|Will Ben Roethlisberger's Pittsburgh Steelers or Andy Dalton's Cincinnati Bengals be sitting at home come January?|
With two weeks remaining in the regular season, the AFC North is still up for grabs between the Baltimore Ravens (9-5), Cincinnati Bengals (8-6) and Pittsburgh Steelers (7-7). The second-place team could have a cushioned landing in the form of the final AFC wild-card slot (though the New York Jets might have something to say about that). So, which AFC North team will be out of the mix come January?
Dalton, Bengals can't be trusted down the stretchThe Baltimore Ravens will back into the division championship, just like they have backed into the playoffs. I don't trust any of these teams to win in January, but I still trust the Cincinnati Bengals least of all.
Cincinnati has yet to prove it can beat Baltimore or the Pittsburgh Steelers in a big spot. Andy Dalton has played a lot worse for the Bengals this season than his numbers indicate, often missing open throws and making poor decisions. The Ravens and Steelers both have problems, but I expect both teams to take care of the Bengals over the next two weeks. That would leave Baltimore as the AFC North champ, the Steelers as one of the wild-card teams, and the Bengals feeling like Charlie Brown when Lucy pulls away his football.
Bengals bound to miss playoffsI believe it will be the Cincinnati Bengals. Their defense is good enough, but Andy Dalton is too inconsistent as a quarterback when it comes to throwing his deep balls with accuracy.
Despite their loss to the Dallas Cowboys, the Pittsburgh Steelers showed more life, especially on offense, than they did in Week 14 against the San Diego Chargers. Ben Roethlisberger played much better. That's the difference between the Steelers and Bengals -- the quarterback position.
Bengals? Steelers? Neither will make the postseasonI think there's going to be two odd teams out in the AFC North. All the teams in that division are flawed and in varying states of disarray, but the Baltimore Ravens are closest to the goal of winning it, so I'll default to them as AFC North champ. But here's the rub: If the New York Jets win out against three opponents who are currently mailing in their respective seasons, they'll finish at 9-7. The Steelers and Bengals, meanwhile, play each other next week, and someone must lose. As long as the winner of that game loses in Week 17, New York sneaks in. And that's what will happen.*
I'm down on Pittsburgh, because this is not a good Steelers team. It is extremely flawed and still lacks an offensive identity. Ben Roethlisberger is now questioning the play-calling. Even though the game against the Bengals is in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati has been playing terrific football -- especially defensively -- over the past month. I see that continuing this Sunday.
So it will come down to the Bengals or the Jets for that final spot in Week 17, and the Ravens will beat Cincinnati.
*Though I'm picking the Jets, I'd like to leave open the possibility that all of this happens and the Jets somehow lose to the Buffalo Bills in Week 17, because, well, I've seen too many Jets games in my lifetime to discount that scenario.
Roethlisberger, Steelers find a way to win when it mattersIt seems like every time we're ready to bury the Pittsburgh Steelers (and trust me, you're tempted, after consecutive losses to the San Diego Chargers and Dallas Cowboys), they always seem to find a way to win when it really matters.
As an example, I present to you Charlie Batch beating the Baltimore Ravens a few weeks back.
The Steelers will handle their business against the Cincinnati Bengals in Heinz Field this week, and then take care of the Cleveland Browns the following week. And the biggest reason to think so is the quarterback. Sure, Ben Roethlisberger threw a decisive interception against the Cowboys, but when it comes to must-win games, he rises to the challenge.
Red Dalton has struggled in recent weeks, with five total touchdowns and five turnovers in his past three games. Teams have put pressure on Dalton, and he's made some mistakes. The Bengals were able to get away with a flat second quarter against the Philadelphia Eagles last week, but that kind of play will catch up to them against the Steelers on Sunday.
Bengals will fall short this season ... but take the division in 2013The Baltimore Ravens are a mess. As I've been saying for weeks now, they won't win another game in 2012. Whether their next win comes in January or September 2013 has yet to be determined. On the bright side, if it weren't for a bad call on fourth-and-29 against the San Diego Chargers, or Jacoby Jones' punt return versus the Pittsburgh Steelers, or a very questionable field goal over the upright against the New England Patriots, they'd be in third place right now. As it is, they're going to the postseason.
The path is now clear for the Cincinnati Bengals: If they can win their last two, they can win the AFC North. They ought to be able to beat the imploding Ravens (who will have lost four straight by the time they arrive in Cincinnati), but it says here they'll lose a ragged game on Sunday at Heinz Field. Yes, the Bengals are a better team than the Steelers, but in a must-win situation, I'll take Roethlisberger over Dalton ... at least at this point in their respective careers. Sorry, Bengals; you're out. Chin up, though. You're a lock to win the division next year.
As for the Jets? They'll do something Jetsy in the next couple of weeks. No playoffs for them.