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The Roar

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A Super Bowl dark horse lurks in the AFC North

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)
Expert
6th December, 2016
8

One team grinds opponents into submission, the other knocks them out in a single, swift blow. One team puts on a breathtaking spectacle, the other prides itself on suffocating the spectacle.

Both teams are 7-5, both are riding winning developing winning streaks, and both have Super Bowl-winning coaches and quarterbacks at the helm.

Their seasons have been defined by inconsistency, ranging from underwhelming to tantalising, but as the NFL enters its home stretch, Baltimore and Pittsburgh loom ominous as the two teams most likely to disrupt the AFC’s hierarchy.

All season, the AFC standings have been led by the Patriots and the three-headed hydra out West. The South is a pitiful afterthought – the rare division where the seasons for all four teams are already over, even though one has to make the playoffs.

In the preseason, the North appeared the most likely division in the AFC to send multiple teams to the playoffs. The Steelers were set for offensive explosions of historical proportions, the rock solid Ravens were back healthy, and you could always pencil in the Bengals for mundane excellence.

Little, though, went to plan. Ben Roethlisberger got hurt, as we should have figured he would. Joe Flacco played like he was hurt even though he wasn’t, and the Ravens offence sunk the team into mediocrity. The Bengals, once obscure in excellence, became obscure in plain badness. Badness was something that Cleveland were always destined for, and they had no trouble achieving it.

Depending on where you’re sitting though, the upside or downside of the NFL’s divisional structure is that the first 13, or sometimes even 17, weeks of a season often don’t matter. The North always had to send one team to the playoffs, and despite only peeking its head above the waters of mediocrity all year, the division now has two teams heating up into dangerous form as the weather gets colder.

For Baltimore, the story is as it has been seemingly dating back to the 2000 Super Bowl. Their defence is magnificent, and their offence does just enough to eke out wins. However, through 11 games, the offence wasn’t really doing enough. Joe Flacco was looking like one of the worst quarterbacks in the league, someone who would have been a candidate for benching if he hadn’t had a superhuman four-game stretch at the beginning of 2013. The run game was even worse, and Baltimore was having to lean on its defence and a dynamic special teams to absurd levels.

On Sunday, however, the Ravens offence finally let their other units exhale. Flacco threw for four touchdowns and all the yards, the rushing attack wreaked havoc on Miami’s typically stout defence, and the game was beyond over by halftime. After failing to break 28 all season, the Ravens dropped 38 on the Dolphins.

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It was a commanding performance, one that proved that the Ravens aren’t just schedule darlings. The defence is already championship calibre, and as Elvis Dumervil and Jimmy Smith get acclimated, it could become the best in the league. If the offence can explode like it did against Miami, the Ravens will be a January juggernaut.

It’s not likely they’ll put up points so freely, but Flacco has proven he’s a big-game player who can go on a hot streak, and with Mike Wallace as his Torrey Smith, he might be able to party like it’s 2013 come the postseason.

The Pittsburgh Steelers will never have to worry about whether their offence is capable of putting up a winning score. While Baltimore’s explosiveness on Sunday was a season first, Pittsburgh’s offence is a perpetual explosion. Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown is the most frightening quarterback-Wide receiver hook-up in the league, and Le’Veon Bell is second to none in backfield dynamism.

In recent weeks, the Steelers offence has added a versatility to its downfield fireworks, showing a capability and willingness to wear out the clock with Bell on the ground and a Patriots-type short to intermediate passing game. Their offence was already unfair, and now it’s becoming untenable for opponents.

The problem is that even if Pittsburgh is a lock for 28 when healthy, they’re liable to give up 35 going the other way. The defence isn’t Oakland bad, and DVOA pegs it as being the 11th best unit in the league heading into Week 13. However, a lot of that appears to be smoke and mirrors, propped up by holding the insipid Browns and an Andrew Luck-less Colts to single digits over the past fortnight. In big games, the Steelers defence hasn’t proved itself capable, conceding 35, 34, 30 and 27 to Dallas, Philadelphia, Miami and New England.

But in the playoffs, all Pittsburgh has to do on defence is bend and not break, which it has the personnel to do. The argument for a Steelers Super Bowl run is not built on a suddenly elite defence appearing from nowhere – it’s built on an already great offence becoming transcendent.

The Steelers are only ninth by offensive DVOA, thanks largely to the Landry Jones Experience. In Roethlisberger, Brown and Bell, on any given day Pittsburgh has a realistic shot at having the best quarterback, wide receiver and running back in the league. No other team can claim that, a reality that had many anointing Pittsburgh as a Super Bowl favourite preseason, and a reality that endures and looms just as imposing now.

In the NFC – with apologies to the majesty of Julio Jones, Odell Beckham Jr and Detroit’s horse shoe – it would feel like a shock if any team other than Dallas or Seattle made it to February. The AFC, however, following Rob Gronkowski’s injury, is wide open.

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Out of respect to history and the foreboding sense of inevitability, the Patriots still have to be considered the favourites, but it’s a consideration borne more out of spectre than substance.

The Raiders are electric, but no team with that defence can be trusted in January. The Chiefs and Broncos will be everyone’s favourite dark horses, but team balance and supreme competence have a habit of drowning in the realities of Trevor Siemian and Alex Smith.

So don’t sleep on the Ravens and Steelers, two teams coming into shape at the best possible time, who have been there before and been all the way, and whose jerseys will inspire a fear of the past and present in whoever takes the field opposite them in the postseason.