Baltimore Ravens (9-2)
The clock is certainly ticking for the veterans on the Baltimore defense, and now they face the rest of the year without longtime kingpin Ray Lewis, who is out with a torn triceps.
But maybe this is the year the offense carries the load. Joe Flacco has been strong under center with 14 TDs and just 7 INT, and Ray Rice has contributed 794 yards on the ground.
Playoff Snapshot: At the moment, the Ravens are in line for a first-week bye, but they still face the Steelers, Broncos and Giants, so things could change. Under the microscope, Baltimore doesn’t look as strong as it does from a distance, particularly with Lewis not there to anchor the defense, and an upset playoff exit would not be a surprise.
Pittsburgh Steelers (6-5)
The Steelers have struggled more than they ought to have, and the key injury to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger came at a very bad time. Big Ben will end up missing both regular-season games against Baltimore. Veteran backups Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch haven’t done much as Pittsburgh has slipped from 6-3 to 6-5 in Roethlisberger’s absence. He’ll miss this Sunday’s game in Baltimore as well.
But the defense is still there, no question. The Steelers lead the league in yards allowed, and are No. 5 in the league in points allowed.
And, luckily for Pittsburgh, the AFC isn’t so tough this year, and a 9-7 record ought to earn a wild card berth.
Playoff Snapshot: Even if they fall to 6-6 without Big Ben this week, they are still a strong bet for a wild card spot if they beat the Bengals in the next-to-last week of the season. If they make it, they’ve shown what the Roethlisberger + Strong Defense combo can do (two Super Bowl wins).
Cincinnati Bengals (6-5)
The Bengals have been sneaking up on people after three straight wins have put them back in the playoff picture. Cincinnati has been plenty streaky so far: 0-1, then 3-1, then four straight losses put them at 3-5, before the three-game winning streak put them at 6-5.
If they get through their next three games without another losing skid, their next game with Pittsburgh looks to be a playoff elimination game.
The Bengals have been doing a lot right, with quarterback Andy Dalton ranking No. 10 in passing rating, and ex-Patriot running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis picking up 767 yards on the ground. The defense has been above-average as well.
Playoff Snapshot: As noted, they probably have to beat the Steelers to get in. If they make it, an upset in the first round is not out of the question.
Cleveland Browns (3-8)
Cleveland started out 0-5 before getting its footing and starting to head in the right direction. A couple of in-division wins over Cincinnati and Pittsburgh have to help their confidence, but the Browns still have a long way to go.
Rookie running back Trent Richardson (Alabama) has 755 yards, but rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden (Oklahoma State) is completing only 55.6 percent of his passes and has thrown 13 INT.
Playoff Snapshot: It will be another year for the Browns to load up on draft picks and try to get more traction that way.