AFC North Report: Steelers, Browns the game to watch in Week 13

Steel City Underground’s AFC North Report wraps up the latest game updates and looks at the next opponents for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns, and Cincinnati Bengals in the NFL for Week 13.

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Optimism rising with “Duck” running Steelers offense

The national and local media who cover the National Football League – and Pittsburgh Steelers in particular – were practically foaming at the mouth in anticipation of an announcement from head coach Mike Tomlin regarding who the Steelers would start at quarterback in a revenge game – of sorts – against the Cleveland Browns this weekend. The anticipation was due, in large part, to the fact that since suffering a concussion against the Baltimore Ravens and the late-game incident that involved him being hit in the head with a helmet by Myles Garrett, Mason Rudolph had not been effective in getting Pittsburgh’s offense going.

“We met as a staff, and we decided we’re going to start Duck (Hodges) this week… And really, the decision is clear for us… I thought (Hodges) provided us a spark in-game [against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 12], and I’m hopeful he’s capable of continuing to provide that spark as we step into this stadium (on Sunday).” – Mike Tomlin regarding Week 13’s game at Heinz Field

The announcement sparked something of a frenzy but expectations should still be tempered a bit even if optimism is rising with Devlin Hodges as the starting Steelers signal-caller against the Browns. Yes, Hodges entered the Week 12 game against the Bengals and found a way to get the ball to James Washington in what Tomlin calls a “chunk play”, and he was able to take care of the ball well, not throwing dangerous passes and allowing the run game to formulate and flow.

Beyond the touchdown throw to Washington, however, Hodges was only able to get the Steelers offense close enough to allow Chris Boswell to kick two field goals. It was Pittsburgh’s defense that came up with the key plays that prevented the Bengals from making a comeback in a close game.

The Steelers offense continues to be in flux with several key players having been in and out of the lineup, at both running back, tight end, and receiver. The offensive line has had to make adjustments and in their last two games did not play at their usual Pro Bowl level. This combination of factors can’t be magically repaired by Hodges and it isn’t a reflection on the type of player Rudolph is either. In fact, Tomlin was clear in his statements that the decision to start Hodges has no implications on future plans the Steelers may have this season.

“It means nothing about our intended plans for the foreseeable future, or the trajectory of Mason’s career, or what have you,” Tomlin said. “We’re just not of that mentality… We’re putting pieces together on a week-by-week basis because of the adversity that the game presents.”

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The divisional chase continues at a rapid pace

With the Steelers (6-5) and Browns (5-6) meeting in yet another clash in Week 13, both teams are showing that by stacking wins they are not content to allow the Ravens to have an easy path to the throne of the AFC North this season. It’s guaranteed that regardless of who wins on Sunday, they’ll still face an uphill battle to catch Lamar Jackson and the purple and black but the loser of the matchup will be on the outside of the wild card hunt looking for someone else in the AFC to fall.

The Ravens (9-2) set several records after beating the Los Angeles Rams on Monday Night Football. 45-6. Jackson, now penciled-in by many to be named the NFL MVP for the 2019-20 regular season, has been a sensation. The second-year quarterback became the first player in league history to hit 3,000 passing and 1,500 rushing yards in his first two seasons, is the only quarterback in league history to produce at least 2,000 passing yards and 800 rushing yards through a season’s first 11 games, is the first player in league history with at least four passing touchdowns and 50 rushing yards in consecutive games. That’s just the beginning of an incredible list of personal accomplishments but he is simply highlighting a list of eye-opening numbers the Baltimore squad is putting together as a team.

With the Ravens out-pacing most of the NFL, it makes the chase to catch them – by Pittsburgh and Cleveland – an outright sprint at this point.

With the Bengals’ loss to the Steelers in Week 12, Cincinnati is on pace to grab the first pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. Andy Dalton looks to have earned his position as the starting quarterback for their upcoming Week 13 game but there is little confidence among NFL experts that the Bengals can dig themselves out of a season that still has them seeking a win. The Bengals will play the New York Jets on December 1.

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