The Pro Football Notebook

December 23, 2010 6:43 AM

AFC Mismatches Start Tonight

AFCMismatches.jpgPittsburgh hosts Carolina tonight in a Thursday night football game (8:20 ET, NFL) that doesn't exactly qualify as a barnburner. My TV set will be tuned to Navy-San Diego State in the Poinsettia Bowl. The Steelers are one of three AFC powers who face teams with five wins over fewer in Week 16. Let's run through all three and see if there's any shocker potential lurking...

Carolina-Pittsburgh: The absence of Troy Polamulu reduces the turnover-generating capacity of the Pittsburgh defense, but there is still plenty going for the Steelers on D. Carolina quarterback Jimmy Clausen has struggled with the blitz all year and he can expect to see a steady diet of James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley in his face. Carolina absolutely must establish the run--a strong effort by Jonathan Stewart keyed their win over Arizona last week. The need to run the ball presumes though, that the Panther defense keeps them in the game. Pittsburgh gets tight end Heath Miller back in the lineup tonight, giving Ben Roethlisberger a balanced package of options that includes steady Hines Ward and deep threat Mike Wallace. Ultimately, the only way a team like Pittsburgh loses a game like this at home is if they are flagrantly looking ahead. Coming off a loss to the Jets and having given away their margin for error in the AFC North, that's not happening tonight. Pittsburgh wins it 38-6.

Baltimore-Cleveland: Yesterday the Notebook touched on Cleveland's potential to be a spoiler with both this game and the Steelers coming to town for next week's finale. Baltimore is coming off one of its better offensive games of the year in a 30-24 win over New Orleans. The Ravens focused on pounding the ball with Ray Rice and let the passing game flow from that, rather than trying to be a finesse-style short passing team. The results spoke for themselves, and I expect John Harbaugh to stick with a winning formula here. Cleveland's run defense has been beat up two straight weeks by Buffalo and Cincinnati, and this once-stout unit may be suffering fatigue. The Ravens can establish the run and stretch the field to Anquan Boldin. As long as Baltimore sticks to that formula, they'll win easily, 31-13. If they depart from that formula, the Browns can keep it close and possibly spring an upset.

New England-Buffalo: This one's caught my eye. The Patriots are 12-2 and coming off several big wins, from the Jets to the Bears to the Packers. They have a cushion to play with, being two games up on the Jets. Their defense is not dominant and has depended on Bill Belichick constantly tweaking and adjusting from week to week. Buffalo can run the ball with Fred Jackson and throw it with Ryan Fitzpatrick finding Steve Johnson. The main question is whether the Bills' defense can slow down Tom Brady, who seems on a personal mission this year. A New England win locks up the division, a bye and the #1 seed, all in one fell swoop. My guess is that the result is similar to last week--New England wins, but it's closer than the experts say.

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Dan Flaherty is the editor of the Sports Notebook Family, published through the Real Clear Sports Blog Network, offering daily commentary in the NFL, coverage of college basketball.  and bowl commentary in college football. He is the author of The Last New Year's, a book that revisits the historic high points of college football's New Year's Day bowl games.

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