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The Pro Football Notebook


December 30, 2010 7:41 AM

Pittsburgh Looks To Clinch AFC North

JamesHarrisonSteelers.jpgPittsburgh and Baltimore have each clinched playoff berths, but the AFC North title is still up in the air as we come to the final week. Winning this division brings with it the #2 seed and a first-round bye, so Sunday is going to be vitally important in the playoff picture. The winner can rest, win a home game and then think about taking their chances in Foxboro to try and get to the Super Bowl.

The Steelers are the team who controls their own destiny as they get set to play in Cleveland. In the weeks leading up to this game I'd been projecting the Browns to pull an upset here and open the door for Baltimore. But Cleveland, a trendy live dog in November, has faded badly down the stretch and the future of head coach Eric Mangini is in serious doubt, at best. Cleveland likes to run the ball with Peyton Hillis and throw it to tight end Ben Watson. The Steelers will surely take away the former and put the game in the hands of Colt McCoy to try and scrape together points with his tight end as the primary target. McCoy made his NFL debut in Pittsburgh earlier this year and played well. I think he can play well again here, especially with Troy Polamulu unlikely to play. The Steelers won't have that roving playmaker who can turn a game in an instant and that will enable the Browns to hang around. The bigger problem Cleveland has is that their recent slump has led them to turn soft when it comes to stopping the run, so I'm looking for Pittsburgh to run it with Rashard Mendenhall and churn out a 20-16 win that gives them a third North division crown in four years.

Cincinnati is the AFC North team that suddenly looks like the live dog and it's they who will be in Baltimore. The Bengals have rediscovered the running game with Cedric Benson and the absence of Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco seems to have revitalized Carson Palmer. The Bengals also defended the run very well last week in finishing off San Diego's season. Baltimore should still challenge that run defense early with Ray Rice. If they do that, they'll move the ball well enough and the Raven defense will pressure Palmer enough that the home team will win. Where this gets interesting is if Baltimore gets too cute and goes away from the power running game. I look for them to win, 21-17, but this one's not as cut-and-dried as it looked event three weeks ago.

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The AFC East will be quiet this week, as New England has everything sewn up and New York is in the playoffs. The Patriots host the Dolphins in the finale. Last year New England lost Wes Welker to a knee injury when he played in a meaningless regular season finale. In spite of that, I think the starters, including Brady should play at least a half. They have a bye week coming up and going two straight weeks without playing can allow a lot of rust to accumulate. The Jets have no such concerns--they play next week and should take full advantage of the chance to sit as many people as possible.


Image from indyposted.com

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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