The Orioles elected to keep right-handed pitcher Oliver Drake in the organization by signing the 27-year-old to a major league contract on Tuesday.
Before becoming a minor-league free agent this offseason, the 27-year-old had a strong 2014 campaign at Double-A Bowie. In 52 2/3 innings, Drake posted a 3.08 ERA with 31 saves and averaged 12.1 strikeouts per nine innings to prove he was fully recovered from shoulder surgery two years earlier.
Drake was previously on the 40-man roster before being outrighted due to the 2012 shoulder surgery. He’s posted strong numbers since returning to pitch for Bowie in 2013, putting himself back on the organization’s map as a possible option in the bullpen.
A 43rd-round pick out of the Naval Academy in the 2008 draft, Drake began his professional career as a starting pitcher before he injured his shoulder. In 160 career minor-league games spanning seven seasons, Drake has gone 32-28 with a 3.53 ERA.
The Orioles now have 34 players on their 40-man roster.
While it’s been a quiet start to the offseason for the Orioles, this week has brought moves elsewhere that wouldn’t figure to do them any favors.
The Toronto Blue Jays’ decision to sign 31-year-old catcher Russell Martin to a five-year, $82 million contract will undoubtedly influence the asking price of Orioles catcher Matt Wieters when he hits free agency next offseason. Martin is coming off one of the best seasons of his career in which he hit .290 with 11 home runs and 67 runs batted in to go with a career-best .402 on-base percentage, but it’s a steep investment to make for a catcher who will be 32 at the start of spring training and hit below .240 in each of his previous three seasons.
Martin’s career on-base plus slugging percentage is .754 compared to Wieters’ .743.
This signing on the heels of the New York Yankees inking veteran catcher Brian McCann to a five-year, $85 million contract last winter must have agent Scott Boras licking his chops while waiting for Wieters to complete his rehab from last season’s Tommy John surgery.
Assuming he makes a full recovery and displays a throwing arm comparable to what he had prior to 2014, Wieters figures to get a deal that will trump what Martin or McCann received in free agency. The 2007 first-round pick doesn’t turn 29 until May and will have a full season to prove to all suitors he’s 100 percent after the procedure that cost him all but 26 games last season.
Of course, the Orioles have known all along that it would be difficult to sign their All-Star catcher to an extension as players typically don’t employ Boras with thoughts of a hometown discount when it comes to free agency. He isn’t getting nine years or the $164 million San Francisco gave Buster Posey a couple years ago, but it appears quite feasible that Wieters will approach or even reach nine figures with a strong and healthy 2015 campaign.
The Blue Jays giving $82 million to a catcher on the wrong side of age 30 only reaffirms that Wieters is going to get paid lucratively.
Another smaller signing Tuesday confirms the growing emphasis on relief pitching with the Chicago White Sox agreeing to a three-year, $15 million contract with left-hander Zach Duke. Free-agent lefty Andrew Miller and his representation must be salivating to see the 31-year-old Duke cash in on a good 2014 season amidst mediocre career numbers.
In 74 appearances with Milwaukee, Duke pitched to a 2.45 ERA and averaged 11.4 strikeouts per nine innings, but he sports a 4.46 career ERA — much of that coming as a starter earlier in his career — and has averaged just 5.0 strikeouts per nine innings in 10 seasons pitching only in the National League. Lefties batted .198 against Duke while right-handed hitters posted a .242 mark in 2014.
The veteran southpaw had a good season, but if a club was willing to hand out a three-year, $15 million contract to a lefty reliever after only one good season, how much is Miller — who’s posted three impressive seasons in a row — ultimately going to fetch as arguably the most sought after bullpen arm on the market?
Another move to keep in the back of your mind was the Atlanta Braves’ decision to trade outfielder Jason Heyward to St. Louis in exchange for starting pitcher Shelby Miller, the first blockbuster trade of the winter. As right fielder Nick Markakis remains unsigned and available, it’s interesting to note that the 31-year-old spent much of his life growing up in Georgia and the Braves now appear to have an opening in the outfield depending on what they do with some other position players.
To be clear, there haven’t been any tangible indications that Atlanta would pursue the 2014 Gold Glove winner as it’s still expected that the Orioles and Markakis will get a deal done.
The news of Miami inking young slugger Giancarlo Stanton to a 13-year, $325 million contract doesn’t appear to have any direct impact on the Orioles, but it does compel some to again bring up the possibility of signing 22-year-old third baseman Manny Machado to a long-term contract.
Machado is certainly the kind of talent that you’d like to keep as long as possible, but the Orioles need to make sure he is fully healthy in 2015 after having both knees surgically repaired in less than a year’s time. Until he makes it through a full season — which his rehab schedule indicates he’ll have a good chance to do — the organization should be holding off on any talk of a lucrative deal.
The 2010 first-round pick isn’t scheduled to become a free agent until after the 2018 season.
A look at the current AFC North is a great reminder of how volatile the running back position can be and just how lucky the Ravens were signing veteran running back Justin Forsett to a one-year deal back in April.
The Cleveland Browns parted ways with Ben Tate Tuesday as he was growing increasingly unhappy splitting carries with rookies Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell. After signing a two-year deal worth up to $6.2 million in a market particularly cool on running backs, Tate averaged just 3.1 yards per attempt and received only two carries in Sunday’s loss to Houston.
Tate’s recent remarks questioning his role followed by Browns head coach Mike Pettine’s response saying the two rookies had more pop and explosiveness made it clear that the relationship was rapidly deteriorating before the Browns officially waived the 26-year-old Tuesday morning.
Things weren’t much better in Pittsburgh for backup running back LeGarrette Blount, who was released a day after embarrassing himself on Monday night by turning his back on his team and going to the locker room before the Steelers had finished off their 27-24 win over Tennessee. Blount didn’t receive a carry against the Titans while surging starter Le’Veon Bell rushed for 204 yards on 33 carries.
Blount signed a two-year, $3.85 million contract with the Steelers this offseason, but he and Bell were arrested for marijuana possession in August and Blount was seeing his role diminish with Bell emerging as one of the top running backs in the NFL. The 27-year-old was averaging 4.1 yards per carry but has just 23 yards on 15 rushing attempts over his last three games.
Meanwhile, the Ravens keep chugging along with Forsett, who signed a one-year, $730,000 contract as an addition viewed strictly as an insurance policy for the troubled Ray Rice at the time. The 29-year-old now ranks seventh in the NFL in rushing and leads all running backs with a 5.4 yards per carry average.
“The role he has played is exactly the one I envisioned for him when he came in here. Saw it all along,” said Harbaugh as he chuckled following the Week 10 win over Tennessee in which Forsett ran for 112 yards and two touchdowns. “But he’s the kind of guy that deserves it. He’s the kind of guy that has had a really good career. When you watch him on tape, he has always been a playmaker, and now he’s getting an opportunity to prove that.”
By all accounts, Forsett has been a great teammate who was just thankful for the opportunity when it looked like his NFL career may have been circling the drain after an injury-riddled season in Jacksonville a year ago. Instead, he’s having a career season in helping the Ravens pick up the pieces left behind by the Rice saga and his positive attitude has made him easy to root for.
Tate and Blount were two talented backs many wanted the Ravens to sign last offseason and there’s no way of knowing if either would have worked out better in Baltimore, but it’s difficult to argue with the production Forsett has provided at a reduced rate.
Even if the Ravens couldn’t have expected anything close to it at the time.
OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Returning from their latest bye since the 2001 season, the Ravens hope a week of rest is the perfect tonic to propel them to the postseason for the sixth time in seven years under head coach John Harbaugh.
At 6-4, Baltimore finds itself in the thick of the AFC playoff race, but next Monday’s trip to New Orleans will be a challenge for a team that’s just 2-3 on the road in 2014. Harbaugh hopes the late-season bye will allow the Ravens to finish strong as four of their final six games come against teams with records of .500 or better and that’s not including the 4-6 Saints who possess the NFL’s second-ranked offense.
“We’re going to have our hands full, and we better be ready to go,” Harbaugh said. “I like to believe that our guys understand that, but we’ll find out Monday night. I believe they do understand that.”
Players were off Tuesday through Sunday while Harbaugh gave his assistant coaches Thursday through Sunday to recharge for the final six games of the regular season. The Ravens are 5-1 in games returning from their bye week in the Harbaugh era and have won 10 of their last 12 post-bye games since the 2002 season.
Harbaugh hopes history is on their side as well as the benefit of a later bye as the Ravens are currently chasing first-place Cincinnati, who improved to 6-3-1 with an impressive win over the Saints on Sunday. Baltimore ranked ninth in the AFC playoff chase as a result of Pittsburgh’s Monday night win to conclude Week 11.
“You don’t realize how exhausted you are until you get a chance to take a deep breath and relax,” Harbaugh said. “The next thing you know, you’re like, ‘Wow, this has really been helpful.’ Everybody gets a bye week. We had ours this week, and we hope to make the most of it going forward for the rest of the season.”
Harbaugh doesn’t question penalty for Coffman
Asked about the NFL’s decision to fine Chase Coffman $30,000 for his malicious sideline hit on assistant coach Tony Coaxum in Week 10, Harbaugh chose to take the high road about the league not suspending the Tennessee Titans tight end.
The Ravens coach said he was told the collision wasn’t intentional, but it’s no secret that the organization was very unhappy about what happened late in the fourth quarter of the 21-7 win over Tennessee. Coaxum was not injured, but the FOX Sports video below leaves little debate about Coffman’s conduct.
“It’s really difficult to have a response to the level of punishment,” Harbaugh said. “I know the league has protocols, and they have standards and histories and things like that that they look really hard at. We don’t ever really question that part of it. That’s in their purview.”
Ravens wanted to keep Sunday night star Gray
Former practice squad running back Jonas Gray became the toast of the NFL Sunday night with his 199-yard, four-touchdown performance in the New England Patriots’ 42-20 win over Indianapolis.
Gray spent the 2013 regular season on the Ravens’ practice squad before electing to sign a reserve-futures contract with New England last offseason. Asked about the Michigan native rushing for a single-game high in the NFL this season, Harbaugh mentioned their respective in-state ties as a springboard to a good relationship, even mentioning that Gray’s mom brought food to the team during their Week 15 game in Detroit last December.
“We were disappointed to lose Jonas last year when we lost him. We really thought he had a lot of upside,” Harbaugh said. “He felt like that was an opportunity that he wanted to pursue, and obviously, it’s paid off for him. I wish him nothing but the best, but I was happy for him [Sunday] night to see him do that. That was great to see.”
Of course, no one could have predicted Gray’s breakout performance as even New England stashed him on the practice squad for a large portion of this season, but you do wonder if the Ravens regret not giving him a look last season while they were experiencing such drastic woes with the running game.
Harbaugh’s strong ties to the University of Michigan are no secret, making for a fun moment Monday when he was asked to predict the winner of this Saturday’s Maryland-Michigan game in Ann Arbor.
Neither team is exactly fighting for a Big Ten title this year as there has been plenty of debate about the future of Wolverines head coach Brady Hoke. Harbaugh paused and smiled before providing his answer to the question about who would prevail.
“May the best team win,” he said while laughing. “How’s that?”
Practice squad changes (again)
The Ravens made their latest change to their practice squad Monday, signing tight end Allen Reisner and cutting tight end Emmanuel Ogbuehi.
Reisner is in his fourth NFL season and has spent time with Jacksonville, Minnesota, and New England. He has registered seven catches for 58 yards in 15 career games split between the Jaguars and Vikings.
As if they weren’t encouraged enough by watching the New Orleans Saints drop their second straight home game Sunday, the Ravens learned a day later they won’t have to deal with standout rookie wide receiver Brandin Cooks in Week 12.
Cooks suffered a broken thumb that’s expected to sideline him at least for a few weeks, meaning the Saints’ first-round pick and emerging wideout won’t be available when Baltimore travels to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome next Monday night. Of course, New Orleans has a wide array of other weapons in All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham and wide receivers Marques Colston and Kenny Stills, but the Saints are coming off their lowest scoring output at home since 2006 and Cooks was emerging as their second-best playmaker behind Graham in recent weeks.
He leads all NFL rookies with 53 receptions for 550 yards and three touchdown catches, ranking second on the team behind Graham in all three categories.
The Saints are also banged up in the secondary after losing safety Rafael Bush to a broken fibula in the fourth quarter of their 27-10 loss to Cincinnati. This comes after New Orleans already lost Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd for the season last month.
Though their Monday night trip won’t be easy with an inexperienced secondary, the Ravens should be feeling much better about their chances with quarterback Drew Brees and the Saints off to an underwhelming 4-6 start and even experiencing inconsistency on the offensive side of the ball at times this season.
Tennessee Titans tight end Chase Coffman was fined $30,000 for an incident that occurred on the Ravens’ sideline during last Sunday’s game at M&T Bank Stadium.
FOX Sports revealed that Coffman took a cheap shot at a Baltimore assistant identified by The Sun to be special teams assistant Tony Coaxum in the fourth quarter when cornerback Danny Gorrer intercepted a pass thrown by Zach Mettenberger. Video evidence shows Coffman going out of bounds and taking a couple clear steps to his left before hitting the assistant, who was watching the play on the field and standing far behind the sideline.
The act was not penalized at the time, but the Ravens expressed their displeasure to the league as well as to Tennessee head coach Ken Whisenhunt. Fortunately, Coaxum was not injured upon taking the malicious hit.
After watching video of what transpired, the biggest remaining question might be why Coffman didn’t face a steeper penalty for something that had nothing to do with what was happening on the field.
Ok, so it’s not a World Series appearance. At least a few of the Orioles were rewarded with accolades due them. Being recognized with four major personal awards cannot compare with the ultimate team award, but hey, not a bad take home. The O’s had three key players out for the stretch run and playoffs. Against the odds, the boys almost made it. There was Orange fever in October and that alone felt pretty good.
The bad news……The Orioles fell short. They collapsed against a team on a roll. So, what’s another year? We’ve only been waiting 31 years to reclaim the title of World Series Champs. We’re O’s fans, we’re used to it. Actually, I’m tired of waiting. At least we haven’t waited as long as Chicago Cub fans.
The good news…….recognition. For me, it saved the season. Three O’s taking home Gold Glove awards and finally Buck-Buck getting his due with Manager of the Year. I wasn’t expecting Hardy. Thought he made to many errors. Jones is a “voters” favorite. And Markakis, the best fielder in the bunch, simply rocked the league with a 1.000 fielding percentage. I thought they were going to go with the Royals manager, banking it on their one month run and WS appearance. I was pleasantly surprised when they actually gave the award to the manager who deserved it.
As you could have guessed, I watched and errupted when they announced Markakis as the Gold Glove winner for right field. Not there should have been any doubt, but he has been “denied” before. They actually got it right this year. You play in 90%-plus of the games and are charged with NO errors – you deserve the Gold Glove. This was his second. He should have five (5) of them. He is and has been the best right fielder in baseball over the past 8 years. Read my past November blogs for support data. SIGN MARKAKIS!
“J….J….Hardy!”, deserved it. You think the announcement of his name by the fans, will continue like that into next year? It was cool. But, we should do it for the entire line-up. That would be cooler. Annnnnd only during the playoffs. Hardy has one of the best guns in the league. His relay to home from the outfield is unmatched. There is a sense of security when the ball is hit his way. Kind of like when the ball was hit to Cal – more than likely there is going to be an out. It did appear his back problems were worse than divulged to the public. Hopefully he can get that under control, without surgery. J….J…Hardy, signed.
“Jonesy”, is the glue in center. 155 games this year. He shows up, he’s in the line-up, he rarely takes a play off. I believe he was rewarded for those qualities versus having the best fielding percentage and projecting “flashy” efforts. That double play he turned, taking away that home run then nailing the guy at second, was a Top 5 “Web Gem” of the year. His arm is deceivingly strong. Team captain – Adam Jones, signed.
Buck-Buck, the consummate team leader. Steadfast in his approach. Has the respect of his players and his peers. He just needs a couple more “gold nuggets”. He was rewarded his third Manager of the Year Award. With three different teams, each one 10 years apart. “I know I won’t be around for another one in 10 years.” The Orioles and Baltimore appear to be Buck’s swan song. The Orioles organization and fan base is fortunate that we have him. It appears that Buck-Buck is happy here. He is quite the fit with this town. Buck appreciates the fan base and opportunities the front office has afforded him. He has something to work with. He is a fundamentalist.
The O’s either do it with this guy or I feel we may be waiting in a time frame more in the line with those Chicago Cubs fans.
The O’s covet 2 of the best outfielders in baseball, arguably the best shortstop and hands-down, the best Manager. Those four Orioles are solid, “Solid as a Rock” – Ashford and Simpson. Hopefully the rock is not chiseled away before we can get one more World Series Championship in my lifetime. We should count our blessings. True Oriole fans have always known the amount of talent showcased on field these past few years. Finally, the baseball world has woken up and threw some recognition the Orioles Way. Get a starter. Sign Andrew Miller. Dump Cruz. Congrats to the backbone of the Birds (minus Weiters). If Weiters had been playing, the O’s would have had 4 Gold Glove winners. Sarasota can’t come soon enough. Let’s Go O’s!
As the Ravens were enjoying their bye this weekend, they could thank J.J. Watt for providing some help in their quest for an AFC North title.
Watt’s impressive performance on both sides of the ball led the Houston Texans to an impressive road win over the Cleveland Browns. The All-Pro defensive end and 2012 Defensive Player of the Year recorded a sack, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, five tackles, and a first-quarter touchdown catch in the 23-7 final.
The loss knocked the 6-4 Browns out of first place as they’re now tied for second with Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Of course, the Steelers travel to Nashville to take on the Tennessee Titans Monday night.
While the Texans helped out the idle Ravens, the New Orleans Saints laid an egg at home in a 27-10 loss to Cincinnati, which propelled the 6-3-1 Bengals back into first place in the division. Dominated at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, the Saints lost their second straight home game after previously winning 20 in a row at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Considering how unpredictable the 4-6 Saints have been this year, it’s difficult trying to figure out which team will show up against the Ravens next Monday night. But you can bet head coach John Harbaugh will remind his team throughout the coming week that the Saints are no longer invincible at home as they had looked the last few years.
As for the rest of the AFC playoff landscape, the Kansas City Chiefs beat Seattle for their fifth straight victory, which leaves them tied with Denver for first place in the AFC West after the Broncos were beaten in St. Louis. At 7-3, the Chiefs are making a loud statement for a playoff spot for the second straight season as they currently hold the top wild-card spot in the conference.
But trying to figure out just how good they are in 2014 hasn’t been easy through the first 10 games of the regular season. Their plus-80 point differential ranks fourth in the NFL, but a 3-0 mark and plus-81 margin against Carolina, Tampa Bay, and Atlanta say more about the woeful NFC South than about 6-4 Baltimore being a dominant team.
All four teams in the AFC North are separated by a half game in what’s shaping up to be the most competitive division in the NFL down the stretch. To put themselves in position to make it back to the postseason after last year’s absence, the Ravens will likely need to manage at least one victory in their final three road games against New Orleans, Miami, and Houston if they’re able to run the table at home against San Diego, Jacksonville, and Cleveland.
Over their final six games, the Ravens will prove whether they’re a contender or a pretender. They’ve done a fine job beating the teams they’re supposed to in 2014 (4-0 against teams currently with losing records), but a 2-4 mark against squads currently above .500 creates doubt.
Below are five things I see happening between now and the end of the season …
1. Marlon Brown will catch three touchdowns after finally emerging as a red-zone threat. This is a bold prediction as the second-year receiver has been a total afterthought this season with just 10 total catches for 93 yards. However, offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak needs to improve the league’s 22nd-ranked red-zone offense as the Ravens are scoring touchdowns on just 54 percent of trips inside the 20. The 6-foot-5 Brown seems like a logical choice to fill some of the void left behind by the injured Dennis Pitta. Many predicted Brown would see fewer opportunities this year after the offseason acquisitions of Steve Smith and Owen Daniels, but there’s no reason not to utilize his height when approaching the end zone.
2. Will Hill and Terrence Brooks will be the starting safeties at the end of the season. Hill has emerged as the only true starter at safety with what’s become a committee approach. Darian Stewart has remained a starter next to Hill in the base defense, but the Ravens are using the rookie Brooks as a single-high safety in obvious passing spots. The third-round choice has been up and down, serving as a healthy inactive in Pittsburgh two weeks ago, but he and Hill best fit the profile of the interchangeable safeties the Ravens want. Stewart and disappointing 2013 first-round pick Matt Elam will continue to be used in the platoon for now, but Brooks will eventually supplant Stewart, who is rarely around the ball in pass coverage.
3. Steve Smith and Justin Forsett will eclipse the 1,100-yard marks in receiving and rushing, respectively. The 35-year-old Smith has slowed in recent games, but his competitive drive — as well as the benefit of the bye week — will revitalize his production for at least a couple big games down the stretch. Meanwhile, Forsett continues to be one of the best stories in the NFL this season as he’s already set a career high with 721 rushing yards and leads all running backs with a 5.4 yards per carry average. You’d be concerned with most 29-year-old backs wearing down late in the season, but Forsett has plenty of tread left on the tires after years of being underutilized in his other career stops.
4. The Houston game will be tougher than anticipated while the San Diego game will be easier than expected. A month ago, the Chargers looked like one of the NFL’s best teams, but a so-so defense, a league-worst 3.1 yards per carry average, and a 1 p.m. East Coast start time will put a lot on Philip Rivers’ shoulders against a Baltimore defense that raises its play at home. The Week 16 meeting with the Texans could turn into a heck of a challenge if new starting quarterback Ryan Mallett finds his bearings and No. 1 pick Jadeveon Clowney can stay in the lineup to complement J.J. Watt, the best defensive player on the planet. This one could be a must-win game for the Ravens, but Houston might be a much scarier team by then.
5. The Ravens will return to the playoffs with a 10-6 record. Without giving away the game-by-game predictions, Baltimore will answer the bell to play at a level high enough to advance to the postseason for the sixth time in the last seven years under John Harbaugh. Questions remain about the secondary, but the front seven and the offense will play at above-average levels for the Ravens to win four of their last six contests. I have doubts whether this team is talented enough at key spots to make a serious run against the likes of New England, Denver, and Indianapolis, but as we’ve learned again and again in the modern NFL, the postseason is all about who gets hot at the right time. The Ravens will get the chance to roll the dice.
Halloween has come and gone, but that hasn’t prevented the AFC North from looking like something out of the twilight zone as the Ravens enjoy their bye this weekend.
Every team in the division is at least two games above .500, the first time that’s happened in the NFL since 1935. The Cleveland Browns — yes, those Cleveland Browns — are in first place in a year in which many talked about Cincinnati, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh battling for the top spot in a wide-open division.
Wide open indeed.
But who will prevail?
And just how strong is this division that’s gone 7-1-1 against the woeful NFC South but sports just one win — Pittsburgh’s 51-34 thrashing of Indianapolis — against winning teams outside the division?
Below is a look at each of the four teams and what lies ahead over the final seven weeks of the regular season:
CLEVELAND (6-3) Division record: 2-2 Remaining schedule: Houston, at Atlanta, at Buffalo, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, at Carolina, at Baltimore Skinny: On paper, this schedule doesn’t look too intimidating with four games against teams currently sporting non-winning records, but it also includes four out of seven on the road. The Browns deserve credit for the way they beat up the Bengals on the road in Week 10, but old habits die hard and it’s still difficult to believe they’re going to be the team left standing at the end of the season. These next three weeks are critical to the Browns’ chances as they face three very beatable opponents despite two coming on the road. If the Browns win at least two, they’re in decent shape entering a tough final month. Winning all three of those likely makes Cleveland the favorite to win the division entering the last four weeks.
CINCINNATI (5-3-1) Division record: 2-1 Remaining schedule: at New Orleans, at Houston, at Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, at Cleveland, Denver, at Pittsburgh Skinny: If it weren’t for their season sweep of the Ravens, the Bengals wouldn’t even be discussed as a playoff contender as their other three wins have come at home against Atlanta, Tennessee, and Jacksonville. If you’re head coach Marvin Lewis, the hope is that a healthy A.J. Green will provide the spark because Cincinnati has gone 2-3-1 since the first month of the season. Even if the Bengals have the most talented roster in the division, five of their remaining seven games are on the road and four come against teams sporting winning records. You never know in the unpredictable NFL where things can change quickly from week to week, but Cincinnati looks like the team least equipped to make a run to win the AFC North.
PITTSBURGH (6-4) Division record: 2-2 Remaining schedule: at Tennessee, Bye, New Orleans, at Cincinnati, at Atlanta, Kansas City, Cincinnati Skinny: There may not be a more bipolar team in the entire league as the Steelers own the best win (Indianapolis) and two of the three worst losses (Tampa Bay and the New York Jets) of any team in the division. Like the Ravens, they will benefit from having a late-season bye and the balance of three home and three away games over their final six. If Pittsburgh survives a trap game at Tennessee on Monday night, three of the remaining five games come against teams with winning records and two of those will be played at Heinz Field. Based on the remaining schedule, you might be inclined to label the Steelers the favorite of the four teams, but how can you fully trust a team that’s lost games to the 1-8 Buccaneers and the 2-8 Jets?
BALTIMORE (6-4) Division record: 2-3 Remaining schedule: Bye, at New Orleans, San Diego, at Miami, Jacksonville, at Houston, Cleveland Skinny: The Ravens should feel good about their remaining home schedule — even with two games against teams with winning records — but their road games against the Saints, the Dolphins, and the Texans won’t be easy for a team sporting just two wins away from M&T Bank Stadium. The Miami game on Dec. 7 might be the biggest of the year if Baltimore wants to be in good position to win the division or at least clinch a playoff spot when it hosts the Browns in the regular-season finale. Winning one of their three road games and winning out at home would get the Ravens to 10 wins, but John Harbaugh would feel a lot better with a 10-5 mark going into the finale against Cleveland than a 9-6 record with so-so division and conference records.