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NFL notebook

Associated Press
The NFL notebook …
OWINGS MILLS, Md. ó The tangible benefit of Baltimoreís thrilling comeback win over the Pittsburgh Steelers was even more significant than the emotional lift it provided.
Thatís because Sunday nightís 23-20 victory enabled the Ravens to complete a sweep of Pittsburgh and clinch the No. 1 tiebreaker between the two division rivals: Head-to-head results.
ěI havenít thought about the psychological implications of it, but it might be a plus,î Baltimore coach John Harbaugh said Monday. ěThe mathematical implications are definitely there. But it doesnít mean much if you donít win your next game, and your next game and your next game.î
The Ravens (6-2) are only halfway through their schedule, and much can happen between now the Jan. 1 finale against Cincinnati.
This much, however, is certain: If Baltimore and Pittsburgh finish tied, the Ravens get the nod.
The Ravens and the Steelers finished tied atop the AFC North last season, but Pittsburgh was awarded the crown because of a better conference record, leaving Baltimore with a wild-card berth. So when the teams met in the postseason, the Steelers played at home and escaped with a 31-24 victory.
If Pittsburgh and Baltimore have the same record this season, the Ravens will get the nod.
ěIím really excited about this win,î Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said. ěWhat this really means to me is that we are 6-2, we beat Pittsburgh two times and we put ourselves in good position to win the division.î
DOLPHINS HAPPY
MIAMI ó There was a moment on Sunday when Tony Sparano looked around the Miami Dolphins sideline, and realized he was getting mocked by one of his best players.
It was anything but disrespectful.
A few minutes remained, the Dolphinsí long-awaited first victory of the year was sealed and Sparano was still snarling and growling like he was unaware of the fact his team was about to close out a 31-3 win over Kansas City. And with that, Jason Taylor started laughing at his boss, sort of telling him to relax and enjoy.
ěThat was kind of the message I got,î Sparano said. ěKind of like, ëCoach, weíre all right here.íî
For the first time all season, the Dolphins were all right. More than all right, actually, winning by 28 points for the first time since October 2009. So while his team had Monday off as a reward, Sparano was back at work.
The seven-game losing streak to start the season was over, and for now anyway, the talk about his job status and whether the team should tank games to try and secure the best possible draft pick is on hold.
PATS REELING
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. ó Punt, punt, interception, punt, punt.
And those were just the first five possessions for the New England Patriots in their latest loss.
Then came a missed field goal attempt, another interception, a fumble and another punt. Finally, with 5:29 left in the third quarter on Sunday, the Tom Brady-led offense that had been so powerful for much of the season managed to score óa field goal, not a touchdown.
The Patriots lost 24-20 to the New York Giants when they allowed a 1-yard touchdown pass from Eli Manning to Jake Ballard with 15 seconds left. But the porous defense, ranked last in the NFL for six straight weeks, isnít the only problem.
The Patriots have lost two straight games for the third time in nine seasons, although they faced tough defenses with the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Giants.
But thatís no excuse for Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
ěWe have to block what (the Giants) give us or run the routes based on the coverage they use,î he said Monday, ěbut we can control what we do and I think thatís what weíre saying is that we need to do a better job of what weíre doing ó coaching, playing.î
BENGALS ON THE RISE
CINCINNATI ó Defensive lineman Domata Peko didnít realize the Cincinnati Bengals were at the top of the AFC until some of his teammates pointed it out.
Yes, the Bengals. At the seasonís midpoint, theyíre tied with Baltimore for the conferenceís best record at 6-2. Thatís a better winning percentage than the Patriots, the Jets, the Chargers and the rival Steelers.
Itís a little hard to comprehend.
ěThatís crazy,î Peko said Monday. ěI just found that out right now. They just told me that in the training room. But weíre not real big on looking at stats or things like that.î
So far, theyíre big on one thing ó surprising people.
A team that many prognosticators picked to finish near the bottom of the league has put itself in position for a playoff run.
The Bengalsí 24-17 win at Tennessee on Sunday left them with a five-game winning streak for the first time since 1988, when they went to the Super Bowl.
Nobodyís talking about this team and Super Bowl. The playoffs? Thatís no longer such a whimsical thought.
ěOur goals are the same ó trying to win the AFC North and nothing less than the playoffs,î Peko said. ěThatís what goals have been coming into the season and we just have to keep things rolling. Thereís nothing else we want to do but make the playoffs and take it from there.î
The next five weeks will tell.
The Bengals opened the season with a win in Cleveland, pulling off a quick-snap touchdown against a Browns defense that was loitering instead of lining up. Thatís their only division game so far.
On Sunday, Pittsburgh (6-3) will bring thousands of fans to Paul Brown Stadium for the start of Cincinnatiís telling stretch. The Bengals then go to Baltimore (6-2), play the Browns (3-5) again at home, and go to Pittsburgh. Thatís followed by a home game against Houston (6-3).
They havenít played anything like that stretch so far. Their first eight opponents have a combined 26-39 record.
ěYou have done a great job of setting yourself in a good position, but that good position doesnít mean anything if you donít capitalize on it,î left tackle Andrew Whitworth said Monday. ěSo, it is great. Itís more than people ever expected at this point even if we didnít do anything good from here, but it is not what we expected.î
A win on Sunday would put recent history on their side. The Bengals also started 7-2 in 2005 and 2009. Both times, they won the division and lost in the first round of the playoffs. Those are their only two winning seasons in the past 20 years.
Expectations were so low that they didnít come close to filling 65,500-seat Paul Brown Stadium for any of their three regular-season home games so far this season. A win over Buffalo on Oct. 2 drew 41,142 fans, the smallest crowd for a regular-season game in the stadiumís 12-year history.
The game against Pittsburgh on Sunday is sold out, partly a function of thousands of Steelers fans making the five-hour drive to fill the place. The Pittsburgh game at Paul Brown also sold out last season. Cincinnati had failed to sell out its last seven since then.
Also, Bengals fans are starting to think this team is worth watching.
A lot has changed in only half a season.
ěI remember at the beginning of the season, we werenít supposed to win any games, were we?î Peko said, referring to some predictions theyíd go 0-16. ěSo, surprise!î
NOTES: Coach Marvin Lewis said MLB Rey Maualuga, CB Adam ěPacmanî Jones and TE Jermaine Gresham are expected back at practice this week. Maualuga has missed the last three games with a sprained ankle. Jones sat out the win at Tennessee with a pulled right hamstring. Gresham has missed two games with a hamstring injury. … The Bengals are 4-1 on the road. They havenít had a winning road record since 2005, when they went 6-2. They were 4-4 on the road in 2006 and 2009.
The Associated Press
11/07/11 17:32

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