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Two for the show


With the Steelers imploding in New England like the British at Lexington and Concord and the Browns beating the Ravens for the first time, it seems, since '76, the AFC North standings Monday morning look like they were cut out of a 1980s newspaper.

It leaves the 6-3 Bengals and the 4-5 Browns at 1-2 in the AFC North, the 2-6 Steelers in last place this late in the season for the first time in 25 years, and everything for Cincinnati splayed out in the open with next Sunday's game in Baltimore (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) and the next one against Cleveland at Paul Brown Stadium on Nov. 17.

And like 1988 when Bengals won the AFC Central at 12-4, the Browns were tied for second with the Oilers at 10-6, and the Steelers finished last at 5-11, the offense is going to have to carry them. Cincinnati's two best defenders are out for the year and a couple of key ones questionable for a Ravens offense that on Sunday in its 24-18 loss in Cleveland scored 18 points or less for the third straight game.

Two straight Bengals victories would give them at least a four-game lead over the Ravens and the Browns with six games to play as Cincinnati heads into its Nov. 24 bye.

Not a lock. But pretty close. The Ravens play the Patriots and Jets at home and go on the road to Detroit down the stretch while the Browns go to New England and the Jets and play the Bears at home.

If the Bengals split or get swept the next two weeks, we could be looking at a 9-7 cluster with teams sweating it out at the top of the division and crossing their fingers on the tiebreakers in the last few minutes of the season. In that scenario, a Bengals-Ravens Dec. 29 finale at PBS would certainly mean everything. Unless an 0-2 disadvantage to the Browns breaks hearts as well as ties.

The Chargers, looming for the Bengals on Dec. 1 in San Diego, are one of those teams not in first place in its division complicating the AFC playoff picture. A total of six teams (San Diego, Denver, the Jets, Miami, Cleveland, Denver) have at least four victories.

But back-to-back wins would go a long way in getting some separation, and it seems like the Bengals are treating them like the stretch. When they went looking to replace two-time Pro Bowl tackle Geno Atkins this past weekend, it was unclear when former Cowboy Jay Ratliff and former Raven Marcus Spears would be ready to play. There were no immediate signings with workouts expected on Monday with the hope of getting a down lineman that can help right now.

Victories in Baltimore don't come very often for anybody in the NFL. Ravens head coach John Harbaugh has lost fewer than 10 home games in six seasons, the Green-Dalton Bengals have yet to win there, and head coach Marvin Lewis is 4-6 in his old hometown with his last win coming in 2009.

And both Baltimore and Cleveland are very different teams than the last time they played the Bengals.

Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco is now a Super Bowl MVP but he doesn't have wide receiver Anquan Boldin or tight end Dennis Pitta to throw to and his new left tackle, Eugene Monroe, arrived just last month. The Browns beat the Bengals back on Sept. 29 with inexperienced quarterback Brian Hoyer, But now they are quarterbacked by veteran Jason Campbell and he's allowing offensive coordinator Norv Turner's downfield passing game to kick in.

Although, the Browns still sure could use running back Trent Richardson.

So the Bengals have to play the run a lot better than they did last Thursday night in Miami to pull off the sweep. The key for the Browns keeping quarterback Joe Flacco in check was making him the team's leading rusher (3-25) while holding running backs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce to a combined 17-28.

After giving up 157 yards on the ground in Miami, defensive tackle Domata Peko had an idea why the Bengals had allowed their most of the season next to the 182 against the Packers.

"We started the game off a little jittery and guys were, I don't know, maybe putting their toe in the water to see how cold it was," Peko said. "But you can't do that. You've got to come out fast playing hard and we didn't do that to start the game, but we finished better than we started."

The Bengals gave the Dolphins just 15 yards rushing in the second half when they got around to stopping the zone runs, which they'll see plenty in Baltimore.

"We were game-planning certain plays, but they came out and ran some different stuff," Peko said. "So we were able to adjust and really get after them in the second half. They were sneaking in a couple of misdirections, like two or three, but they were also running a lot of zone. Some guys were overrunning the ball and they were cutting it back and then sometimes guys weren't in the right gap. We were able to adjust and stop it in the second half."

In Cincinnati's last 26 games, the Ravens appear in the top 10 of the most rushing yards the Bengals have allowed three times, including the top two. Even when Atkins was in there Thursday the Dolphins ran at will, exposing the absences of Cincinnati's top two middle linebackers, Rey Maualuga (knee, concussion) and Michael Boley (hamstring). But NFL Network's stat was the Dolphins averaged three yards per rush with Atkins in there, 4.7 without him.

Maualuga was having his best year before getting hurt against the Jets with a knee injury that reportedly was going to keep him out about three to four weeks. But there may be an outside chance he's back for the Ravens and Boley should be.

"We are really missing Rey Maualuga today. It shows how much he means in the run game for us," Peko said in Miami. "He plays downhill, he likes coming down and busting people in the mouth. Hopefully these three days off and then with two more games and the bye week, we can get some players back. It actually comes at a perfect time for us."

The AFC North has always been pretty basic. The defenses are usually so solid that stopping the running game and turnovers decide most of those games and these two are no different. The Ravens aren't what they were without Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Paul Kruger. But they have two good cornerbacks and a mountainous front seven. The Browns safety tandem is as good as any around; they've got a Pro Bowl corner, and a front seven as active as any in the game.

The Bengals are minus-4 overall this year in the turnover margin, a pace that would be the second worst in Lewis's 11 seasons with only the 4-12 team in 2010 higher. One of the elemental building blocks Lewis brought in 2003 was the idea of the turnover battle. The Bengals are currently plus-32 since he's been here and have been minus for an entire season just twice. In the 11 years before that they were minus-47 and were under in seven seasons.

And the turnovers are what have killed the Bengals this season on the road, where they are minus-7. If they go minus in Baltimore, the crowd and pass rush makes it tough even if they are ranked in the middle of the pack.

Sunday's game in Cleveland displayed many things, among them that other teams have trouble getting lined up at times, too, with both defenses getting nailed for too many men. And if Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden is getting grilled for that incomplete third-down bomb to A.J. Green just before Mike Nugent's go-ahead field goal in Miami, how about the Browns lining up for an all-out pass on fourth-and-one trying to protect a 21-18 lead? Somehow, Campbell got it into great coverage, which shows why he could be dangerous in PBS in two weeks. Yes, he's a journeyman QB, but one paired with a top 10 defense.

And if the Bengals now have an emerging weapon opposite Green in wide receiver Marvin Jones, the Ravens appear to have one, too, for Torrey Smith in rookie free agent Marlon Brown with five TDs this season and two more on Sunday.

But the Browns also showed on Sunday that offenses can make some hay in the passing game against the Ravens if the quarterback gets some space. Cleveland had a 100-yard receiver in Greg Little, wide receiver Davone Bess added two touchdowns, and running back Chris Ogbonnaya had a killing 17-yard catch out of the backfield.   

With Bengals all-purpose rookie running back Giovani Bernard's rib injury apparently not going to keep him out this coming Sunday as he comes off a career-high 79 yards rushing, this first matchup with Baltimore's Ray Rice may be as good as time as any to take off the training wheels.

Because, for the moment, anyway, it's a two-game season.

Until December.

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