Teams in the AFC North went 3-1 on Sunday as everyone played opponents from outside the division. That left a tightly bunched threesome at the top of the standing only separated by a half game. That adds an extra element of drama as next week begins a crucial second half of the season in which AFC North teams will face each other every week from here on out with the exception of week 15.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are at the top of the heap with a slender half game lead over both Cincinnati and Baltimore. Pittsburgh exorcized a few demons on Sunday, holding off the New England Patriots 25-17 at Heinz Field. Ben Roethlisberger threw 50 passes and 365 yards in a decidedly un-Steelerlike victory. Pittsburgh's defense stymied Tom Brady and the Pats' offense most of the day, outgaining the Patriots 427-213. The Steelers offense helped the defense by controlling the football. On the day they converted 10 of 16 third downs while holding the Patriots to just three of 10. The Steelers still have to be concerned by a couple of items though. They failed to score touchdowns on three red zone trips, settling for field goals. This lack of efficiency allowed the Patriots to stay in the game, and but for a few close calls, the Pats could have very well stolen this one. Roethlisberger continued to be punished as well, being sacked five times. At one point, he had to leave the field to have his leg attended to. The Steelers have to be wondering how long Big Ben can continue to absorb this punishment as they begin what will surely be punishing games against AFC North foes.
That first matchup will take place this week against the Baltimore Ravens who had to set a franchise record for greatest comeback in their defeat of the Arizona Cardinals. Baltimore spotted Arizona a 24-3 first half lead thanks to two Joe Flacco turnovers and a punt return for a touchdown. Flacco and Anquan Boldin synched up in the second half though, and Ray Rice finished off the drives, scoring three second half touchdowns. The Baltimore defense sacked Arizona QB Kevin Kolb six times and held the Cardinals to just two of 11 on third down. Arizona didn't help their cause as they committed 12 penalties on the day, nine during the second half collapse.
The Cleveland Browns left their offense in Cleveland apparently as they went out west to take on the San Francisco 49ers. The Browns got down 17-3 at the half and couldn't make up the deficit. The Browns' hopes were diminished when RB Montario Hardesty, who was subbing for an injured Peyton Hillis, went out in the first half. That left Chris Ogbonnaya to carry the load. He finished with just 37 yards on 11 carries. For their part, Cleveland's defense couldn't stop Frank Gore and the San Francisco ground game. The Browns gave up a whopping 174 yards on the ground at 4.5 yards per carry. Colt McCoy played decently, completing 22 of 34 passes for 241 yards, a touchdown and a pick, but was sacked four times. The Cleveland wide outs are not giving McCoy much to work with either.
The Browns will travel to Houston to take on the Texans this week while the Steelers and Ravens will renew their hostilities in Pittsburgh. If the Bengals can be successful in Tennessee on Sunday and Baltimore completes their sweep of Pittsburgh, Cincinnati would be tied for first in the AFC North heading into the following week's showdown with the Steelers.
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