Here is the crucial information you need to know for this week.
|AFC North Standings|
|Cincinnati Bengals||6-2||At Miami Dolphins|
|Baltimore Ravens||3-4||At Cleveland Browns|
|Cleveland Browns||3-5||Vs. Baltimore Ravens|
|Pittsburgh Steelers||2-5||At New England Patriots|
Unfortunately for the Ravens, the Cincinnati Bengals gained a bigger lead in the division after trouncing the New York Jets in Week 8. The more pressing concern for Baltimore is that Andy Dalton seems to be heating up; he's thrown for over 300 yards and three touchdowns in each of the last three weeks.
If Dalton continues to play this well, Cincinnati will run away with the AFC North crown.
The Bengals face the Miami Dolphins on Thursday night with short rest. The Dolphins have cooled off since their 3-0 start and have lost their last four in a row. They still have the weapons to pose problems for Cincinnati, but the Bengals are the favorites.
The good news for the Ravens is that both the Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers lost in Week 8, leaving Baltimore alone in second place in the division. That position could be solidified in Week 9, as the Steelers travel to Foxboro for a tough matchup against the New England Patriots.
Elsewhere, the Browns started their third-string quarterback (Jason Campbell) last week, and the magic from their revival seems to have died. They face the Ravens this week in a critical division game. Baltimore will be looking to right the ship after the bye.
|Wild Card Race|
|Wild Card 1||Denver Broncos||7-1||3-1|
|Wild Card 2||San Diego Chargers||4-3||2-3|
|3||New York Jets||4-4||2-4|
The last piece of good news from the bye week is that some of the other Wild Card contenders lost games. The Dolphins and Jets both lost, which is a good thing for the Ravens, who might need a Wild Card spot to get into the playoffs.
|Josh Bynes||Finger infection|
|Terrence Cody||Knee sprain|
|Ryan Jensen||Broken foot|
Bernard Pierce wasn't listed on the injury report, but he aggravated a hamstring injury and his status is uncertain. The Ravens signed running back Bernard Scott as insurance in case Pierce is unable to go on Sunday. Both reports are from Aaron Wilson of the Baltimore Sun.
Also from Wilson, Josh Bynes expects to play against the Browns and is recovering well from surgery on his finger.
The other question marks are Brandon Stokley, Terrence Cody and Ryan Jensen, but all of them would be backups anyway and have fallen behind on the depth chart.
What Must Improve
Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce are too talented to be ineffective. Mike Preston of the Baltimore Sun reported that some of the players called for a shift back to the blocking scheme of last season, and head coach John Harbaugh took their opinions into consideration.
There was less zone-blocking against Pittsburgh in Week 7, and the bye week would have been a perfect time to implement broader changes to the blocking scheme. We'll find out whether those changes were made on Sunday.
But the success the O-line had against the Steelers is a reason for optimism.
It was by far the most productive run-blocking game of the year, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). If it is indeed the scheme that was holding them back, they may be able to roll out a competent ground game after changes have been made.
The struggles of the rushing offense have been frequently discussed, but the rushing defense has slowly fallen apart. As a result, opposing offenses have been able to unleash balanced attacks, pick up easy first downs and construct time-consuming drives.
A bad run defense also negates the biggest strength of this Baltimore team: the pass rush. When the run is shut down, offenses are put in obvious passing situations and Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil can get after the quarterback.
|Opposition 3rd Downs|
|Opponent||Opponent Rushing Yardage||Third-Down Conversion Percentage|
|Green Bay Packers||140||35.3%|
|Average <100 yards||<100||30.9%|
|Average >100 yards||>100||40.5%|
Stopping the run appeared to be a strong suit for the revamped defense, but that trait has all but left the Ravens in recent weeks. The last two losses came as a result of opposing offenses driving down the field, draining the clock and kicking a game-winning field goal as the clock expired.
With the Ravens struggling to run the ball, the rushing defense has to be better to allow Baltimore to have some control over the clock and implement their pass rush.
Joe Flacco's greatest asset is his powerful arm, and the combination of his arm strength and the speed of the receivers on the roster should form a potent big-play threat.
But it hasn't.
|Joe Flacco Deep Passing (20+ yards)|
|Year||Percentage of Pass Attempts (Rank)||Yards||Percentage of Total Yards||TDs||INTs||Completion Percentage|
|2013 (through Week 7)||13.8% (10)||383||20.0%||0||2||29.7%|
They haven't been able to connect for deep passes, or big plays in general, and it's put a lot of pressure on the offense to build long drives—something they have struggled to do with any kind of consistency.
If the switch to a spread offense (resembling what we saw against the Steelers) is maintained for the rest of the year, then perhaps the big plays will start to come again. If it doesn't happen, this offense will continue to have problems moving the football.