Week 16 of the 2012 NFL season promises to be decisive in the AFC North division. The division-leading Baltimore Ravens have lost three-straight and now entertain the defending Super Bowl champions.
The crunch encounter involves the Cincinnati Bengals travelling to Pittsburgh to take on the Steelers. Both will be hoping to catch the stumbling Ravens.
The Bengals have the best chance at 8-6. They have all the momentum, having registered five convincing victories in their last six games.
The Steelers meanwhile are wounded, having been ravaged by injuries and offensive turnovers. The return of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has done little to arrest their issues.
At 7-7 the Steelers simply have to win. They will be encouraged by their recent dominance of the Bengals.
The Steelers have won their last five games against the Bengals. Much of that success has been due to their ability to dominate the line of scrimmage and run the ball.
They might not find it as easy this week. Cincinnati's defensive front has been rampant in recent games.
They are able to generate a heavy pass rush with their front four. That's bad news for Roethlisberger and the Steelers offense.
Pittsburgh's offensive line surrendered four sacks to the Dallas Cowboys last week. They will likely have trouble with Cincinnati's brilliant defensive tackle, Geno Atkins.
On offense, the Bengals will attempt to expose the top-ranked defense in the league. They'll use prolific wideout A.J. Green to do it.
That puts more pressure on the Steelers, who will be without with their best cover man, veteran Ike Taylor. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau will likely counter by attacking young quarterback Andy Dalton with a complex array of his trademark zone blitzes.
This is an incredibly tough game to call. The Steelers have had the Bengals number in recent seasons and simply must win.
However, the Bengals are on a hot streak and would seal a playoff berth with a victory. The Steelers have a habit of winning when they need to, but expect the Bengals to be just too strong this time.
As for the Ravens, they must salvage a season in danger of slipping into disaster. 9-2 at one point and in complete control of the division, the Ravens haven't recovered from losing to the Steelers in Week 13.
Their offense is in tatters. Sketchy quarterback Joe Flacco is once again proving to be the Achilles heel for an otherwise talented team.
In fairness, injuries have also played their part. No team could lose the quality defensive personnel the Ravens have and not struggle.
The result has been a lowly 26th-ranked unit, for a franchise usually known for its defensive excellence. But as much as they miss stars on defense, fixing the offensive woes has to be the Ravens priority.
They must get the ball to physical flanker Anquan Boldin more often and also give Ray Rice more carries. Facing the New York Giants in December is a daunting prospect.
The G-Men showed last season that they have a knack for playing well in the clutch. If defensive linemen like Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora dominate the line of scrimmage, Big Blue will have the advantage.
On offense Eli Manning plays his best football when the games are the most important. Expect him to challenge the Ravens' suspect pass defense.
The Giants have their own division concerns. They must separate themselves from the Cowboys and Washington Redskins, in a crowded NFC East.
The Ravens look like a lost team at the moment. That could be enough to give the equally desperate Giants a narrow and vital victory.
By the end of Week 16, the AFC North could well be decided. The Ravens can retain the division, if they can recover their early-season form.
The Steelers will either be looking ahead to next season, or be right back in the playoff race. The youthful Bengals are the most intriguing party.
They have the opportunity to become legitimate and consistent contenders in the AFC. They are a team on the rise and capable of seizing their big chance this week.
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