(CBS Pittsburgh) — The AFC North remains one of the NFL’s messier divisions going into Week 13. The Baltimore Ravens, coming off a not-so-pretty win over the Cleveland Browns, lead the way with an 8-3 record. The Cincinnati Bengals, who demolished the Pittsburgh Steelers, follow the Ravens at 7-4. The Steelers sit at 5-5-1, trailed only by the 6-6 Browns. While every team is .500 or better, no team has really distinguished themselves. Even the Ravens, who hold the AFC’s best record, have failed to impress. Six of their eight wins have come by a touchdown or less. The Steelers, their opponent this week, have lately seemed like they shouldn’t even be part of the playoff conversation.
“You look at the Steelers, and you wonder if that tie is that going to come back to haunt them or to help them, if they really go on a great run,” according to NFL On CBS analyst James Lofton. “But, as I look at it, it just seems like the Browns and the Steelers, the quarterbacks are just limping toward the finish line. Both guys are a little bit injured. One is just old, and one is injured. And it looks like the Ravens and the Bengals have the best shot at advancing. And that’s what it’s about at this time of year, advancing into the playoffs.”
The Ravens, given the play on the field, are hard to see as the conference’s best team. Lamar Jackson threw for 165 yards and four interceptions against the Browns in a 20-32 outing last week. His one touchdown pass showed again why he’s a special player. Always a threat to run, he still only averaged 4.0 yards on his 17 carries. Devonta Freeman was even less efficient averaging only 3.3 yards on 16 carries. The win was a rare instance of the Ravens winning in spite of Jackson’s performance rather than because of it.
“If you can get a stop at the end of the first half or stop in the fourth quarter, you can win games,” said Lofton. “Most teams have enough offense to score 24 points, or somewhere around that range. So if you get that one stop. Whether you keep their guys out of field goal range at the end of the first half, or you take the ball away at the end of the game, you have a chance to win the game. Granted, this has not been a banner year for the Ravens on defense, where they just blow people away with their defensive play. They’ve won by the skin of their teeth.”
The Ravens defense is starting to show some improvement, however. They held the Browns’ ground game, one of the NFL’s best with both Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubb back, to a mere 2.4 yards per carry and a total of 40 yards. That performance further cemented them as one of the league’s better units at defending the run. Baker Mayfield had an okay outing yardage-wise, but completed less than 50 percent of his passes. But compared to the rest of the NFL, Baltimore is still allowing a league-high 275.7 yards per game.
The Ravens have some elite defenders. Linebacker Patrick Queen leads the team with 62 tackles, adding eight more Sunday. Linebacker Odafe Oweh had a sack and forced a fumble, padding a possible Defensive Rookie of the Year resume. And linemen Justin Ellis and Calais Campbell are having solid seasons, though Campbell is currently in concussion protocol. Sunday’s defensive performance follows a strong showing against the decidedly less dynamic Chicago Bears the week before.
They’ll face a Steelers offensive unit that’s struggled last week. Moving the ball in this offense depends on putting the ball in the hands of Najee Harris. But against the Bengals he carried the ball just eight times for 29 yards and caught three passes for 14 yards out of the backfield. Their lone touchdown and much of their yardage came late in the fourth quarter with the game well out of reach. While Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool continue to be dangerous receivers, they aren’t enough to overcome an aging Ben Roethlisberger and an ineffective offensive line.
“They just are not that dominant team on Sunday,” in Lofton’s view. “It’s just that uncertainty of who the playmakers are offensively and defensively. And can they really put it together for a stretch run?”
Their defense had its moments earlier in the season, but has been subpar of late. They allowed 34 points to the Bengals (who also had a pick-six) and 41 points to the Los Angeles Chargers the week before. The unit is middling against the pass and among the league’s worst against the run. Joe Mixon just torched them for 165 yards and two TDs on 28 carries.
It won’t get any easier against the Ravens, one of the NFL’s best running teams. Linebacker Devin Bush, who missed most of last season with a torn ACL, doesn’t seem to be the player he once was. Linebacker T.J. Watt landed on the reserve/COVID-1 list earlier in the week and seems likely to miss Sunday’s game. That will weaken them even further. Watt has 12.5 of the Steelers’ 30 sacks on the season, more than twice as many as any of this teammates.
And with Jackson possibly looking for a bit of redemption, that could spell trouble for the Steelers.
“It always worries me when you play against a great player who didn’t play great the week before,” said Lofton. “And I think that’s the case with Lamar Jackson. They will try and find ways to get his game going. And the first quarter is kind of a feeling out. What are the Steelers going to do? Are they going to soft rush him? Are they going to really play the edges. Are they going to stack the box and then just try and play man-to-man outside, which is something that they really don’t do exceptionally well? So it will be interesting to see how well Lamar throws the ball against them. Because if he can throw it against them, he can soften them up.”
The Ravens play the Steelers Sunday, December 5 @ 4:25 p.m. ET on CBS.