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AFC North rife with playoff hopefuls in banner year for division

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Judy Battista highlights the storylines and factors to pay attention to in Week 16, beginning with a look at the best division going and continuing below with 10 more things to watch.

When the Pittsburgh Steelers were still early in their offseason program last spring, they went back to review tape from 2013. There, offensive coordinator Todd Haley said, they found eight plays that were inches away from success -- and any one of them would have potentially lifted the Steelers into the playoffs, which they had a chance to make until the final day of the season. Pittsburgh finished the year at 8-8 and in second place in the AFC North, providing an abject lesson in the razor-thin margin between postseason participant and also-ran in the clotted AFC.

The Steelers, perhaps not surprisingly, support Commissioner Roger Goodell's plan to expand the playoffs by two teams -- adding a third wild-card squad in each conference -- trusting that bulking up the pool will, beyond just further filling the league's coffers, offer relief to teams that are left out of the mix after otherwise good seasons. Owners are expected to consider and approve playoff expansion at the league's annual meeting in March.

The AFC -- and the AFC North in particular -- could use such relief this season. Nine AFC teams currently have winning records, and with three playoff spots already clinched, that leaves six teams scrambling for three spots. The bad news for everyone else: The North could take all three.

That should not come as a surprise. The division has been the league's best all season, with a current winning percentage of .616, better than even the powerful NFC West. Cincinnati leads the division by a half game, but the Bengals, Steelers and Ravens all have nine victories -- better than the records of any other AFC wild-card contender. The toughest remaining schedule of the three belongs to Cincinnati -- the Bengals host the AFC West champion Broncos, then play at Pittsburgh on the final Sunday of the regular season. But even if they lose both games, the Bengals could finish with the second wild-card berth. The easiest remaining schedule is the Ravens' -- they play at Houston, which will be on its fourth quarterback, this Sunday, then host Cleveland in the finale. The scramble has created a fever-pitch intensity within already heated rivalries, but all three AFC North teams could clinch spots this Sunday, if they all win their games and the Chargers lose to the 49ers.

"We take pride in the division, for sure," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "It's a great division. We thought all season it was going to be a great division, and it's proven to be that way. So we're just appreciative to be in the hunt at the end."

Such dominance by one division is not unusual. Since the 2002 realignment created eight four-team divisions, one division has taken three playoff spots five times, including the AFC West last year (which was represented by Denver, Kansas City and San Diego). Only one division -- the NFC East -- has done it more than once, although the AFC North could equal that accomplishment this season if the current division joins the 2011 version in putting the Bengals, Steelers and Ravens in the playoffs.

The Ravens' appearance in this power trio might be the most surprising, considering their season began under fire, with Baltimore first standing by Ray Rice following his suspension for hitting his wife, then releasing him after video from inside a casino elevator surfaced. Rice's dismissal opened the door for Justin Forsett, who has 1,128 rushing yards and is part of a shape-shifting that has marked both the Ravens and Steelers, both of whom were once known almost exclusively for their staggeringly bruising defensive games. Now, both teams are boosted by the most explosive offenses they have ever had.

Baltimore has gained 5,208 total yards and scored 376 points, both of which are the most in team history through 14 games. The Steelers are first in total offense and second in passing. Pittsburgh's 2014 offense has surpassed single-season franchise marks in points per game, yards per game and passing yards per game. Since Week 8, no quarterback has thrown for more yards per game than Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The team has been so thoroughly changed, in fact, that just 18 players on the roster have played in a postseason game for the Steelers, who last made the playoffs in 2011.

Coach Mike Tomlin acknowledged he is watching those younger players closely, to see how they're handling the urgency of their situation.

"The last couple of games have been playoff games for us," Roethlisberger said. "We've had to take that approach and that mindset because of how important every game was where we were, record-wise, seed-wise, whatever you want to call it. We've kind of had that mentality for the last couple of weeks, that it's time to get hot and play our best football. So we're just going to continue to try to do that."

With eight playoff spots still to be claimed -- including all but one in the NFC -- here are 10 more things to watch as the penultimate week of the regular season plays out:

1) Can Arizona win with the backup's backup? The Cardinals scored just three points against Seattle a month ago with second-stringer Drew Stanton, who went down with a sprained knee last Thursday. According to NFL Media research, among quarterbacks with a minimum of 170 pass attempts, only Ryan Leaf has a worse career passer rating (since 2000) entering a start than Ryan Lindley's 46.8 heading into Arizona's matchup against Seattle. The Seahawks' defense is allowing 12.6 points per game over the last eight games, best in the NFL. The Cardinals' offense is averaging 12.8 points in the last five games, which is 30th. The NFC West title hangs in the balance.

2) Two of the league's best offenses will clash in Dallas. The Colts have already clinched the AFC South, but the Cowboys are still fighting for the NFC East. If DeMarco Murray is limited by a broken bone in his left hand, Joseph Randle will likely pick up the bulk of his carries. In his 34 rushes, he averages 7 yards per rush, the highest average among all running backs with at least 30 carries. If the Cowboys lean more on the passing game, watch for the premier matchup between Dez Bryant and Indianapolis cornerback Vontae Davis. Bryant leads the league with 13 touchdown receptions. Davis has allowed a 36.7 passer rating in coverage, the second-best mark in the NFL this season.

3) Will the Eagles' stalled offensive machine get a jump-start in Washington? Philly currently sits just out of the NFC playoffs. In going 0-2 over the last two games, the Eagles' offense has gained 200 fewer yards per game and scored just under 11 fewer points per game than it did in starting 9-3. In four of the seven games he has played, Mark Sanchez has logged two interceptions, contributing to the Eagles' league-leading turnover total. This could be the matchup that allows Philly to fix its ills: Washington's defense ranks 28th in scoring and is tied for 26th in forcing turnovers.

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4) Who will get a stop in New Orleans? With the lead in the NFC South up for grabs, the two worst total defenses in the entire league face off. The Saints are 31st in total defense (390.1 yards per game), while the Falcons are dead last (409.9 yards per game). Expect plenty of passing from Matt Ryan and Drew Brees. Still, the Saints aren't nearly as intimidating at home as they once were. They have lost four straight at the Superdome for the first time since 2005.

5) Might a Chiefs receiver catch a touchdown pass for the first time this season against the Steelers' shaky secondary? An otherwise top-notch Kansas City defense struggles against the run (132.6 rushing yards per game allowed), so watch for Le'Veon Bell, who has had at least 115 yards from scrimmage in the last four games, to get a heavy workload. Pittsburgh has won six of its last eight games and can clinch a playoff spot with a victory. The Chiefs, who have lost three of their last four, are currently the seventh seed in the AFC.

6) Broncos-Bengals comes down to ... Andy Dalton? The Broncos have gone three straight games with more rushing attempts than pass attempts, and Peyton Manning has gone three straight games with fewer than 250 passing yards. Manning and his teams have never gone four straight games with such numbers. The Bengals' defense shut out Cleveland last week but gave up 42 points and 543 yards to Pittsburgh the week before. While the Bengals are 8-0-1 when they rush for at least 100 yards, their chances might hinge on which version of Dalton shows up. He has thrown for 3,008 yards, 15 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.

7) Lions can't afford a letdown. With the Packers playing the Bucs, Detroit must not relax if it wants to stay atop the NFC North heading into a final-week showdown with Green Bay at Lambeau Field. The Lions' dominant defense (second overall, first in scoring and against the run) could have a field day against the spiraling Bears, whose quarterback, Jay Cutler, was benched for Jimmy Clausen this week. Detroit's Matthew Stafford has a passer rating of 114 in the last three games, while Chicago's defense ranks 31st in opponent passer rating.

8) Carrying Carolina. While the Browns' playoff hopes have dimmed with their imploding offense, those of their opponent Sunday have soared with two straight victories. The Panthers have doubled their scoring average (to 30 points per game) and allowed an average of 15.5 fewer points per game in those two victories. Cam Newton's availability following a car accident last week is unclear, so expect another heavy workload for Jonathan Stewart, who had 22 rushing attempts last week, his most since 2010.

9) Here's a very bad omen for Joe Philbin's job security. Miami has lost four of its last five December games, all played with the Dolphins trying to secure a playoff spot. They are currently the 11th seed in the AFC. Against a rapidly improved Vikings defense (after ranking last in points allowed last season, Minnesota is now tied for 12th), Miami will have to break its recent offensive trend -- the Dolphins have scored 16 points or fewer in three straight games, while rushing for less than 100 yards in four straight games.

10) Looking for a jolt. The Chargers, who have had two straight games of fewer than 300 yards of offense, perhaps related to Philip Rivers' reported back injury, are trying to remain in the playoff race. Things won't get easier with wide receiver Keenan Allen sidelined by a broken collarbone. Still, their matchup in San Francisco might be just as intriguing for what it shows about the 49ers, who have already been eliminated from postseason play, and the regression of Colin Kaepernick as his team has crumbled around him. Kaepernick has not thrown a touchdown pass in the fourth quarter this season, and he's been sacked a league-leading 49 times. Since Week 7, the 49ers' offense has ranked last in points per game, averaging just 13.8.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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