Here are seven notes and observations from Week 12 in the AFC North:
I'm not sure the Pittsburgh Steelers (6-5) or Baltimore Ravens (6-5) are playoff worthy. Something must change, because the Ravens and Steelers are not performing close to the same level I witnessed this time last season on their way to the AFC title game. Sunday night's game was wildly entertaining, but it was also very sloppy. There were three turnovers after halftime, including Pittsburgh's crucial interception in overtime, and 14 combined penalties amassing 139 yards. Many of the penalties were careless. The fact Baltimore struggled at home against a third-string quarterback is not encouraging. Also, Pittsburgh losing three straight, albeit without Ben Roethlisberger in one of those losses, makes it hard to believe the Steelers could pull off a repeat of 2005, which included winning four straight postseason games away from home.
There was tension in the Steelers’ locker room Sunday night. Players are frustrated. Veteran receiver Hines Ward was among the most vocal, even venting his frustration that Roethlisberger (concussion) was pulled at the last minute. Chances are this is something that could simply blow over with winning. Ward wears his heart on his sleeve and is upset with losing three straight. He went on ESPN's SportsCenter Monday morning to clarify his statements.
The Ravens were better in the red zone, going 2-for-4 after being shut out in four attempts in last week’s loss to the Indianapolis Colts. I liked getting defensive tackle Haloti Ngata back in as one of the lead blockers. Ngata crushed a Pittsburgh defender during running back Willis McGahee’s touchdown run in the first quarter.
Is it time to start worrying about the passing game of the Cincinnati Bengals? Quarterback Carson Palmer hasn’t looked comfortable lately, as the Bengals’ offensive line has been surprisingly shaky the past two weeks against inferior opponents in the Oakland Raiders (3-8) and Cleveland Browns (1-10). Cincinnati only has 317 passing yards in its past two games, and Palmer has been sacked six times in that span. The Browns also got six additional hits on Palmer on Sunday. If the Bengals (8-3) plan to keep winning down the stretch and into the postseason, the team must get back to protecting its most valuable asset.
A great bright spot for Cincinnati was the performance of Larry Johnson. The veteran tailback ran hard between the tackles, gaining 107 yards on 22 carries against the Browns. Cincinnati has implemented plays that Johnson is most familiar with, and he looked very natural running them. Johnson may take carries away from injured starter Cedric Benson (hip) even when he returns. But a trio of a healthy Benson, Johnson and rookie Bernard Scott could give a lot of defenses headaches.
Brady Quinn wasn’t nearly as comfortable in the pocket and that was the difference in Cleveland's 16-7 loss to the Bengals. Quinn was coming off a career-high 304 yards and four touchdowns against the Detroit Lions. But he threw for just 100 yards and no touchdowns against the Bengals. Cincinnati only had one sack and three quarterback hits, but the Bengals covered on the back end much better than Detroit and forced Quinn to try to fit the ball into tight spots. Quinn’s timing and throws were off and that was enough to disrupt Cleveland’s offensive rhythm. The Browns were 4-of-14 on third down.
As a final note, I was pleasantly surprised by the play of new Browns linebacker Matt Roth. The former second-round draft pick was cut by the Miami Dolphins last week and picked up by Cleveland on waivers. After just several days of preparation, Roth already appeared to be one of the Browns’ more active defenders, recording seven tackles and a sack. It’s probably not a good sign when a waiver wire pickup sees significant playing time so early. But Cleveland may have found a nice late-season gem in Roth.