Thanksgiving has just passed, officially beginning the stretch run for the NFL Playoffs. Only six weeks remain in the regular season, and almost every game has playoff implications. With playoff berths and division titles on the line, most teams are going to need their best players to step up.
Coincidentally, the voting for the Pro Bowl continues over the next three weeks. Compared to different sports' All-Star games, the Pro Bowl doesn't get much respect. And now, since the Pro Bowl is played one week before the Super Bowl, many worthy Pro Bowlers don't even get in the game.
Still, it's a pretty good consolation for many losing teams to see their best players make it (hello, Cleveland Browns). As much as players complain and don't show up for the game, there's still a decent amount of players from playoff teams that do play. And barring a Super Bowl appearance from a certain AFC North team, players from every team in the division should be at Aloha Stadium on January 29th.
These are the players that I think will be representing the AFC North in the 2012 Pro Bowl.
The Ravens are having a amazing season that currently has them in the lead for the AFC North. If they hold on, they will win their first division title since 2006. Not only that, their 8-3 record has them tied for the AFC's best record and has them thinking first round bye.
Because of their success, the Ravens should expect to have many players voted to the Pro Bowl. Last year, they were among the AFC leaders with five players getting voted to the Pro Bowl team. This year should see more than that, and the Ravens could easily have the most Pro Bowlers outside of the Green Bay Packers.
The Certain Pro Bowlers
Right now five Ravens lead their respective positions in voting. Inside linebacker Ray Lewis, free safety Ed Reed and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata continue to be Pro Bowl shoe-ins. Their stellar seasons this year ensure that they will be back again.
Two surprising Ravens are also leading their positions. Linebacker and special teamer Brendon Ayanbadejo has made several Pro Bowls due to his work on special teams. The special teams position is a bit of a crap shoot every year, and Ayanbadejo stands a good chance of getting in due to his reputation.
Left tackle Michael Oher is the Ravens only offensive representative. I feel like groaning when I hear this because everyone knows it is due to the exposure he got from The Blind Side film—seriously, how many offensive linemen get their own movie? I understand that his story is inspirational but unfortunately, Oher has mostly gotten attention this year for false starts and does not deserve to be at the Pro Bowl this year.
Surprisingly, if the season ended right now, running back Ray Rice would not make the Pro Bowl. Even though he is the Ravens' top offensive player, his lack of rushes and the Ravens' offensive struggles have prevented him from rising to the top. Still, a strong end to his season along with serious injuries to other running backs could help Rice get back to the Pro Bowl.
Wide receiver Anquan Boldin is another sleeper for the Pro Bowl. He has topped 70 receiving yards in five games and is on pace for his sixth 1000-yard receiving season. As the Ravens' top receiving threat, he still has a chance to be a Pro Bowler this year.
Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs was a Pro Bowler last year, and his stats are great this year. He has 49 tackles and nine sacks on the season. Since he is such a huge part of the Ravens defense, it's conceivable he makes the Pro Bowl this year.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are having another special season this year. It has been slightly overshadowed by the Ravens' lead over them, but the Steelers could easily finish 12-4 or 13-3. It's a shame that likely won't be enough to win the division, and they will instead have to settle for a wild-card spot.
Nevertheless, the Steelers are an elite AFC team, and there should be many of their players in the Pro Bowl. Right now only three players lead their position, but nearly half a dozen more should get in this year.
The Certain Pro Bowlers
The strength of the Steelers has traditionally been their defense, and this year many of their defenders are having great seasons. Perennial Pro Bowlers like strong safety Troy Polamalu, outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley and cornerback Ike Taylor should all get in.
On offense there is no doubt wide receiver Mike Wallace gets in. He is one of the greatest wide receivers in football today and there are very few people who can match his blazing speed. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been the best AFC quarterback other than Tom Brady, and center Maurkice Pouncey continues to play among the best in his position group.
Heath Miller is looking very solid at the tight end position. He is third on the team with 465 yards and 38 receptions. The AFC is stacked with tight ends like Rob Gronkowski and Antonio Gates, so the odds are a little unfriendly towards Miller getting in.
Defensive end Brett Keisel is likely the best player on Pittsburgh's defensive line. He has missed some time but still played well. In eight games he has gotten 29 tackles and three sacks.
The Cincinnati Bengals are a difficult team to project. They have been good this year, yet many of their best players remain unsung heroes. This is so different from last year when the Bengals had a dismal 4-12 record and failed to have a single Pro bowler.
They are currently 6-4 and third place in the AFC North. Still, they have a difficult six games ahead of them, including games against the Steelers and the Ravens. No matter if they make the playoffs, they should have some players make the Pro Bowl.
The Certain Pro Bowlers
Right now there are only a few, and given how under-the-radar the Bengals have been this year, it's not unthinkable that they get snubbed.
Wide receiver A.J. Green has been electrifying in his rookie season, putting up six touchdowns and 635 receiving yards, though injury has caused him to sit out a little this year. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth was snubbed last year and his solid play could be enough to get him in this year.
It's not out of the question that running back Cedric Benson makes it. He has 634 rushing yards and has shown some bursts of his speed from his successful 2009 season.
Cornerback Leon Hall would likely have made the Pro Bowl, however he is out for the season. Free safety Reggie Nelson could get to the Pro Bowl instead as he has 56 tackles and one interception.
The Cleveland Browns also present a problem when it comes to Pro Bowl players. Not only do they have a mediocre 4-6 record, but their offense stinks this year. Currently, they have no players leading their position in voting.
What has been lost during the Browns' dreadful season is how good their defense is. They are fifth in total defense allowing 305.8 yards a game and first in passing defense allowing 166.5 passing yards. The NFL will likely recognize their defensive greatness with at least one player from that side of the ball.
The Certain Pro Bowlers
Cornerback Joe Haden has became a true shutdown corner this year. He has assisted the Browns in their season-long streak of not allowing a 100-yard receiver. He should get in, although other cornerbacks like Darrelle Revis and Ike Taylor could make it difficult for him.
Joe Thomas is one of the best tackles in the NFL—he might even be the best offensive lineman. Even with tackles like Whitworth and Oher, Thomas might just be popular enough to get in.
Kick returner Joshua Cribbs is one of those players that is a threat to score whenever he has the ball, an explosive player on an otherwise non-explosive Browns offense. However, he hasn't been as great this year, with no returning touchdowns yet. At this point, New York Jets running back Joe McKnight is the favorite to get in, but that could change as he has been getting more carries at running back.
All linebacker D'Qwell Jackson does is get tackles. With 91 this year, he is currently sixth in the NFL. Honestly, he doesn't stand much of a chance with all the great Ravens and Steelers linebackers that will get in, but the guy is a stud who has gotten over 90 tackles in four of his five seasons.