Final Word: AFC North

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Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 9:

As Benson goes: So far this season Cedric Benson has been the biggest indicator of success for the first-place Cincinnati Bengals (5-2). In two losses, Benson rushed for a combined total of 120 yards. He averaged 3.6 and 2.8 yards per carry, respectively, in defeats to the Denver Broncos and Houston Texans. On Sunday, Benson has a rare opportunity to rush for 100 yards twice against the Baltimore Ravens (4-3) in the same season. On Oct. 11, Benson gained 120 yards in a 17-14 victory, ending Baltimore’s 39-game streak of keeping tailbacks under 100 yards.

Andre the Giant: Sunday could mark the much-anticipated debut of Bengals rookie first-round pick Andre Smith, who is listed as questionable. The right tackle missed all of training camp in a contract dispute and the first seven games of the regular season with a broken bone in his foot. Although Smith is practicing, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis has been mum on the subject all week. But the Bengals plan to bring him along gradually, as opposed to rushing him into the starting lineup.

Second chance: Can the Ravens' secondary do it again? After struggling all season, Baltimore's pass defense was solid in last week’s 30-7 victory over Denver. The Ravens had two weeks to correct their issues, and for one game, they appear to be heading in the right direction. An improved pass rush also helped, which is an area Baltimore struggled in its first game against Cincinnati. Doing it a second time on the road against the Bengals' passing attack will make a statement that Baltimore's defense is back to its usual form.

Extended break: Not only did the Pittsburgh Steelers have a bye. But playing on "Monday Night Football" will give the team 15 days of preparation before they meet the Broncos. The Steelers are well-rested and they heavily emphasized ball security during the break. Pittsburgh fumbled the football five times, losing four, in its last two games. The fumbling didn't result in any losses for the Steelers but could in the second half of the season if the trend continues. Pittsburgh is handling the football kind of similar to the way I'm handling it here.

A look ahead: Strength of schedules are hard to quantify before the season. But now that we separated some of the contenders and pretenders through eight weeks, we have a much better indication of the challenges ahead for the four AFC North teams. Right now the Ravens have the toughest strength of schedule in the division for the remaining games with a .523 winning percentage, which is also fifth in the NFL. Pittsburgh’s is No. 13 with a .462 opponent winning percentage. The Cleveland Browns (.439) are No. 15 and the Bengals (.433) are right behind Cleveland at No. 16. This could play a huge factor as three division teams vie for the playoffs down the stretch.