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Ravens news, notes and opinions: Two-horse race in AFC North

Ravens suddenly have some decisions to make at outside linebacker.

With the Cincinnati Bengals all but eliminated with a 3-7-1 record, the Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers are now in a two-team race for the AFC North crown.

It seems inevitable that the Ravens-Steelers matchup on Christmas Day at Heinz Field will go a long way in deciding the division. A Ravens win, coupled by their victory over Pittsburgh earlier this month, and they’d have the tiebreak edge over the Steelers if the two teams finish the regular season with identical records.

If the Steelers beat the Ravens in the regular-season rematch yet the two teams finish the regular season tied, the second tiebreak criteria is division record. If that too is the same for both teams – the Ravens are currently 4-0 against the division while the Steelers are 2-1 - then it would go to the third tiebreak, which is winning percentage against common opponents.

There’s a long way to go before having to delve into that. The Ravens have the Miami Dolphins Sunday followed by games at New England, at home versus Philadelphia, at Pittsburgh and then at Cincinnati. The Steelers are at home against the New York Giants Sunday, followed by games at Buffalo, at Cincinnati and then home against the Ravens and Cleveland Browns.

It’s not an easy road for either team, but the Ravens probably have it a little tougher with no remaining game against the Browns on their schedule and a date with the Patriots at Gillette Stadium.

Tough decisions at outside LB: With Elvis Dumervil back and healthy, the Ravens are going to have some tough decisions at outside linebacker the rest of the way. As Ravens coach John Harbaugh pointed out yesterday, it's just hard to dress five outside linebackers.

That's especially true when Matthew Judon and Za'Darius Smith haven't done much - or in Judon's case - have struggled on special teams. Suggs and Dumervil are going to be up, and Albert McClellan is still the best edge setter the Ravens have opposite Suggs. That's not Dumervil's strength and Smith struggled mightily with that task against the Dallas Cowboys. McClellan also can move inside on occasion and is one of the team's best special teamers.

So he'll be up, leaving maybe one or two spots for Judon, Smith and rookie second-round pick Kamalei Correa. Judon is probably the best current pass rusher of the group, so that gives him the edge.    

Yanda makes selfless move: There has been plenty written in recent days praising Marshal Yanda and his willingness to move over to left guard, a position that gives him a better chance to succeed given the condition of his damaged left shoulder. The importance of what Yanda’s doing cannot be overstated.

On Sunday, he battled Cincinnati’s Geno Atkins, easily one of the best defensive linemen in the game. This Sunday, he’ll undoubtedly spend some time dealing with Dolphins’ star Ndamukong Suh. And a couple of weeks later, Yanda will probably be matched up at times against the Philadelphia Eagles’ Fletcher Cox.

Yanda isn’t at full strength by any means. But his presence and willingness to take on some of the game’s best while he’s dealing with a significant shoulder injury shows why he’s revered in the Ravens’ locker room. Yanda could retire tomorrow and still be a sure inductee in the team’s Ring of Honor.

Who's the starter at RB?: There are a lot of questions about whether rookie Kenneth Dixon has wrestled the starting running back job away from Terrance West. The two have split carries pretty evenly in recent weeks and Dixon has looked a little more explosive.

As I’ve said several times, I don’t think it matters much who is designated “the starter,” and who is on the field on the Ravens’ first offensive drive. Fantasy owners obviously care, but what matters is what back is on the field in the fourth quarter when the Ravens are trying to close out a win or trying to drive for the game-winning score.

It was primarily Dixon against the Bengals. In recent weeks, the Ravens have gotten both involved in the game early and then rode the hot hand a little bit more later in the game. I see no reason why they wouldn’t continue to do that. Having said that, I still think Buck Allen is more than capable of helping the offense, too. Allen hasn’t gotten a carry in five of the past six games.

Ill-timed injury: The Ravens have obviously missed Jimmy Smith the past two weeks as their top cornerback continues to recover from a back injury. But what’s even more unfortunate is the injury came at a time where Smith was probably playing his best football since he had a Lisfranc foot sprain in 2014.

Smith returned and played all 16 games last year, but he wasn’t the same player. After a relatively slow start this year, he was rounding into form and seemingly relishing the challenge of playing the top receivers every week. And then came the back injury.

Perhaps, he’ll return and not miss a beat, but back issues can linger and severely hamper a player like Smith who depends on his physicality and athleticism.

You wonder whether Smith could enter the group of elite cornerbacks if he avoided some of these injuries. He’s played like an elite cornerback for stretches of his career, only to be halted by an injury.

Wallace by the numbers: Wide receiver Mike Wallace has been relatively quiet lately but with 51 catches through 11 games, he’s on pace to finish with 74 receptions for the season. That would barely eclipse his career high of 73 catches, set in 2013 with the Dolphins. Wallace is 139 receiving yards away from having his most productive season, yards-wise, since he had 1,193 receiving yards in 2011 with the Steelers.

More from Jernigan: A guy the Ravens could really use to get going again is defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan. The third-year pro has been dealing with a shoulder injury and didn’t play a lot of snaps in the Cowboys’ loss. However, he played 49 snaps against the Bengals, more than any Ravens’ defensive lineman, and he assisted on just one tackle.

Since getting one sack in each of his first three games, Jernigan has two sacks in his past eight contests. It’s not that he’s playing poorly. I’m sure he’s seeing increased attention from blockers and you can’t discount the shoulder injury. However, the Ravens need him to make a few more impact plays. He’s more than capable.

 

            

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