Here are seven notes and observations from an interesting Week 15 in the AFC North:
A lot of great things came out of the Baltimore Ravens’ 31-7 blowout of the Chicago Bears. But one underlying positive that could help the team down the stretch was the play of receiver Demetrius Williams, who has been M.I.A. for the past two seasons. Williams caught four passes for 71 yards Sunday. He made a beautiful, athletic touchdown catch in the end zone that reminded everyone why the Ravens (8-6) keep banking on Williams’ potential. The Ravens hope that performance is the start of more production from Williams.
In terms of negatives, Baltimore’s secondary is hurting heading into a big rivalry game against the Pittsburgh Steelers (7-7). Rookie cornerback Lardarius Webb tore his ACL Sunday and is done for the year. Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed (foot, groin) has been in and out of the lineup, and starting cornerback Fabian Washington already is lost for the season. The Ravens have struggled in the secondary all year, and these injuries only make things more difficult.
The Steelers need help from the Philadelphia Eagles (10-4). Win or lose this weekend, the Steelers do not own the tiebreaker over the Ravens. So Pittsburgh's best hope is for the Denver Broncos (8-6) to falter. The Steelers beat the Broncos in Denver, 28-10, on Nov. 9 and own the head-to-head tiebreaker.
Pittsburgh left tackle Max Starks had his hands full with Green Bay Packers rookie outside linebacker Clay Matthews Jr. Sunday. Matthews is a tremendous player and may be the NFL's top defensive rookie, but I had expected Starks to utilize his size and veteran savvy. Instead, Matthews looked like a veteran and beat Starks numerous times with his quickness. The rookie had two sacks and another one negated by a booth review.
Here is an AFC North blog prediction: Don’t be surprised if Jim Zorn lands with the Cleveland Browns in some capacity next year. Yes, Zorn is currently the head coach of the Washington Redskins. But it's the worst-kept secret in the league that he’s on the outs and Washington is eyeing Mike Shanahan. With Mike Holmgren expected to take over the Browns this week, Zorn could be among the first people he recruits in the offseason, most likely as a quarterbacks coach, which is Zorn's specialty. Cleveland quarterback Brady Quinn has been through a lot of adversity and transition already in his young career. So Quinn could use a steady hand.
The Cincinnati Bengals (9-5) responded well during their 27-24 loss to the San Diego Chargers (11-3), despite the tragic passing last week of receiver Chris Henry. San Diego has just about wrapped up the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye, but the Chargers lost to or struggled against every AFC North team this season. If Cincinnati gets another shot at San Diego in the playoffs, which is very possible, the Bengals should feel confident about this favorable matchup.
This is a big week for Bengals tailback Larry Johnson. Cincinnati will play host to Johnson's former team, the Kansas City Chiefs, where he spent the past seven years of his career. Johnson was released by Kansas City last month on bad terms after making controversial statements about the team and media. It will be interesting to see if Johnson acknowledges the revenge angle or downplays it. But rest assured, he wants to run hard against his former team.