The Battle for The North

The Battle for The North
Reading Time: 6 minutes.

Week 16 in the AFC North is set to be a beauty. Each game has playoff ramifications not just for the North but for the opposition teams too. Can the Steelers clinch the division this week whilst halting the Saints run to the number 1 seed in the NFC? Can the Ravens boost their playoff chances whilst ruining the Chargers dreams of taking the AFC West crown? What of the Browns? Can they pull off stage one of the path to the post season by beating the Bengals?

We don’t even have to wait until Sunday for the drama to start! Week 16 for the North starts tonight in Los Angeles. Let’s go!

Baltimore Ravens @ LA Chargers

After a difficult start to the season, the Ravens (8-6) have found a new lease of life since turning to rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson. At points during the early season it seemed like Coach Harbaugh was sat on the hottest seat of them all. Going in to the must win game against the Chargers, Harbaugh finds his seat somewhat cooled having signed a contract extension for 2019 on Friday.

The Chargers (11-3) will go in to the game as heavy favourite as they look to pile on the pressure on Kansas City in the AFC West. Although they are already guaranteed a playoff perth, the road to the Super Bowl always runs most smooth through your own back yard.

Bolts behind Baltimore…

Baltimore have edged the Chargers in head to head competition, 6-5 and won the most recent game between the two 29-26 back in November 2015. In that game, Justin Tucker proved the difference maker, hitting a winning field goal as time expired. The contest was a battle of gunslingers in Philip Rivers and Joe Flacco, with not much in the way of ground game.

Expect something quite different at the StubHub Center tonight. Although Rivers remains from that last matchup, and what a season he is having, expect the Chargers to utilise Melvin Gordon out of the backfield as he returns from injury. The running back has been having a superb season with thirteen total touchdowns and provides a nightmare for the defence.

It isn’t your run of the mill defence that he is facing tonight though. The Ravens have the league’s number one defence lead by safety Eric Weddle. The former Charger was voted to this years Pro Bowl. They’re allowing just an average of 290.2 yards and 18.1 points a game.

Lamar can be lethal…

Where Rivers remains, Joe Flacco is all but gone in Baltimore. Lamar Jackson is again another big difference from the previous game. His elusiveness in the ground game is a major headache for defensive co-ordinators. He proved in recent weeks that his throwing game is improving, making key third down completions.

For me, how Jackson performs against the Chargers defence will be the key to the game. Whilst Baltimore may lead the league in defence, the Chargers unit is a fearsome one too. It is lead by second year defensive end Joey Bosa. In their victory over the Chiefs last time out, Bosa was evaded by Patrick Mahomes several times as he escaped the pocket.

If Jackson can capitalise on this then Baltimore may have a surprise win and be in with a chance of the AFC North title.

Cincinnati Bengals @ Cleveland Browns

In previous seasons, this game might be of importance for the Bengals in a fight with for control of the North. It might have been a game that they would need to win to get to the playoffs. Ultimately that post season party would end in disaster for the Red Rifle, Andy Dalton. It would also raise more questions about Head Coach Marvin Lewis.

The Bengal’s pride…

All they have to play for this time around is pride. It is pride that took a heavy pounding by Baker Mayfield and the Browns at the end of November. A shell shocked Bengals unit trudged back to the dressing room at half time of that game 28-7 down. They were brutalised by David Njoku, trampled on by Nick Chubb and dazzled by Mayfield.

If the Bengals lose on Sunday night in FirstEnergy stadium it will be the first time the Browns have swept the Bengals since 2002.

The Browns have more than just pride to play for. It seems fantastical to talk about them being in with a shout of the post season deep in to December and yet, here we are. You can read the crazy tale of how they can get there at ninetynineyards.com so I won’t delve in to that here. However, I will examine they keys to how they can beat the Bengals again.

David is a Goliath…

When we talk about the key tight ends in the game, David Njoku isn’t exactly a household name. He isn’t flashy like a Travis Kelce. He isn’t the focal point of the passing game a la Ertz or Gronkowski. However, he does everything well. The Bengals found this out to their cost in the November matchup. He gave Baker Mayfield time in the pocket when blocking. Then, when the Bengals presumed he was blocking he broke out in to space in the passing game. His brute force on the touchdown in that game was evidence of the sheer power of the man.

Mayfield clearly trusts him too and that can’t be overstated between a quarterback and a receiver, see Brady and Gronk. The attention that he demands will give more room for the likes of Jarvis Landry and rookie Antonio Calloway.

Mixon provides ground force…

On the other side of the ball, the Browns will be tasked with stopping Joe Mixon. In the absence of Andy Dalton, the Bengals offence has been more grounded. Mixon is enjoying a phenomenal campaign and is fourth in the league in rushing yards behind Ezekiel Elliot, Todd Gurley and Saquon Barkley. He needs just five yards to break a 1000 yard season.

I don’t foresee the Browns crushing the Bengals with such force this time around. However, I fully expect to see them win out on Sunday night to go 7-7-1 on the season. Who knows, if results have gone right for them I might still be discussing the Browns playoff chances in the season finale.

Pittsburgh Steelers @ New Orleans Saints

The prime time game of Sunday’s evening slate (for viewers in the UK) has very different implications for the two teams involved.

The Saints are already guaranteed their spot in the post season having sealed the NFC South. With a win they would clinch the number one NFC seed and guarantee that the NFC road to the Super Bowl goes through the Mercedes Benz Superdome.

For the Steelers, the result is in many respects that much more important. If they win and the Ravens lose on Saturday night then they will be the AFC North Champions. They could miss out on the post season altogether with a loss and a Ravens win.

Multiple Key match ups…

It is a game where it is difficult to pin down one key match up or one key difference maker. The field will be absolute full of them.

Unfortunately for the Steelers, one of their influential playmakers won’t be able to suit up for the clash. James Connor has been a revelation this year, silently getting on with a stellar season whilst the noise around Le’veon Bell’s absence threatened to drown out any other narrative. Rookie Jaylen Samuels proved a reliable replacement last week in the win over New England.

Although they won’t be on the field together on Sunday night, the wide receiver head to head will be fascinating. Michael Thomas has set records this season for the Saints. JuJu Smith-Schuster for the Steelers is rapidly becoming one of the most highly rated and likeable wide receivers in the league. Going in to the game JuJu leads Thomas by just seven yards for receiving yards on the year. Who will end the season with the most yards?

Defence at the double…

On defence, TJ Watt has been a game wrecker for the Saints. How the Saints o-line can protect Drew Brees from Watt will be crucial. If they can give him the time, Brees still has the arm strength to pick apart the secondary which has been a weakness for the Steelers at times this year.

To add a little bit of spice from the Saints defence in the build up to the game, Cam Jordan was recorded on camera as questioning the Hall of Fame credentials of Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger. Jordan has long been underated in the league as far as i’m concerned and always comes across in interviews as very engaging. It will be fascinating to watch him go to work on Sunday night. It will be entertaining to watch the Steelers o-line protect their guy.

I see the Saints picking up the win here. With Alvin Kamara providing a double threat on the ground and receiving out of the back field, I think New Orleans have the edge.

Photo Credit: AP/Nick Wass

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