When: 1 p.m. ET Sunday Where: M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore TV: CBS

A cloudy AFC playoff picture will start to get clearer Sunday, when the Baltimore Ravens play host to the San Diego Chargers.

With both teams sitting at 7-4, the winner not only gets a one-game edge on the other but it gains what could be a valuable head-to-head tiebreaker by season's end.

Each team has appeared to right their season recently. The Chargers have won two straight games after losing three consecutive games, and the Ravens have won back-to-back games after dropping a couple of road division games.

ESPN Chargers reporter Eric D. Williams and Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley take a closer look at this key AFC matchup:

Hensley: The Ravens have been getting a tremendous pass rush with Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs. Do you think Philip Rivers will get enough time to exploit a shaky Ravens' secondary downfield?

Williams: Interesting question. The Chargers have faced some of the top edge rushers in the league, including Denver's Von Miller, Miami's Cameron Wake and Kansas City's Justin Houston, with mixed results. When Rivers is at his best, he's using the no-huddle, a hard count and the short passing game to keep opposing defensive fronts off balance. The Chargers certainly have the weapons to create explosive plays, with guys such as Keenan Allen, Malcom Floyd and Antonio Gates. However, tackles King Dunlap and D.J. Fluker will have to hold up on the edge for Rivers to push the ball down the field. San Diego should execute good enough at the line of scrimmage to create those opportunities.

The challenge for the Chargers' defense is slowing down Justin Forsett, who had been used mostly as a rotational back in his NFL career. But this season as an every-down back, he’s third in the NFL in rushing with 903 yards, averaging 5.8 yards per carry. What are the reasons for his breakthrough season?

Hensley: It's partly the system, and partly Forsett's drive to succeed. Forsett needs 97 yards to become the eighth 1,000-yard rusher during Gary Kubiak's tenure (offensive coordinator in Denver and Baltimore and head coach in Houston). So, Kubiak's running scheme has been a major factor in Forsett's career year. It should be pointed out that Forsett averaged a career-high 5.9 yards per carry in 2012, when he last worked in Kubiak's offense. Still, you can't discount Forsett's relentlessness. All he's wanted in his seven-year career is an opportunity, and he's taken full advantage of it. Backup Bernard Pierce is only averaging 3.6 yards per carry, so it's obviously a little more than Kubiak's system. Forsett has good vision to find the lanes and has surprising power to break tackles to get through the line of scrimmage. He's the Ravens' most valuable player at this point.

The Chargers have given up 120.6 yards rushing per game since Week 7. What's been the biggest problem with the Chargers' run defense recently?

Williams: Poor tackling and being stout at the point of attack have been the main culprits for San Diego in consistently stopping the run. However, the Chargers have been much better in the past two games, holding the Oakland Raiders and the St. Louis Rams to an average of 89 rushing yards a contest. The Chargers benefitted from the return of linebackers Melvin Ingram, Jeremiah Attaochu and Manti Te'o from injuries after the bye week, creating a deeper rotation that keeps the defensive front seven fresh.

Staying with the Ravens' offense, the Chargers showed some interest in wide receiver Steve Smith during the offseason, but he ultimately chose Baltimore. What has Smith added to Baltimore's offense?

Hensley: Smith has brought a good pair of hands and a nasty attitude to the offense. From the first practices in the spring, you could tell that Joe Flacco immediately trusted Smith because of his ability to catch the ball. He may not run perfect routes, but he comes down with the ball, which was a problem last year for the Ravens' receivers. Smith's hands and concentration were the reason why he came down with that 15-yard touchdown Monday when getting held and falling backward. Smith also has given the Ravens an edge on an offense that is composed of mostly laid-back players. Flacco made the point it's important to get Smith involved early because he's such an emotional spark to the team. Smith pushes the limit, though. He could've easily drawn a penalty with his scuffle on Monday.

As the Ravens are working on a short week because of that Monday night game, the Chargers are making the long trip cross country to play a 1 p.m. game. How much an impact will this make on Sunday's game?

Williams: It depends. The Chargers were crushed by the Miami Dolphins in Week 9, 37-0 at Miami. But they also defeated the Buffalo Bills 22-10 in a Week 3 contest in Buffalo. Both games were 1 p.m. starts. The Chargers usually travel on Friday when playing on the East Coast to better adjust to the time change. San Diego has a veteran team that's been in this situation before, so I would not expect the game time to have an effect on the team's preparation or performance on Sunday.

At 7-4, Baltimore is in one of the most competitive divisions in the AFC North. What do the Ravens have to do in order to reach the postseason?

Hensley: Not to sound like a cliche, but the Ravens have to take care of their business. The Ravens have one division game remaining, and that's the regular-season finale against the Cleveland Browns. With the other AFC North teams playing each other (the Bengals and Steelers play twice in the final four weeks), they'll begin to knock each other off. All the Ravens can do is keep stacking wins and see which AFC North team emerges from the head-to-head games. The other playoff issue for the Ravens is their 3-4 conference record, which can be an important tiebreaker. The Ravens need to beat the likes of the Chargers and the Dolphins (the Ravens' Week 14 opponent) to improve their AFC mark as well as beat two of the teams competing for an AFC wild-card spot.


Bills vs. Browns preview

November, 27, 2014
Nov 27
video When: 1 p.m. ET, Sunday Where: Ralph Wilson Stadium, Orchard Park, N.Y. TV: CBS.

After the Buffalo Bills' 38-3 blowout over the Jets on Monday night, coach Doug Marrone wanted one thing more than anything else.

"The best thing that I said -- and I told this to the players, and I've been dying to say it: I just want to go home," Marrone said. "I just want to go home. It's been a long week."

After an all-hands-on-deck effort from the team -- and from the fans who were paid to shovel out seats -- the Bills (6-5) will be back home at Ralph Wilson Stadium for Sunday's game against the Cleveland Browns (7-4), just the Bills' second game on their home turf in a span of 41 days.

ESPN Bills reporter Mike Rodak and ESPN Browns reporter Pat McManamon break it all down:

Rodak: Pat, I had almost forgotten that QB Johnny Manziel is still on the Browns until last week's incident made headlines. What impact, if any, did that story have on the team, especially with coach Mike Pettine, who was the Bills' defensive coordinator last season?

McManamon: Well, the team wasn’t happy about it, and that includes Pettine. Not so much because of the incident. The team believes Manziel’s version -- that he was going to his room and an aggressive fan approached him. But the team is upset that on the day it was flying to a road game, Manziel was involved in something that required the police at 2:36 in the morning. The Browns know they can’t control what fans do, but they believe their players can avoid these kinds of things on the day they fly to a game by making smarter decisions about where they are and when. It won’t affect the team much, but it doesn’t enhance Manziel’s case that he is truly NFL-ready.

Mike, let's start with a personal note. How are you and folks you know coping with the snowfall, and what is the situation there as far as safety and the digging-out process?

Rodak: Pat, thanks for asking. I'll say this: I was astonished when I came back to the area Tuesday after three days in Detroit to see almost all the snow gone. While there was some flooding, I think most people were spared of any major problems during a much-needed weekend warm-up. That was key for area families to get back to normal and for the Bills to get their stadium ready. As Marrone said after the game, it was a long week. I had at least 5 feet of snow in my parking lot and couldn't get my car out until late Friday night, so I was able to fly to Michigan early Saturday morning. Even then, soon after the snow stopped falling, the New York State Thruway was basically clear. I haven't lived in western New York long, but it was quite an impressive effort by all the parties involved to keep people safe and get the region back to normal.

WR Josh Gordon didn't waste any time getting back to work, catching eight passes for 120 yards in his first game back from a suspension. How does he change the complexion of the Browns' offense?

McManamon: In large ways. Gordon seemed to be about 80 or 85 percent of himself, and he had the Falcons' best cornerback assigned to him the entire game, but he still came up with eight catches for 120 yards. Gordon’s impact in the passing game is obvious, but he might help more in the run game because he forces defenses to play honestly by keeping a safety back in coverage. That opens up run lanes, which allowed Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell to combine for 150 yards. Gordon is a superb talent, and as he becomes more adjusted to the game post-suspension, he will only get better.

The Browns have had serious issues with the physical defensive fronts of Houston and Jacksonville. Do the Bills present any similar issues?

Rodak: Do they ever. The Bills have the NFL's best defensive line. It's a dominant group that includes three Pro Bowlers from last season (Mario Williams, Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus), along with a former first-round pick (Jerry Hughes) who has racked up 19.5 sacks in 27 games in Buffalo. The Browns' entire offensive line will have to be on alert; it's tough to double-team any of the Bills' front line, since you'll just free up another pass-rusher to beat a single block. The Bills, who set a franchise record in sacks last season, lead the NFL this season with 46 sacks. No other team has more than 40 sacks. It's not a matter of blitzing by this defense, either. They can do it simply with their four guys up front.

Let's cut to the chase here: Will the Browns make the playoffs?

McManamon: I’ll cut to the chase as well: It will be tough, but in this season I would not rule anything out. When NFL Nation writers outside Cleveland picked the games before the season, they expected the Browns to lose 15 of 16 games. That’s how much respect the Browns had. Manziel was the most-hyped player to come out of college in a long time, but Brian Hoyer has a steadfast lock on the quarterback job. RB Ben Tate was going to lead the run game. He’s been cut. Josh Gordon missed 10 games. TE Jordan Cameron missed games with a concussion. Three defensive linemen are out, as was the middle linebacker. Yet the Browns are 7-4, with a rookie head coach. Can they make the playoffs? They have a tough route. But as long as Hoyer stays healthy, anything can happen -- including a January game for the former Team Woeful.

Has the Sammy Watkins trade worked out for the Bills to the point that the team is not worried about lacking a first-round pick in 2015?

Rodak: I would say the trade has worked out in the sense that Watkins has shown he is everything as advertised. The wide receiver isn't putting up extraordinary numbers -- he has 48 catches (tied for 36th in the NFL) for 684 yards (23rd) -- but I'm convinced that with a better quarterback situation and better health (he has battled groin and rib injuries), he'd be higher on the charts. However, the debate about the trade continues around here, and for good reason: A bunch of rookie receivers are flashing big-time talent. The Bills gave up their 2015 first-round pick to move up just five spots for Watkins. Three selections later, Mike Evans was taken. Odell Beckham Jr. was taken at No. 12, so the Bills could've had him at their original spot, No. 9. They also could have moved further down in the first round and picked up Brandin Cooks or Kelvin Benjamin. So given the depth of the position in the draft, it's very easy to question why the Bills gave up so much to grab Watkins. The cost is steep for the Bills, who are 6-5 and would send the 14th overall pick next season to Cleveland if the season ended today.


Saints vs. Steelers preview

November, 27, 2014
Nov 27

When: 1 p.m. ET, Sunday Where: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh TV: Fox

The Pittsburgh Steelers and New Orleans Saints are in the hunt for division titles, but for different reasons. Despite a couple of bad losses, the 7-4 Steelers have managed to keep pace in an AFC North, where every team is at least three games over .500.

The 4-7 Saints, despite their best efforts to play golf in January, are tied for first in the NFC South, which has delivered the kind of parity that the NFL doesn't want.

ESPN Saints reporter Michael Triplett and Steelers reporter Scott Brown take a closer look at the game.

Brown: Mike, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin made the Saints' offense sound all but unstoppable earlier this week. With the weapons they have, starting with Drew Brees at quarterback, why does this team have only four wins in late November?

Triplett: The biggest problem has been the Saints' defense, which ranks 27th in the NFL in yards allowed, 29th in takeaways and dead last in third-down percentage. But Brees deserves plenty of blame, too, for way too many costly turnovers in big moments. Essentially, he's been under pressure to do it all this year, and he hasn't handled that well enough, forcing the ball too many times on third downs or under pressure.

Brees has still been sharp in a lot of areas (on pace for over 5,000 yards and a league-best 70.3 completion percentage). But he's thrown 11 interceptions and lost two fumbles -- many of them in huge moments. Last week was a perfect example. He threw for 420 yards and three touchdowns against the Ravens, but the Saints couldn't overcome the pick-six he threw in the third quarter.

The Saints do have the NFL's second-ranked offense, though. And they're deep and diverse with guys like tight end Jimmy Graham and a run game that started great before stalling the past two weeks. What should they expect from Pittsburgh's defense? Where are they strongest, and where are they most vulnerable?

Brown: The Steelers are getting healthy at the right time on defense and they should at least get strong safety Troy Polamalu and cornerback Ike Taylor back for the Saints game. The return of two key players in their secondary, however, may not matter much if the Steelers don't get more out of what has been an inconsistent pass rush.

The Steelers did anything but bother or fluster Tennessee Titans rookie quarterback Zach Mettenberger in their last game. That is one reason why they had to rally from an 11-point halftime deficit to beat one of the worst teams in the NFL. If Brees gets as comfortable in the pocket as Mettenberger did, the Saints are going to put up a lot of points.

The Steelers were able to generate consistent pressure against Indianapolis' Andrew Luck and Baltimore's Joe Flacco the last two times they played at Heinz Field. They are home again and the defense should have a little extra juice Sunday given some of the players who are returning and the fact that the Steelers are coming off a bye week.

Jimmy Graham's numbers are down a bit this season, but he is still an elite player and the Steelers have struggled against tight ends. Assuming the they pay extra attention to Graham, what other receiver or receivers could step up and hurt the Steelers?

Triplett: The Saints' receivers have been inconsistent this year, and they lost their most dynamic weapon two weeks ago when rookie Brandin Cooks suffered a broken thumb. But then the receivers stepped up big last week, with Marques Colston, Kenny Stills and speedy backup Joe Morgan all making big plays. Morgan had a 67-yard run and a 62-yard catch in the first quarter, even though he was only a small part of the game plan.

For most of this season, the Saints have been content to establish the run with Mark Ingram and settle for shorter passes/screens, etc. I'm sure they'll do some of that to keep their defense off the field at Pittsburgh. But they vowed to be more aggressive after they were way too "flat" and passive against the Bengals two weeks ago. So I'm sure they'll keep taking their shots Sunday, as well.

It sure feels like the Saints' only chance is to win a shootout. I'm not sure they can stop Ben Roethlisberger or Le'Veon Bell. Is Roethlisberger playing as well as he ever has?

Brown: Statistically, there isn't any question that Roethlisberger is in the midst of his best season. The 11th-year veteran is on pace to establish career highs in completions, passing yards and touchdown passes for a season. I'm not sure, though, that this is the best Roethlisberger has played; he hasn't been as consistent as he would probably like. He didn't play well at Jacksonville and Cleveland earlier this season. Nor did he play well at the New York Jets after absolutely strafing the Colts and Ravens in back-to-back weeks at Heinz Field, and he was just OK at Tennessee on Nov. 17. Seeing a pattern here? Roethlisberger has been lights-out at home this season and rather ordinary on the road.

Fortunately for the Steelers, they don't need to delve further into why Roethlisberger has 18 touchdown passes at Heinz Field and just six away from it until after this game. If he plays as well at home as he has in earlier games, Roethlisberger and Brees could stage quite a shootout. Former Steelers cornerback Keenan Lewis was a big loss when he signed with the Saints in 2013. How has he played, and do you expect him to shadow Pro Bowl wide receiver Antonio Brown?

Triplett: Lewis has arguably been the Saints' second-most-valuable player behind Brees this year. Up until three weeks ago, he was the one constant in a shaky secondary. He routinely matches up against the opponents' No. 1 receiver and holds his own (see quiet performances from Dez Bryant and Jordy Nelson, among others). Fox analyst John Lynch said he'd put Lewis with Richard Sherman and Patrick Peterson as the best corners in the league right now. That was the same case last year, when I thought Lewis was a blatant Pro Bowl snub.

However, Lewis suffered a knee injury in Week 10, and he hasn't quite gotten back to 100 percent (though he was closer this past week). Obviously it would be huge for Lewis to help neutralize a guy playing as well as Brown is right now. Even if he does, the Steelers will pick on up-and-down corners like Patrick Robinson, Corey White and Brian Dixon with some other frightening big-play threats.

To make matters worse, the Saints have suddenly become terrible against the run. Tell me more about Bell. He must be licking his chops after what fellow AFC North backs Justin Forsett and Jeremy Hill did against the Saints the last two weeks.

Brown: Man, he has been a revelation in his second season. I thought Bell would build on what he did as a rookie and give the Steelers a nice all-around running back. I did not see the 2013 second-round draft pick emerging as one of the best running backs in the NFL, but there is no question Bell has done just that. The Steelers love him because there is nothing he can't do. Bell is an excellent receiver and he earned Roethlisberger's trust last year in picking up blitzes, something that is not easy for a rookie to do.

Bell has really impressed me as a runner with his uncanny patience and ability to run with power and make people miss. His emergence as a premier runner, ironically enough, led to the exit of LeGarrette Blount, his good friend, from Pittsburgh. When the Steelers signed Blount in March, they envisioned more of a timeshare in the backfield as far as how carries were divvied up between Bell and Blount.

Bell became so valuable to the Steelers that they didn't want him coming off the field in goal-line or short-yardage situations. Blount's shrinking role eventually led him to leave the field before the end of a game, and for the Steelers to waive him.

CINCINNATI -- There are few phrases coaches utter that drive offensive tackles as crazy as the one they hear each practice and in every one-on-one rep they take against defensive ends.

"Get their hands down!"

Atlanta, Tampa Bay, Green Bay, Cincinnati, San Francisco. It doesn't matter which city a tackle calls home or which team he plays for, he's going to hear those four words quite regularly.

The Bengals' edge pocket protectors certainly have heard them this week and the last, because by the end of this stretch, they will have faced two of the NFL's best ends at getting their hands up and disrupting a quarterbacks' passing lanes. When going against such ends, it's an offensive lineman's mission to prevent their opponent from disengaging, leaving their feet and raising their arms up high.

[+] EnlargeMichael Johnson
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsFormer Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson is one of the best at deflecting passes at the line of scrimmage, although he has none this season for Tampa Bay.
Last week's challenge came from J.J. Watt, who has been so good at breaking up passes at the line of scrimmage throughout his career that some have started calling him "J.J. Swatt." During the 2011 playoffs, Watt didn't just swat a Bengals pass just before halftime, he picked it off. Cincinnati's wild-card round loss at Houston came after Watt broke free from a guard and plucked from the air an Andy Dalton pass that he returned 29 yards for a touchdown. The Texans didn't look back and routed the Bengals from there, 31-10.

It can be argued that it was then that Watt's legend began.

When the Bengals travel to Tampa this Sunday, they will be facing another defensive end with long, pass-batting arms. Former Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson, signed in the offseason by the Buccaneers, will be looking for his first pass deflection when he gets paired with veteran Bengals tackle Andrew Whitworth. That's right, first. Johnson doesn't have any pass deflections this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information, but he was tied for the league lead with eight last year.

"Like I said [last week] about J.J., it's one of those qualities you can't teach and all of a sudden, this guy knows how to do it," Whitworth said. "If good football players can read a quarterback and feel like he stopped his feet and is releasing the football, they jump. Nothing you can do about it. Outside of if you run a play where everybody is cutting everybody in that kind of play ... there's nothing you can do about a guy that jumps."

Sometimes, Bengals right tackle Marshall Newhouse added, a tackle just has to tip his cap to an end.

"As much as people would like to believe, sometimes guys get their hands up regardless," said Newhouse, the Bengals' new starter on the right edge following Andre Smith's season-ending injury. "But you can do things to combat it. You can be aggressive in your sets to a certain degree. A lot of it has to do with how hard you come off in the run game. There's some things where you can kind -- I don't want to say dive at them -- but be more physical at the point of attack.

"At the end of the day, there's certain times when it's avoidable, and there's certain times when it's unavoidable. We do our best to make sure it's avoidable. Those are rough plays to see, especially when a guy's wide open and the ball gets batted down at the line."

Watt leads the NFL in batted passes since 2011 with 33. Johnson has 11.

Johnson's most memorable deflection in Cincinnati came last October against the Green Bay Packers, when he knocked down a fourth-down pass that helped ice an early-season Bengals win.
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The Baltimore Ravens overcame the odds to hand the New Orleans Saints their first prime-time loss at home in five seasons. But recovering from a road "Monday Night Football" game presents a new set of challenges.

Flying 2 1/2 hours back from New Orleans immediately after the game, the Ravens landed in Baltimore at 4 a.m. Tuesday. The coaches slept an hour at the team facility before starting their all-day preparation for the Chargers, so they could get the game plan to the players on Wednesday morning.

How difficult is it to win after a road Monday night game? This season, teams are 2-5 the following week after playing in a different time zone Monday.

"A lot of times in a short week, when you're playing on Thursday, both teams are in the same boat. They're not [in this situation]," coach John Harbaugh said. "[The Chargers] have a full week. So, we have to make up for a lot of ground."

The Chargers last played Sunday afternoon at home, which means their game ended 25 hours before the Ravens' Monday night game began.

"By the time you get around the end of the week, you feel pretty good," quarterback Joe Flacco said about the shortened week. "It probably has some kind of effect that you don't necessarily feel."

Last year, the Ravens lost to the New England Patriots, 41-7, after playing a Monday night game in Detroit. They are 2-4 after Monday night road games under Harbaugh.

"You've got to be professional and take care of your body," linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "What we're trying to do is bigger than how we feel right now."

The Chargers have their own set of travel issues. They're flying cross country for a 1 p.m. ET Sunday kickoff, which will feel like 10 a.m. for the West Coast players.

San Diego is 1-1 this season when playing at 1 p.m. in the Eastern time zone. The Chargers won at Buffalo, 22-10, in Week 3, and they were shut out 37-0 in Miami in Week 9.

"I think more is made of it than it really is," Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said of the start time. "Shoot, when they kick it off, no one cares what time it is."
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Baltimore Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs missed Wednesday's practice with a foot injury.

Suggs had been limited in recent weeks with a neck injury, so this is a new injury. He played 84 percent of the snaps Monday night, which is his normal workload.

It would be surprising to see Suggs miss Sunday's game after seeing him sprint to his media session with reporters. Suggs has also only missed 10 games to injury in his 12-year career.

Slot receiver Michael Campanaro practiced for the first time since injuring his hamstring Oct. 26 at Cincinnati. He was limited along with linebacker Pernell McPhee (shoulder).

Reserve offensive lineman Jah Reid had full participation, less than a month after breaking his hand.
CINCINNATI -- Two Cincinnati Bengals were feeling ill Wednesday and another had a tooth ailment, according to the injury report issued by the team.

Each of the three missed the practice, the Bengals' first of the week ahead of Sunday's road game at Tampa Bay.

Receiver Mohamed Sanu and long snapper Clark Harris were the ill players, and cornerback Adam Jones was sidelined with a tooth problem. All three were listed on the injury report with non-injury related issues.

In addition to their absences, the Bengals also were without Margus Hunt, Tyler Eifert and Andre Smith. Hunt has an ankle injury that ran him from the Bengals' win at New Orleans two weeks ago. He isn't expected back all that soon. Eifert still hasn't been cleared to practice from a dislocated elbow, despite having practice eligibility all this month following a stint on the short-term injured reserve. Smith was added to the season-ending IR on Tuesday, following a triceps tear suffered in Sunday's win at Houston.

Linebacker Vontaze Burfict also missed the workout, although coach Marvin Lewis indicated he might be back to work later in the week.

"He continues to get closer to being able to practice, and we'll see if we can get some practice out of him at some point later in this week," Lewis said.

If Burfict misses this week's game, it'll be the fourth he's been out since undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery Nov. 3. It can be common for athletes to return fully from that type of knee surgery within three weeks of the procedure being done. In Burfict's case, the Bengals have been taking his recovery slowly. Since last Wednesday, he has spent the practice sessions working out on the side rehabbing and trying to maintain conditioning.

OT Andre Smith (triceps)

DE Robert Geathers
OL Mike Pollak (knee)
LB Vontaze Burfict (knee)
CB Adam Jones

George Iloka (groin)
BEREA, Ohio -- There are no sacred cows with Mike Pettine.

On Wednesday the Browns coach acknowledged the immense talent of Josh Gordon, but challenged him on one front.

Pettine wants Gordon to be more aggressive in going after the ball on some throws. He referred to the throws on ESPN Radio’s "Mike & Mike" as “50-50 balls,” when making a catch or not sometimes comes down to effort.

“As good as Josh is, and he knows this, just the competitive part down the field,” Pettine said. “To be able to go up and get a ball.”

Pettine made it clear he was not talking about the interception in the back of the end zone against Atlanta. Gordon said he was pushed on the play, and Pettine said Gordon probably never saw the ball.

But there were times Gordon might have been more aggressive in attacking the ball. Pettine didn’t specify when, but on one fade pattern in the second quarter, Gordon didn’t seem to fight through the coverage, and on Brian Hoyer’s last interception, Gordon made no effort for the ball.

“Just having been with Josh through the spring and the training camp ... if you have to look for a weakness -- and there aren’t many -- but this is one,” Pettine said. “Of just that aggressive part of it. Kind of being that power forward when the ball’s up in the air and going up and attacking it.”

Pettine also admitted that Hoyer might have forced some throws to Gordon in the excitement about having the Pro Bowl wide receiver on the field.

The coach even said he expected that to happen.

“I think that will settle over time,” Petine said. “We had a feeling that there would be some of that. We just felt that the positive would outweigh it, and as it turned out, it did.”

Pettine’s remarks on Gordon and 50-50 plays should not be taken as excessive criticism. He was simply discussing a way Gordon can improve, something he’s already discussed with Gordon.

The coach made no secret what he thinks of having Gordon back.

“We don’t want to force [the ball to Gordon], but we also know that his guy is a Pro Bowl-caliber receiver,” Pettine said. “He’s a heck of a weapon. We think he helps the run game from the standpoint of, how do you take away an elite receiver and take away the run at the same time? That is a dilemma, and I know it firsthand from being in this league as long as I have.

“He’s a playmaker. He’s a guy who’s shown that even something as simple as a pass from two yards behind the line of scrimmage, that he can navigate his way on a wide receiver screen for 15 or 20 yards.”
Any time I'm talking Cleveland Browns with people and preseason team expectations come up, the answer is usually the same.

The Browns were destined for about three to five wins. A losing precedent had been set since 2008. Mike Pettine seemed the only coach to actually want the Browns' job in early 2014. The quarterback position was a wreck in the preseason. Josh Gordon was missing most of the season. The defense had talent, but cohesion was far from a guarantee. All that was before the avalanche of injuries during the season.

Flipping that perceived mess into an attractive 7-4 record and creating a tangible late-season buzz in Cleveland gives Pettine an authentic case for Coach of the Year candidacy.

Let's be clear: This award belongs to the Arizona Cardinals' Bruce Arians if the season ended today. But if for some reason the 9-2 Cardinals flounder, Pettine should be on the short list. Philly's Chip Kelly deserves some run here. His Eagles are 8-3, but the roster doesn't scream 8-3. He's won with Nick Foles and Mark Sanchez. And the Jason Garrett let's-not-go-8-8 tour is still rolling in Dallas. Among the 10 NFL teams clustered at seven wins, one entered the season without reasonable playoff expectations nationally.

The Browns defense has lost three key defensive linemen, the league's leader in interceptions (safety Tashaun Gipson) and its most versatile linebacker (Karlos Dansby) to injury. Still winning. The offense lost Alex Mack for the season and has been without Jordan Cameron for a month. Still winning.

Pettine has made clear the NFL is a weekly audition. “I could go from Coach of the Year candidate to village idiot in a span of three hours,” he said in October.

But if Browns sniff 10 wins for the first time since 2007, he'll be more former than latter.
Baltimore Ravens running back Justin Forsett is the frontrunner for NFL Comeback Player of the Year, and he is the most valuable player on the team.

Here is something else to consider: Forsett for the Pro Bowl.

[+] EnlargeRavens
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsEclipsing 95 yards or more rushing in four games this season, Ravens RB Justin Forsett has at least earned his way into Pro Bowl consideration.
As strange as this might have sounded at the start of the season, the long-time journeyman deserves to be mentioned with the likes of DeMarco Murray, Marshawn Lynch, LeSean McCoy and Jamaal Charles. Only six total running backs (there is no AFC/NFC distinction anymore), and it would be a mistake not to include Forsett.

Here are a few reasons why:

  • Forsett leads all NFL running backs in yards per carry with 5.8. To put this in perspective, the league average per rush this season is 4.1.
  • He is the league's third-leading rusher with 903 yards. Only Murray and Le'Veon Bell have gained more, but each has at least 40 more carries than Forsett this season.
  • Forsett is one of the NFL's top playmakers with a league-high 12 runs over 20 yards. No one else has more than 10.
  • To emphasize the point of being valuable, Forsett has averaged 125 yards rushing in the Ravens' last four wins. In beating Tampa Bay, Atlanta, Tennessee and New Orleans, Forsett has produced 111, 95, 112 and 182 yards rushing.

The Pro Bowl has long become a popularity contest (one-third of the voting comes from fans), and Forsett is hurt by the fact he isn't a household name and doesn't have a national commercial. If you're selecting on importance as well as numbers, he should be a slam dunk to hear his name called when Pro Bowl players are announced on Dec. 23.

Simply put, the Ravens wouldn't be a serious playoff contender without Forsett. Ray Rice is gone. Bernard Pierce is too injury prone to be trusted. And rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro doesn't have the confidence of the coaching staff after fumbling in Pittsburgh. It's difficult to believe the Ravens would be a half game out of first place in the AFC North without Forsett breaking long runs and scoring critical touchdowns in the red zone.

The argument against Forsett is he's a product of the system. You'll hear that even Olandis Gary, Reuben Droughns and Steve Slaton all gained over 1,000 yards rushing in Gary Kubiak's offense. That's valid, but you can't discount Forsett's vision, power and explosiveness. Pierce is averaging 3.6 yards per carry in the same offense and behind the same offensive line.

Forsett is starting to gain recognition after being named AFC Offensive Player of the Week in his past two games. The football world got a glimpse of what he's been doing all season when he produced a career-high 182 yards rushing on "Monday Night Football."

Whether that gains enough national respect for a Pro Bowl invitation remains to be seen. But Forsett has done everything he can to earn one.
PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers play at home Sunday for the first time in almost a month, and that fact elicited a smile from Antonio Brown Wednesday morning.

“It’s at Heinz Field, man,” Brown said. “I’m excited to get back out there and play in front of our fans.”

He should be excited to return to Heinz Field considering how Brown has turned the stadium into his personal playground at the expense of opposing defensive backs.

The fifth-year veteran is averaging 123 receiving yards in games at Heinz Field this season compared to 91.2 receiving yards in six road games. Brown has also caught six of his nine touchdown passes at home and even thrown a touchdown pass at Heinz Field.

The NFL’s second-leading receiver will look to extend his home success -- four of Brown’s five 100-yard games this season have also come at Heinz Field -- against a familiar foe.

Keenan Lewis, who played his first four NFL seasons with the Steelers, returns to Pittsburgh when the New Orleans Saints visit Sunday for a 1 p.m. ET game.

Lewis has emerged as a Pro Bowl-caliber cornerback since signing with the Saints in March 2013. Adding to the intrigue of his first game against his old team is that the Steelers expect Lewis to shadow Brown -- something he did often from 2010-12 in practice.

“I’m looking forward to seeing him again and getting the opportunity to compete against him,” said Brown, who has studied tape of Lewis even though he already knows him well from their time together in Pittsburgh. “He's playing on the line and has been really good down the field, combative with his hands.”

Lewis has been one of the few bright spots on a Saints defense that has struggled this season, even though he is still working his way back from a knee injury.

“Keenan Lewis is a cornerstone of their cornerback position,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “His play has been highlighted by his ability to travel with top receivers. I am sure he and Antonio Brown look forward to a big-time battle this week.”
PITTSBURGH – Ike Taylor spoke in glowing terms about one of the few players who can actually call the Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback a youngster.

Charles Woodson's an inspiration to me,” Taylor said of the Oakland Raiders safety. “I always say there’s a few guys on a team that you can’t (count) as far as age factor and I truly believe that about Charles Woodson. He’s still playing at a high level.”

That Taylor called the 38-year-old Woodson an “inspiration” confirmed that retirement is anything but on Taylor’s mind even though he is in his 12th NFL season and in the final year of his contract with the Steelers.

[+] EnlargeKelvin Benjamin
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesIke Taylor's contract will be up after this sesaon, but the veteran Steelers cornerback might be asked back.
The bigger question with Taylor, who turned 34 in May, is whether the Steelers should bring him back in 2015.

It is something they at least have to consider.

Cortez Allen, the supposed successor to Taylor as the Steelers’ No. 1 cornerback, has been a disaster and turned into a reclamation project. Antwon Blake has emerged as a young cornerback with promise after replacing Allen as the Steelers’ nickel back.

But beyond that the Steelers don’t have a lot of young talent at cornerback unless they found something in B.W. Webb, who they claimed off waivers in early September but has only played special teams in the limited snaps he has received.

Taylor is set to return from a broken forearm he sustained in late September, and the injury cost the 6-2, 195-pounder eight games.

But it also saved some tread on his legs while also proving again that Taylor is the consummate professional.

His injury was so gruesome that it initially looked like a season-ending one. That Taylor will make it back this week, barring a setback, with five games left in the season is a testament to his work ethic.

And the work he puts in year-round makes it completely plausible that Taylor might be able to slow down the aging process when it comes to his football career.

Plus, a the Steelers had couple of 36-year-olds return this season in defensive end Brett Keisel and outside linebacker James Harrison, and both have been critical additions to a defense ravaged by injuries.

Why can’t Taylor play at a level similar to what Keisel and Harrison have given the Steelers as a 35-year-old next season?

“Ike and I have had a running joke a number of years but there’s a lot of truth to it,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “In our football game, particularly at this level, I tell him every day that he’s got to fight to prove his love for this game and his capability. He’s been doing it for a long time and he doesn’t run away from it.”

Far from it. Taylor, who has played 16 games in nine of his 12 seasons with the Steelers, embraces the challenge -- just as Woodson, an eight-time Pro Bowler, has done throughout his decorated career.

“I try to compare myself not to what he’s done in the NFL because he’s a Hall of Famer,” Taylor said, “but just similarities as far as being healthy, making plays and proving every year his love for the game.”
Justin Forsett has gone from seven-year journeyman running back to one of the top players this month.

Forsett was named AFC Offensive Player of the Week for the second time this season after gaining a career-high 182 yards rushing and scoring two touchdowns in the Baltimore Ravens' 34-27 win over the New Orleans Saints on Monday night. He rushed for more yards than anyone else in the NFL in Week 12 and was one of five running backs to score multiple touchdowns.

This is the latest honor in what has become an unlikely career year for Forsett. He has earned AFC Offensive Player of the Week honors for the second consecutive game (he gained 112 yards and two touchdowns in Week 10 against Tennessee) that he has played after going 96 career games without winning such an award.

Forsett is the first Ravens player to win this award multiple times in one season since Ray Rice in 2011. It wouldn't be surprising to see if Forsett was named AFC Offensive Player of the Month in November next week.

Other Ravens recognized this season are: Justin Tucker (Week 3 against Cleveland), quarterback Joe Flacco (Week 6 against Tampa Bay) and linebacker C.J. Mosley (NFL defensive rookie of the month in October).
Every team in the AFC North is at least three games over .500, and every team has playoff hopes.

The situation will sort itself out the next five games, but studying the schedules of the Browns, Bengals, Ravens and Steelers shows that Baltimore has a clear advantage, and the toughest roads belong to the Bengals and Browns.

Not all agree it's that tough for the Bengals, though. The website lists the Ravens with the best chance of making the playoffs, though the Bengals are not far behind. Numberfire lists the Ravens with a 59-percent chance, the Bengals at 56 percent, the Steelers at 50 percent and the Browns at just 23 percent.

None of the four has an easy finish, though at this point of the season nothing is easy.

Here’s a look:

The Baltimore Ravens play San Diego, at Miami, Jacksonville, at Houston and finish at home against Cleveland. Those teams are a combined 26-29 (.472). ... Three games are at home, three against winning teams. ... Baltimore is the only North team whose remaining opponents are below .500. ... After winning on the road impressively in New Orleans, the Ravens have to feel they control their fate if they keep winning. ... The flip side: The opponent won-lost is skewed by one-win Jacksonville. But Baltimore plays just two teams that have won at least seven games, fewest of the North teams, and it has three of their last five at home.

The Cincinnati Bengals play at Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, at Cleveland, at Denver and end against Pittsburgh. ... Yes, it’s as tough as it sounds. ... The combined record of those teams: 31-24 (.564). ... Three of five are at home, four of five against winning teams. ... How about that final four for a gantlet? Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Denver and Pittsburgh again. ... Splitting those four game might mean the Bengals miss the playoffs. ... Three are within the division, and Denver is among the AFC’s best. ... This finish is the most difficult in the division.

The Cleveland Browns play at Buffalo, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, at Carolina and at Baltimore. ... That combined record is 30-24-1. ... The Browns also play four winning teams, with three of the final five on the road. ... That the Browns are even in the discussion is good news for Cleveland, but now the Browns would like to finish the task they’ve started. ...It’s not easy, especially since the Colts are one of the non-division games. That’s an exceptionally tough late draw. ... The Browns would love to be alive for the season finale in Baltimore, but to do so they have to take care of business in three of the next four games. Buffalo is close to a must win.

The Pittsburgh Steelers play New Orleans, at Cincinnati, at Atlanta and finish at home against Kansas City and Cincinnati. ... The combined record: 29-24-2. ... Three are at home, three against winning teams. ... Finishing at home the final two weeks helps, but Pittsburgh’s hopes might come down to how they fare against Cincinnati. ... Do the Bengals split, or does one team escape with two wins? If the Steelers can sweep, that might propel them. ... The negative about the final two home games: They figure to be against two teams fighting for their playoff lives as well.