Throughout the past decade and a half, games between the Ravens and Steelers have been known as a display of one of the NFL’s best rivalries. In recent years, the Bengals’ clashes with Pittsburgh may have supplanted that rivalry, but Week 9 of the 2016 season provided a critical matchup for AFC North division standings.
While Bengals players are vacationing and taking a break from football during their bye week, they undoubtedly kept an eye on the scoreboard as their division foes clashed in Maryland. The Ravens came out victorious to the tune of 21-14, further muddying the waters in the division race this year.
If you liked special teams, this was the game for you. Ben Roethlisberger’s potential rustiness from a knee injury suffered earlier this season was evident, as the Steelers had seven three-and-out offensive drives through the first two and a half quarters of play. The Ravens weren’t much better on offense, really only having a 95-yard touchdown pass to Mike Wallace as the lone feather in their cap for most of the game. Two Steelers fourth quarter touchdowns made it interesting, but Baltimore prevailed.
What has been prevalent over the years with Baltimore and Pittsburgh is finding creative ways to win, even when their mainstays are having poor performances. Both Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco struggled, but John Harbaugh’s special teams unit came up huge. Justin Tucker remained perfect on field goals in 2016 with two more made attempts, while rookie Chris Moore returned a blocked punt for a touchdown. As if that wasn’t enough, the Ravens pounced on an onside kick to cement the win with 48 seconds left.
Baltimore had a scary moment in the game though when Flacco left the game with what initially looked like a knee injury on a scramble-and-slide, but it was nothing more than a broken knee brace that needed to be replaced. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh lost two critical players to injury in the game in wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey and center Maurkice Pouncey, as both didn’t return in the contest.
Things haven’t been going great for the Bengals in 2016, and they are trying to sort things out on their break. However, the clash between the Steelers and Ravens taught us two things on Sunday. One, the longtime rivalry again displayed strong defenses from both clubs, and the other is that the AFC North division appears to be ripe for the taking by the Bengals, Steelers or Ravens—both because of in-game play and the end result.
With the Bengals taking a break this week, the AFC North standings have them in third place with a 3-4-1 record. With their win in Baltimore, the Ravens are now atop the division with a 4-4 record, with the Steelers sitting behind them with the same record. The Bengals are a half game behind both and there is a three-team scrum to get atop the division.
As it currently stands, it appears that an AFC North division crown is the only way one of these teams will make the playoffs. With Kansas City beating Jacksonville this Sunday, it looks as if the AFC West will have three teams make the playoffs in that division. The Chiefs are now 6-2, while the Raiders and Broncos are also grappling for division dominance and are also both 6-2 heading into their Sunday Night Football matchup tonight. With a similar record to the Bengals, the Chargers aren’t totally out of the playoff picture, either.
The Steelers, Ravens and Bengals all control their own divisional destiny at this point. Cincinnati has two games against the Ravens in Weeks 12 and 17. Though Baltimore beat the Steelers and it’s always a tough matchup against the Ravens, both of those games should be winnable. Especially when Cincinnati in the midst of a 6-4 (5-1 the past three seasons) stretch against the Ravens during the Andy Dalton era.
The Bengals host the Steelers at Paul Brown Stadium in Week 15 on Sunday Night Football. The Bengals lost to Pittsburgh in Week 2 at Heinz Field, but a win down the stretch against Pittsburgh along with a few others could propel Cincinnati to another improbable division crown.
Buckle up—it’s going to be a wild second half of the season.