By Stephen Stone (@SrStoneSports)

Cold Hard Football Facts' AFC North Sniper

A brief synopsis of the last 30 years of the Cincinnati Bengals:

  • In 1981, the Bengals went to the Super Bowl and lost to the 49ers (Joe Montana’s first championship.)
  • In 1982, the Bengals made the playoffs again with a 7-2 record in a strike-shortened season but lost to the Jets n the first round.
  • In 1987, Andy Dalton was born.
  • In 1988, A.J. Green was born.  
  • In 1988, The Bengals went to the playoffs again for the first time since 1982 but also returned to the Super Bowl. 
  • From 1989-2010, the Bengals have essentially sucked, with slight sprinkles of success that were few and far between.  
  • In 2011, the Bengals drafted Andy Dalton and A.J. Green.
  • In 2012, the Bengals made the playoffs for the second straight year.

It took 30 years for Cincinnati to see any string of success, but on Sunday the Bengals clinched their second consecutive playoff birth. Cincinnati fans couldn’t be more excited either, as they possess one of the best young quarterback/wide receiver duos in the AFC, if not all of football.  

The target of jokes for three decades, these aren’t your father’s Bengals. The Ravens may have won the division and they looked great, but no team in the division looks as complete as Cincinnati and no team is as hot. 

With that in mind, here are five thoughts from Sunday’s action in the AFC North.  

1. The Bengals got back into the playoffs on the strength of their defense.

The success of the Bengals has been fueled all year by the maturation of Andy Dalton and the emergence of A.J. Green into one of the best wide receivers in the NFL. (Ok, I know I called him the best in the game all year long, but Calvin Johnson is going to get 2,000 yards receiving this year. I have to let him keep the crown.) However, Cincinnati’s in the playoffs now because the defense has turned it on and the unit dominated the Steelers on Sunday.

Since Cincinnati’s bye in week 8, the Bengals have given up one touchdown or less in six of eight weeks. Not surprisingly, they won all six games. One of Cincinnati’s strengths on defense is its bend-but-don’t-break philosophy. The team is sixth in the AFC in Bendability and it can control the line of scrimmage as the team entered this week ranked ninth in the league in Defensive Hog Index.

While it will take stellar play from Dalton and Green for the Bengals to win in January, they can can take comfort in knowing they will be assisted by a strong defense. 

2. Ben Roethlisberger will miss the playoffs for the third time.

Big Ben’s rings have forced some to put him in the class of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. But, at the end of the day, the consistency just isn’t there. Roethlisberger has played nine seasons and missed out on postseason play in three of them. Brady and Manning have played a combined 25 years (excluding Brady’s 2008 and Manning’s 2011in injury seasons) and the duo missed the playoffs a combined total of three times.

I understand that the Steelers had to play a portion of their season without their franchise quarterback, but they did the same in 2010 and went to the Super Bowl. Besides, when he rejoined the Pittsburgh lineup, he wasn’t the same and the Steelers have yet to win since his return. Sunday was a particularly abysmal performance. His 58.6 passer rating was his worst of the year and lowest single-game mark since a December 19 loss to the 49ers in 2011. 

3. The Ravens won the AFC North by dominating on the ground.

I have to give credit where credit is due. The Ravens haven’t looked good in over a month and a half. They haven’t looked good against a good team since, well.. Since they beat the Patriots in week 3. How long ago was that? The Seattle/Green Bay Fail Mary game came after it. 

But the Ravens finally looked like a team worthy of winning its division and making a playoff run on Sunday. They did so by finally using their backfield weapons. They ran for over 224 yards as a team and had two players post 100-yard rushing games for the first time since December of 2008.

From the whoda-thunk-it category, Ray Rice had his most productive day of the season and the Raven offense had one of its best performances of 2012. He tied a season high in touches and went over 100 yards rushing and 50 yards receiving for the first time this year. Perhaps new offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell finally realized that giving the ball to his best offensive weapon was the secret to winning football games. 

4. The Browns proved they aren’t ready for superior competition.

Before the season began I said the Browns could be a sneaky good team this year. In a way, I was right. They were one of the better “bad teams” in 2012, but they are nowhere near the top of the league, at least not yet.

The Browns are currently 5-10. Against teams that have been eliminated from playoff contention, they are 4-2. Against teams that have either made the playoffs or are heading into week 17 with a chance to get in, they are 1-8. 

It will take quick maturity from Brandon Weeden and his younger teammates if Cleveland wants to take a bigger step in 2013.

5. Power Rankings

This will likely be the last time I do this for the season. It shows how much things can change in one week.

1. Baltimore Ravens - Baltimore played its best game in nearly two months on Sunday and finally looked like a team worthy of making the playoffs. 

2. Cincinnati Bengals - The fact they were jumped by Baltimore isn’t an indictment on them, and they could prove they are the better squad if they face off in the postseason. (Yes I know they play next week, but with Baltimore’s position locked up I imagine it won’t be much of a legitimate contest.

3. Pittsburgh Steelers - The Steelers will be back as long as Tomlin is on the sidelines and Roethlisberger isn’t.  

4. Cleveland Browns - They’ll have to get some more offensive playmakers this offseason to keep up with the best teams in the league.