New Playoff Outlook and Other (Scary) Lessons Learned From Steelers-Bengals
Everyone's still processing one of the most violent games of the year.
In the end, it was the Pittsburgh Steelers who were left standing after nailing a last-second field goal to beat the AFC North rival Cincinnati Bengals, 23-20.
The Ravens were no doubt watching as they prepare to take on the Steelers Sunday night and will later face the Bengals in a season-ending Week 17 matchup.
Here's what we learned:
1) The Ravens strengthened their wild-card position, but the division crown becomes even more elusive.
Baltimore's chances of winning the division were already slim, but there was hope the Steelers could stumble against the Bengals, lose next week to the Ravens and fall to the New England Patriots the week after that.
That scenario, combined with the Ravens winning out, would've been enough for the Ravens to come back to win the AFC North. Instead, Baltimore now sits three games behind Pittsburgh. The Steelers would need to drop three of the next four (Ravens, Patriots, Houston Texans, Cleveland Browns) in order for the Ravens to have a shot, which doesn't seem likely.
"[The] Ravens' fleeting hopes of winning [the] AFC North are virtually gone," wrote ESPN.
That just means Baltimore's more likely path to the playoffs is through the wild card, which has been the expectation for weeks. After the huge win over the Detroit Lions, the Ravens' projected playoff chances jumped to 87.3 percent, according to ESPN Analytics.
If the season ended today, here's what the playoff picture would look like.
1. Steelers 10-2
2. Patriots 10-2
3. Titans 8-4
4. Chiefs 6-6
5. Jaguars 8-4
6. Ravens 7-5
In the hunt:
2) Some things are more important than rivalries and football.
There were two scary scenes during the Steelers-Bengals matchup last night that had people sending thoughts and prayers to both teams.
First, Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier was hospitalized after suffering a spinal contusion during the first quarter. In a statement released by the team, Shazier underwent a CT scan and an MRI at the hospital and he will not need surgery at this time. Shazier stayed in the hospital overnight for further evaluation with the "hopes of returning to Pittsburgh on Tuesday." Doctors will know more once swelling recedes.
Shazier was carted off the field while strapped to a backboard after he rammed the crown of his helmet while making a tackle. It was a heartbreaking sight as he immediately reached for his back and his legs did not appear to move.
The Steelers are on deck for the Ravens, but health is more important than football. The team and several players made that clear after seeing Shazier go down.
Shazier wasn't the only player carted off the field.
Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict was also taken to the locker room on a stretcher in the fourth quarter after Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster blindsided him on a block. Burfict had already left the game twice due to injury. Making the scene more disturbing, Smith-Schuster stood over Burfict and was flagged for taunting and unnecessary roughness.
Unfortunately, that still wasn't the end.
Bengals running back Joe Mixon collapsed to the ground and laid motionless until trainers tended to him after a helmet-to-helmet hit. He walked off the field under his own power, but was ruled out with a concussion.
Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown also briefly lay on the ground motionless after catching a 6-yard touchdown and getting hit in the head. He ended up jogging off the field and wasn't reported to have an injury from the play.
3) AFC North takes pride in its physical football, but it shouldn't get dirty.
We all know the AFC North is one of the most physical divisions in football. Players and coaches take pride in the smash-mouth brand of play.
That's why when Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was asked after the game for his reaction to the brutal game everyone just witnessed, he simply responded, "That's just the AFC North."
There's nothing wrong with that, but ESPN's Kevin Seifert says there's a difference between tough play and uncontrollable violence. There was even a spirt of revenge when Brown reportedly yelled out "karma" in the post-game locker room while Smith-Schuster was asked about his illegal hit on Burfict, who has a history of illegal hits himself.
"You can love football and hate what happened Monday night in Cincinnati," Seifert wrote. "You can tune in for bone-crushing tackles. You can stand up and cheer when a running back trucks a linebacker. And, yes, you can still be repulsed by two plays that will hover over this game -- and perhaps the NFL -- for weeks and months to come. This is not the time to argue, stubbornly and with fleeting merit, that football must be accepted as an uncontrollably vicious and unavoidably violent game. Indeed, it once was. But it can no longer be, at least not in the context we're accustomed to."
Added Sporting News' Vinnie Iyer: "You can throw reason out the window regarding what has become of Steelers-Bengals. At a time when the NFL needs to reduce dirty hits and headhunting for the sake of its perceived sputtering, harder-to-watch product, those teams continue to stand in defiance, which created an even worse look in one of the league's prime-time television showcases. It doesn't mean 'the NFL has gone soft' to emphasize a reduction. It would mean the NFL is getting smart about better preserving and protecting the bodies of players such as Shazier and Burfict, talented defensive athletes who are very enjoyable to watch when they play their physical games the right way.
"Also in that eye-for-an-eye spirit, a disturbing word was thrown out during and after the game, including by Brown: 'Karma.' … "The historical ugliness between the two teams has forced the NFL to literally rewrite parts of its rulebook. If the Steelers and Bengals won't do their part to follow those new rules (or old ones), then the league shouldn't be afraid to step in (again) and show zero tolerance in response to them taking the rivalry further in the wrong direction."
4) How Ben Roethlisberger sees the difference in the Steelers' rivalry with the Bengals and Ravens.
There was an interesting point in the game when ESPN's Sean McDonough relayed a conversation he had with Roethlisberger before the game.
McDonough asked Big Ben what the difference is between the Steelers' rivalry with the Bengals and Ravens. Here's McDonough's recap of Roethlisberger's answer:
"'When we play the Baltimore Ravens, we anticipate smash-mouth, physical football, but there's a respect when you hit somebody hard.' Generally, they help each other up. He said this Cincinnati rivalry has gone a little off the edge. He said, 'I worry about players getting injured on both sides when this [Steelers-Bengals] game is played because sometimes it crosses the line.'"
5) The violent nature of last night's game will have an "internecineeffect" on the Steelers and Bengals … and it will happen to the Ravens too.
We all know the Ravens are finally getting healthy after an early onslaught of injuries. But with another round of AFC North games in the final quarter of the season, these physical teams will beat each other up just before the playoffs begin.
"Former Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth once told the Cincinnati Enquirer that this smash-mouth matchup had an internecine effect late in the season, causing both teams to lose key players for weeks afterward," wrote NFL.com's Chris Wesseling.
In addition to what happened to Shazier, Burfict, Mixon and Brown, there were other injuries that will take their toll. For example, the Bengals also lost cornerback Adam Jones to a groin injury. The nicks and bruises add up.
As such, while beating the Steelers Sunday night is the top priority, getting out of the game without major injuries will also be a goal.
6) When you get the chance, push Le'Veon Bell out of bounds instead of getting out of his way.
Here's a lesson that Ravens defenders learned, if they didn't know it already.
If dangerous Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell is sprinting next to the sideline, push him out of bounds. Certainly, don't purposely move out of his way so he can score.
After the game, Jackson explained why he moved out of the way, and it had to do with all the flags that had been thrown already in the game.
"I thought he was out, and I didn't want to late-hit him," Jackson said. "He's a veteran guy. He turned it up, caught me slipping and scored a touchdown."
7) The Steelers are beatable.
The Ravens are currently listed as seven-point underdogs in Pittsburgh, but the Steelers aren't unbeatable.
CB Antonio Cromartie Wants to Come to Baltimore
With Ravens top cornerback Jimmy Smith expected to serve his four-game suspension on injured reserve, another free-agent corner is offering his services.
I suppose you never say never, but it seems unlikely the Ravens would sign Cromartie. He's a veteran with an accomplished past, but Baltimore has plenty of depth with players that have been in the system all year.
Head Coach John Harbaugh already said the Ravens plans to promote cornerback from the practice squad.
Ravens safety Eric Weddle, who played with Cromartie in San Diego for three years, seems to be on board, however.
Ravens Coaching and GM News/Reports/Speculation
With the New York Giants firing Head Coach Ben McAdoo and General Manager Jerry Reese Monday, might there be ripple effects in Baltimore?
For now, former Ravens Secondary Coach Steve Spagnuolo (2013-14) is temporarily in charge in New York. Spagnuolo left Baltimore to become the Giants defensive coordinator in 2015, and he's now carrying the reigns until the franchise settles on a permanent head coach.
Meanwhile, speculation has already begun about who will fill the general manager spot, and it's no surprise that Ravens Assistant General Manager Eric DeCosta is being talked about.
As we've reviewed the many, many times that DeCosta's name has popped up for GM vacancies, DeCosta consistently says he wants to stay in Baltimore. He's considered the Ravens' GM-in-waiting, and has been targeted so many times that he's running out of teams to turn down.
Will the Giants be next on the list?
Finally, Arizona State pulled Herm Edwards out of his broadcasting gig to become its football team's head coach. Turns out, the school was interested in one other candidate …
"Arizona State's 'coaching search,' beginning last Sunday and ending with tonight's announcement of Herm Edwards, essentially had only one candidate," wrote ESPN's Adam Rittenberg. "No one else truly entered the conversation. I heard the school reached out to Baltimore Ravens assistant Greg Roman to gauge interest earlier this fall, but once it didn't materialize with Roman, AD Ray Anderson turned his attention to Edwards."
If this report is correct, the Ravens are surely happy they held onto Roman. He's been the artist behind Baltimore's new rushing attack that has gone from one of the league's worst last year to the 12th-best this year.