Essentially this is going to be a new series, chronicling the AFC North games of the week. Now, as I am mainly focused on the Pittsburgh Steelers, there will be an emphasis on their games, but the other three teams in the North shall also be covered.
Let's get on to the matchups.
1 PM Sunday
If you'd of told me at the beginning of the season that the Bengals would be doing this good and in control of the AFC North, I'd of had you committed.
But, such is parity in the NFL, I've really got to give the Bengals and Head Coach Marvin Lewis credit. He's done more with this team than anyone could have imagine. He's went from the hot seat to the throne in a matter of a year.
The Bengals will come into this game with their defense playing great, leading the league in passes defended and ranked third in total assisted tackles. The unit is as cohesive as the Bengals have seen in years, led by linebacker Keith Rivers.
They've got an Pro Bowl caliber quarterback in Carson Palmer, a potential Comeback Player Of The Year in Cedric Benson and Larry Johnson running well for their offense.
They've accomplished something no one thought was possible—an undefeated AFC North record.
Matching up against the Lions is something that most teams do well and the Bengals are no different. Barring a collapse by this team, they'll emerge victorious. But the game isn't played on paper, it's played on the field.
Lion quarterback Matthew Stafford absolutely impressed me and a lot of the NFL fan base by his gutsy performance against the Cleveland Browns, including the winning touchdown pass he threw with no time on the clock in the fourth quarter. Did I mention that he did that with an injured shoulder?
Sure the Browns basically put him in the position to win that game, but he still had to throw that pass. Gutsy move by him.
When you've got a tough leader throwing the ball against you, you've got a problem to deal with. Players rally around those kinds of players, look at what Ben Roethlisberger has done with the Pittsburgh Steelers offense. They respect him, they'll play for him. The Detroit Lions have found the same thing in Stafford.
That being said, the Bengals are going to run over, around and through the Detroit defense. Palmer's going to be solely handing it off come the fourth quarter and Louis Delmas is more than likely going to lay someone out.
The Detroit Lions are in a sorry state, but so were the Oakland Raiders, anything can happen in the NFL, but I foresee the Bengals taking this one with ease.
Pittsburgh Steelers vs Oakland Raiders
1 PM Sunday
The Steelers are hurting. There, I said it.
The team is hitting win or go home territory now, with virtually the only chance of them even sniffing the play offs is for them to win out. Even Hines Ward agrees with me. That's good company I think.
Oakland's a good mediocre team. They have beaten the Philadelphia Eagles and the Bengals, but those were more than likely flukes.
Bruce Gradkowski organized some last minute heroics to stun the Bengals and the Eagles were just off their game.
I do think that this is the perfect game to get the Steelers out of their three game losing slump though. No one on the Raiders offense worries me, and that in itself is a worrying though. Always gotta look out for those quiet ones, right?
Ben Roethlisberger will be back under center for the Steelers, although Troy Polamalu will still be out. That means more Tyrone Carter. Oh, what joy! Not to say that Carter is bad, but I'll take a one-legged Polamalu over Carter any day of the week and TWICE on Sundays.
The Raiders two biggest play makers on the defensive side of the ball are defensive end Richard Seymour and cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha. The latter worries me more, even though the former guaranteed playoffs (cue Jim Mora).
There's a reason that quarterbacks don't throw towards Asomugha. It's because the man is an athletic machine. One of, if not the best, corner in the league. Most quarterbacks are scared (or perhaps wary is a better word?) to throw in his direction.
Roethlisberger...has no fear. I can see him attacking the young corner and doing it often as he'll more than likely be matched up against Santonio Holmes.
The Pittsburgh defense got to Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco five times last Sunday night, here's hoping that they can duplicate that against the Raiders. If they get pressure, they're a great team. If the defensive backfield sans the Hitman is forced to cover for too long, they'll give up big plays. That spells disaster for this team.
I hate to say it, but the Steelers special teams is once again going to be a deciding factor in this game. They've been absolutely horrid in coverage this year and despite the organization's best efforts to find more suitable players, nothing has happened for the better.
Corey Ivey was recently released and Anthony Madison was once again welcomed into the Steelers locker room. He was an absolute ace on special teams for us last year along with linebacker Keyaron Fox. Hopefully those two can take control of this group and get them to play with some pride.
I don't see any plausible way the team from Pittsburgh loses this one, but then again I said the same thing about the Kansas City Chiefs game.
Cleveland Browns vs San Diego Chargers
4:05 PM Sunday
This is another no-brainer in my opinion. The Chargers are on a roll lately and Phillip Rivers is playing like a man possessed. And probably the best thing about it all, is that since he's winning, there's less whining.
Not to say that Rivers isn't a great quarterback, in fact I believe that he's the second best quarterback to be drafted in 2004. Roethlisberger and his two rings are ahead of him, while Eli Manning is behind him despite his one Super Bowl ring.
LaDainian Tomlinson isn't playing like the LT of old, but he's still getting into the endzone, he has eight touchdowns this season, including five in the last three games. This may very well be his last year running the football in the NFL. If that's true, it's truly going to be an end to an era of running back domination.
To add an extra factor to this game, Tomlinson is just 55 yards away from tying Hall of Famer and former Browns back Jim Brown's NFL rushing total. It currently stands at 12,312 yards and at the time of his retirement, it was number one on the NFL's all time leading rushers list. Former Dallas Cowboys and future Hall Of Fame running back Emmitt Smith now holds the all time record.
To be perfectly honest, this is another that I don't see being close at all. I think the Chargers defense will use and abuse the Browns offense and quarterback Brady Quinn is without his starting running back Jamal Lewis. He's done for the season, and it likely spells the end to the former Ravens career.
Along with that, two key defensive players are out for the year on the Cleveland side of the ball. Linebacker D'Qwell Jackson and safety Brodney Pool are on injured reserve, leaving the tired out Browns defense without two starters.
Green Bay Packers vs Baltimore Ravens
8:30 PM Monday Night Football
The Ravens are coming off a win against their hated divisional rivals, the Steelers, on Sunday Night Football and now they're once again in the national spotlight.
The only difference is that instead of a first time starting quarterback, they're faced with one of the better ones in the league this time.
Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is currently fourth in the NFL for touchdown passes with 22 and third on the quarterback rating standings with a 104.9 rating. He's certainly in some elite company.
Joe Flacco is going to be throwing the ball against a very talented corner in Charles Woodson (is every corner named Woodson good, or what?) who is playing absolutely lights out this season.
The Packers are going to have to contend with Ray Rice out of the backfield along with the Ravens veterans receivers.
If you had the opportunity to watch that fantastic game against the Steelers, Rice absolutely man handled the Pittsburgh defense, showing teams once again that he cannot be covered in man-to-man by a linebacker.
James Farrior couldn't do it and I'm telling you right now that AJ Hawk can't do it either.
This is going to be the game of the week as far as the AFC North is concerned. Like the Steelers, the Ravens are fighting for their playoff lives, so expect them to attack first, then attack some more.
Rodgers is going to be seeing the turf quite a few times, hopefully he has a short memory for sacks and can manipulate the Ravens secondary for some touchdown passes to get him in rhythm.
Ed Reed is going to be the game changer in this one. The man is the best safety in the league. I've never seen a safety that can MAKE an opposing quarterback throw the ball in his direction by simply giving the receiver a little room to work with. He can do that because of his reaction speed and ball skills.
The crazy thing is that he's doing this all with a severe neck injury that could possibly end his career. That just goes to show his toughness.
I think I originally chose the Packers to win this one, perhaps because as a Steelers fan, I can use all of the Baltimore losses that I can get at the moment, but at the end of the day, I'll take the Ravens in this one.
Unlike the other games this week, it's not going to be an easy victory. They're going to have to scrape and fight for every inch. They'll rise to the challenge under the veteran leadership of Lewis and Reed though and gut this one out.