It's that wonderful time of year again!
Thanksgiving is done, Christmas is almost here and we're entering the stretch run of the NFL regular season. Some teams' seasons were over several games ago, but quite a few others will see their 2011 playoff destinies come together during the next month.
The AFC North has been a very competitive division this year, as it usually is, but the competition has been even stiffer with the Cincinatti Bengals' quiet rise to relevancy.
With four games left on the schedule for each team, there isn't much time left, and no club has much room for error. One or two unexpected losses here or there will separate the division winner from the third-place team left sitting at home in the postseason.
Here are my predictions for how things will look after the season is all finished up, along with one game for each club that will have season-defining implications.
The Baltimore Ravens, as always, are built upon a strong defensive foundation that has them solidly in the top five in both passing and rushing yards allowed per game. In addition, the offense is led by the explosive Ray Rice and has been able to score enough to win very consistently once again this year.
Right now, the Ravens are sitting at 9-3, tied for first with the Steelers. However, Baltimore owns the tie-breaker over the Steelers by virtue of their two regular season wins over them. Those two wins will prove to be the difference and the Ravens will reclaim the AFC North division title.
Game to Watch: Week 17 vs. Cincinnati. None of their other remaining games should be a challenge, but this one should be big, particularly if the Bengals are still fighting for a playoff spot at that point.
After all the injuries, all the drama, all the ups and downs, it's Week 13 and the Pittsburgh Steelers are once again atop their division, currently tied for first with the Ravens.
It's no surprise to anyone, really. The Steelers seem to be able to overcome all adversity, year after year, and be consistent contenders no matter what comes their way.
The only difficult game remaining will be at San Francisco in Week 15, but other than that, the Steelers shouldn't have any trouble getting to twelve wins this season. They aren't likely to finish with a better record than the Ravens, however, and will finish in second place in the division this season.
Game to Watch: Week 15 vs. San Francisco. The 49ers probably won't have a lot to play for at that point, but it will be interesting to see how these two contenders match up with each other.
The Cincinnati Bengals are one of the season's surprise teams, although it isn't as much of a surprise when we look at the talented young players they have.
As of late, however, they aren't having quite the same success. The Bengals have now lost three of their last four, falling to third place in the division. But they are still very much in both the division race and the wild-card race as well.
Cincinnati has a couple tough home games remaining on the schedule against Houston and Baltimore, and could have trouble in Week 16 with a plucky Arizona Cardinals team that will be playing for pride.
The Bengals have a tough road ahead of them, and being the young team that they are, I can't pick them ahead of either Baltimore or Pittsburgh in the division, which lands them in third at the end.
Game to Watch: Week 14 vs. Houston. The Texans, in spite of mounting injuries, are playing very well lately and will be a tough challenge for the Bengals to overcome.
With both Baltimore and Pittsburgh likely to win next week, the Bengals either need to keep pace, or risk falling three games back with only four left to play.
What can I say about the Cleveland Browns? They're pretty bad—not bad enough to be in contention for a top draft pick, but bad enough that they never really had a chance at a playoff berth.
The Browns are abysmal offensively, but have little hope of being able to fix their quarterback situation for at least another year.
Of their remaining games, all are likely to be a challenge. They have three games left against division foes and could end up making some noise in the division race by keeping it close in one or two of those.
Games to Watch: Week 16 vs. Baltimore and Week 17 vs. Pittsburgh. They could keep either team out of the top spot in the division by playing spoiler in either game.