The Ravens and Bengals are playoff-bound — and pretty well-rested, all things considered. The Steelers settled at the .500 mark, but don't expect anyone to print any celebratory T-shirts. The Browns, as expected, are making some big changes. Here's a closer look at the AFC North at regular season's end:
What we learned: The Ravens treated the regular-season finale as a preseason game of sorts, resting many starters. Considering their injury issues, it’s hard to argue with the club’s logic, especially with the Ravens being able to move no higher than the No. 3 seed in the AFC — and that prospect was a relative long shot, as it would have taken a New England loss. Instead, the Ravens gave numerous backups extended playing time in a 23-17 loss to the Bengals. Among the starters who got the day off were OLB Terrell Suggs, DT Haloti Ngata, SS Bernard Pollard and WR Anquan Boldin.
What’s in store next: The Ravens (10-6) host the Colts (11-5) in the wild-card playoffs on Sunday. The Ravens’ defense is likely to have Suggs, Ngata and Pollard back in the lineup, and MLB Ray Lewis (triceps) could return, too. All that rest probably couldn’t have hurt the defense; it’s not as if the Ravens are unaccustomed to postseason play. Still, the Ravens will need to shake off any rust very quickly. The Colts, by contrast, played their starters with the No. 5 seed locked up on Sunday, and the payoff was a 28-16 win over the Texans, who had a chance to clinch home-field advantage throughout the postseason. The Colts have won 5-of-6 games and have three victories against three playoff entrants (Minnesota, Green Bay, Houston) this season.
What the heck: Despite playing backups for most of the game, the Ravens outgained the Bengals 352-189 and held the ball for nearly 60 percent of regulation. The Bengals also rested some players, but not at the same rate as Baltimore.
What we learned: The Bengals will enter the postseason with wins in seven of their last eight games. Among AFC teams, only the Broncos have had more success in the second half of the season, and the Bengals’ 7-1 second-half mark is as good as that of traditionally strong-finishing New England. The Bengals (10-6) ground out a 23-17 win Sunday vs. Baltimore in a game that didn’t mean much to either side, what with each guaranteed to be playing on wild-card weekend. This afforded Cincinnati a chance to rest starters. However, RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis was a late scratch with a hamstring ailment, unwelcome news to say the least.
What’s in store next: Just as they did a season ago, the Bengals will begin the postseason at Houston (12-4). The good news: the Bengals are a better, more experienced team than they were a season ago. The bad news: the Texans twice beat the Bengals in 2011, and they did so without QB Matt Schaub. From an expectations standpoint, no game may be more compelling in Round One. The Bengals haven’t won a postseason game since Jan. 6, 1991 against the Houston Oilers. A loss would be their fourth in as many playoff games under head coach Marvin Lewis. A Texans defeat, meanwhile, would mark a bitter end to a season that looked so promising for Houston a few short weeks ago.
What the heck: The Bengals managed to gain only 189 yards against Baltimore. The ground game sputtered without Green-Ellis, gaining just 47 yards on 21 carries (2.2 avg.). The Bengals will need Green-Ellis to be close to full strength to muster their best effort at Houston.
What we learned: The Steelers weren’t going to allow a Browns club starting backups at quarterback and running back to defeat them on their home field in the season finale. The Steelers were outgained 320-212, but they made the necessary plays in a 24-10 win. QB Ben Roethlisberger threw for just 134 yards, but he tossed three TD passes. The defense forced four turnovers and sacked Browns quarterbacks four times, including on back-to-back plays to end Cleveland’s final drive. Two of the Steelers’ younger defenders had big games. ILB Lawrence Timmons notched two sacks, forced a fumble and recovered another fumble, while CB Cortez Allen forced two fumbles and recovered one.
What’s in store next: The Steelers face an interesting offseason. WR Mike Wallace and RB Rashard Mendenhall will be free agents; if both depart, the Steelers could need to address their depth at those positions. Continuing to add more youth to a stout-but-older defense will be a must, too. It’s quite clear the Steelers, as compromised, can compete at a high level, but they could stand to get a little more dynamic on both sides of the ball.
What the heck: The Steelers’ 212 yards were a season-low. This is an offense with the potential to be better — and it simply must improve if Pittsburgh wants to compete for a title in 2013.
What we learned: Third-year QB Thaddeus Lewis made a credible NFL debut, completing 22-of-32 passes for 204 yards with one TD and one interception in Cleveland’s 24-10 loss to Pittsburgh. The loss was the final one in head coach Pat Shurmur’s tenure as head coach. Shurmur and GM Tom Heckert were let go on Monday, which could signal another round of roster retooling. That’s why Sunday’s game was so important for Lewis. Now, evaluators have regular-season film on him. The same can be said for any of the Browns’ non-core players. The more they were able to show this season, the better for their NFL futures.
What’s in store next: Owner Jimmy Haslam and CEO Joe Banner will first hire a head coach, then a general manager. This could signal that the new GM will have a more complementary organizational role than Heckert, who reportedly had final control of the roster. The roster inherited by the new head coach will be stronger than the one Shurmur inherited, as Heckert improved the personnel in his three seasons on the job.
What the heck: After being inactive (coach’s decision) for 13 of the previous 15 games, RB Brandon Jackson led the Browns (5-11) in rushing Sunday, racking up 54 yards on eight carries in his first action of the season.
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