Around the AFC North: Put Up or Shut Up

TJ JenkinsAnalyst IDecember 10, 2009

PITTSBURGH - DECEMBER 6: Hines Ward #86 of the Pittsburgh Steelers catches a touchdown pass in the fourth quarter in front of Chris Johnson #37 of the Oakland Raiders during the game on December 6, 2009 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Cleveland Browns versus Pittsburgh Steelers

8:20 PM, Thursday Night Football

Remember last week, how everyone was saying that it was playoff time in Pittsburgh? Well, we're going to take a mulligan on that one. This week in Cleveland it really is do or die time.

The Steelers have to win out, along with having a few things fall their way to enter the playoffs as a wild card team. If they lose, they're done, without a look back.

What team other than the humble Browns would love to ruin the Steelers season more? No one. The team in Cleveland has lost a stunning 12 in a row to the defending champions and would like nothing more than to narrow the gap in the series record.

If there ever was a chance to do it, it's now. The Steelers are stumbling through the second half of their schedule, playing down to the level of their opponents. A late Oakland Raiders surge by quarterback Bruce Gradkowski and wide receiver Louis Murphy stunned the Steelers in the fourth quarter at home. The Browns lost a close one against the San Diego Chargers last week and are looking to build on the fact that they hung around with a tough Chargers team.

Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin is facing the first adversity of his career, losing four straight and staring at the monumental task of whipping his team into playoff shape. If he can make the necessary adjustments, instead of making it sound good for the media (Unleash hell? Really? That's the best you've got, Mike?) then he'll be an even more respected coach and perhaps quiet the numerous Steelers fans calling for his head.

The week just wouldn't be a week in the Steelers 2009 schedule if there wasn't an injury to a key player. Well, Troy Polamalu's still out. But the best news? Hines Ward may not play due to an injured hamstring.


The SAME Hines Ward that questioned his quarterback's toughness when he sat out a game with a concussion?

Seems like a little poetic justice mixed with a slight hint of irony I think.

If Ward is indeed not cleared to play in the game, we'll get to see Pittsburgh heartbreaker, Limas Sweed in action.

This is Sweed's final shot to prove himself to Steeler Nation, a good showing here and he saves his roster spot. Another drop-fest and he's likely out of Pittsburgh.

In the week six meeting between the two, Ben Roethlisberger absolutely lit the Cleveland defense up and systematically picked them apart on his way to 417 passing yards and two touchdowns.

The scariest thing on the Browns team that is sitting at 1-11 and completely out of the playoff discussion is kick/punt returner/receiver/quarterback/running back Joshua Cribbs. He does it all and can really kill the Pittsburgh special teams, which is why Jeff Reed needs to be instructed to kick the ball away from him at all times.

The Steelers need this one and I haven't bet against them yet, so I say they pull this one out somehow after a late surge by the Browns.

Baltimore Ravens versus Detroit Lions

1:00 PM Sunday

Funny thing about this match-up is that the last time they met was in 2005, a game in which the Lions ran for four touchdowns against the Ravens lauded defense.

That's not going to happen again, at least not this season. The Ravens are coming off of a tough loss against the Green Bay Packers that was riddled with penalties and turnovers for both sides.

Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford isn't going to be playing due to that shoulder injury he received against the Cleveland Browns. That's a pretty smart call considering the Ravens would like nothing more than to face a rookie quarterback who's a little banged up. They'd of been blitzing on every down, from every angle and forcing Stafford to beat them.

That being said, Daunte Culpepper just doesn't have it anymore and will likely get eaten alive by the Baltimore defense.

The key for the Lions is going to be to force Joe Flacco to throw the ball. Since the Ravens bye week he's thrown three touchdowns and six interceptions whilst averaging about 200 yards a game. He's certainly found his slump.

This isn't even a game in my humble opinion, Baltimore takes it. Of course, I'd be happy with a Lions win and will be hoping that they somehow pull off the upset.

Minnesota Vikings versus Cincinnati Bengals

1:00 PM, Sunday

Here's an interesting match-up. The Vikings are coming off only their second loss of the season, the first being against the Steelers, while the Bengals are riding high as the champions of the AFC North.

The Bengals defense is more than likely going to try and take the fumble prone Adrian Peterson out of the equation and rely on their talented corners to shut down Brett Favre and company via the aerial assault.

Last week the Arizona Cardinals shut down Peterson in one of the worst games of his career. The Bengals are looking to duplicate that success. The Cincinnati cornerbacks are two fierce competitors that are going to be a thorn in Favre's side from the first snap on.

Carson Palmer's numbers aren't as inflated as you'd expect them to be, but that's because of the emergence of running backs Cedric Benson and Larry Johnson for the club.

Benson needs only 31 rushing yards to reach the 1,000 yard mark this season, whereas Chad Ocho-Cinco needs only 90 receiving yards to hit the same plateau. I'm fairly confident that Benson at least eclipses it and perhaps Ocho-Cinco does as well.

A lot of people are picking the Vikings for this one, but give me the Bengals as much as it pains me to say they'll win. I think they're the better team between the two. Great defense, great running game and a passing attack that can be lethal when called upon.

I think we may have game of the week material here in this one, but at the end of the day, the Bengals end up with more points and a thousand yard rusher.

As always, TJ Jenkins' work can also be found at the Pittsburgh Pigskin Blog and the Sports Jabber Forums .


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