AFC North Roundup: Steve Smith Returning to Ravens, AJ McCarron's Wrist is Sprained, Steelers Fighting for Playoff Berth

In this week's AFC North Roundup, Baltimore Ravens Steve Smith announces he will return for the 2016 season, the Cincinnati Bengals are confident in quarterback A.J. McCarron and the Pittsburgh Steelers have one last chance to make the playoffs

When 36-year old Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith suffered a season-ending Achilles’ tendon tear in Week 8, it seemed as though his career could be coming to a close as well. Smith, a 15-year NFL veteran, has spent the last two seasons in Baltimore and his first 13 with the Carolina Panthers, earning five Pro-Bowl nods and two First-Team All-Pro honors. There’s little more he needed to prove.

But a player of Smith’s caliber and temperament was not going to retire on terms other than his own. That’s why it came to no surprise that Smith announced on Wednesday that he will be returning to Baltimore to play out (at least) one more season.

Prior to the injury, Smith was set up to have one the greatest seasons of his career. In seven games, he caught 46 passes on 73 targets, for 670 yards (and a 14.6 yards-per-reception average) and three touchdowns. He was averaging 95.7 yards per game, his most since 2008. And he quickly became a favored target of Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, despite his advanced-for-the-NFL age and his relatively brief time with the team.

Smith had already been playing with fractures in his back when he suffered his injury against the San Diego Chargers. He’s well-known as one of the toughest players in the league. There’s no doubt that Smith will do all he can to be 100 percent healthy by the time the Ravens gear up for Week 1 of the 2016 season. The goal? To call it a career when he says so, not when some silly ligament does.

Cincinnati Bengals: Sprained Wrist for AJ McCarron

Cincinnati Bengals backup quarterback A.J. McCarron, called into action thanks to a broken thumb suffered by starter Andy Dalton, has a sprained left wrist, but it’s not something that will keep him from playing against the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday, nor in the first round of the playoffs, according to ESPN reports.

McCarron injured the wrist while diving for a botched snap on the final play of the team’s overtime loss to the Denver Broncos on Monday night. McCarron took the blame for the mistake, saying, “It's my fault. I told the guys that. The snap caught me a little by surprise. I was looking just to see how they were adjusting to [wide receiver] A.J. Green coming in motion, and it just kind of slipped through my hands and hit my rib protector and bounced off. It's my fault. Simple as that.”

Despite the costly fumble and McCarron’s relative lack of NFL experience, his teammates remain confident. Offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said, also via ESPN, that “there's no question in my mind that we can win a playoff game with AJ McCarron.” Whitworth continued: “There's not a guy that doesn't doubt that [McCarron's] going to come in and give us the best he's got, and he's going to make good decisions and those kinds of things. That's probably one of the strongest suits is his leadership.”

The Bengals are currently the AFC North champions and the No. 3 seed in the playoffs, which likely means McCarron would be the starting quarterback in the Wild Card round. But the Bengals can still have a first-round bye—they just need a little help. They either must defeat the Ravens while the Broncos lose to the San Diego Chargers, tie with the Ravens with a Broncos loss, or the Broncos must lose while the Kansas City Chiefs win. That would buy time for Dalton. But if that does not happen, the Bengals are confident in McCarron. And that his wrist isn’t more damaged at least means the Bengals don’t have to turn to a third-stringer under center on Sunday.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Steelers Need Help to Reach Playoffs

The Pittsburgh Steelers would be in a more comfortable place in terms of their playoff hopes had they gone into Baltimore and defeated the then four-win Ravens in Week 16. Instead, though, they fell and need a little help in Week 17 to move up from the AFC’s seventh seed and out of the postseason and into the sixth and in.

The first thing the Steelers must do is take care of the business most under their control—defeating the Cleveland Browns, in Cleveland, on Sunday. Given that Austin Davis will be serving as the Browns’ quarterback and cornerback Tramon Williams is out with a concussion, this makes the path that much easier. But, it must be noted, Ben Roethlisberger has thrown just two touchdowns to seven interceptions on the road this year and the Steelers have frequent red-zone issues that surface most commonly when being the visiting team.

Pittsburgh also needs the New York Jets, who face the Buffalo Bills on Sunday, to lose in order for the Jets to fall short in the tiebreaker category. Should both teams win, the Jets are in as they would possess the better conference record. If Pittsburgh should miss the playoffs, it will mark the team’s first five-year span since 1969 without a playoff win.

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