cincinnati was trying to accomplish. As Owens mentioned afterward, Cincinnati offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski didn't make proper adjustments at halftime and, as a result, the game quickly got out of hand.
The Steelers (10-3) are in great position to land the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye in the AFC playoffs. But it's unlikely they will catch the New England Patriots (11-2) for the top seed. Pittsburgh is one game behind New England. But the Patriots hold the head-to-head advantage, so it's essentially a two-game lead with three games left. On the flip side, the Steelers own a two-game lead over the two other division leaders -- the Jacksonville Jaguars (8-5) and Kansas City Chiefs (8-5) -- with three games remaining. The biggest threat to Pittsburgh's second seed is the Baltimore Ravens (8-4), who can get within a game by beating the Houston Texans on Monday night. (Create your own scenarios with our NFL Playoff Machine.)
Three Steelers defenders have scored TDs this season, and the team is 2-0 in those games. In addition to Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley and safety Troy Polamalu, defensive end Brett Keisel scored a touchdown against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers earlier this year. That prompted Keisel to take a jab Sunday at his other eight defensive starters without touchdowns. "What's taking them so long [to score]?" Keisel said, laughing.
Ravens Pro Bowl tailback Ray Rice is on a seven-game drought without posting 100 yards rushing. "Monday Night Football" would be a perfect time to snap that streak. Rice last eclipsed the 100-yard mark with a 133-yard effort on Oct. 10 against the Denver Broncos. Rice hasn't had 20 or more carries in the past month, and got only nine carries last week in a loss to Pittsburgh. Here are five more things to watch tonight for the Ravens.
The Cleveland Browns (5-8) project to win just six games this season after Sunday's ugly loss to the lowly Buffalo Bills. Cleveland plays three division games to end the season: at Cincinnati (2-11), vs. Baltimore (8-4) and vs. Pittsburgh (10-3). There are a lot of questions about the future of Browns coach Eric Mangini, who went 5-11 last year. A 6-10 record won't look good on his résumé, which means Mangini probably must pull off major upsets down the stretch to impress Cleveland president Mike Holmgren.
Finally, we'd like to give a special "Seven-step drop" congrats to Browns tailback Peyton Hillis, who eclipsed the 1,000 yards rushing for the first time in his career. Hillis has been, by far, Cleveland's MVP this season. He has had fumbling issues, which showed up again in the loss to Buffalo. But the Browns may only have had one or two wins this year if they had not the offseason trade with Denver to get Hillis for quarterback Brady Quinn.