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Top to bottom, this group is mediocre

In the AFC North, where the playoff possibilities are endless, only one certainty remains: some fortunate squad will emerge from this gridiron purgatory into the second season. It's a tractor-pull of a race with a demolition-derby attitude. Just because you're the last team standing doesn't exactly mean you still have two sturdy legs.

Where do you start in this deficient division when the bottom is so near the top? Twelve weeks into the NFL campaign, the margin for error is slim. The chance for error, however, remains sky-high for Baltimore, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland. Can't pass? Welcome aboard. Running in circles? Join the club. Your coach couldn't win a Strat-O-Matic tournament? Back of the line.

At this pace, MIT would be wise to offer a graduate course in tiebreaker procedures. The Ravens and Bengals are at the head of the class at 6-5. Count the Steelers and Browns in at 4-7. That's a cumulative 20-24, which gives you the feeling all four teams combined couldn't even earn home-field advantage.

But someone's gotta move on. And after yesterday's stunning 44-41 overtime comeback triumph over Seattle, Baltimore could be the safe bet. The score was a shock itself, but the Ravens' means of victory was more unexpected. On a day Baltimore uncharacteristically allowed the Seahawks 426 total yards, Brian Billick's aeronautically-challenged offense amassed 426 of their own, with Anthony Wright throwing for 319 and four touchdowns. You remember Wright, right? He couldn't pass a kidney stone in Dallas, but in his second straight start for the Ravens, he nearly matched his career TD total of five.

"It was looking very, very dim," said Wright of his team's 41-24 deficit early in the fourth quarter. "But we just let it all hang out."

That normally involves a steady dose of the NFL's leading rusher, Jamal Lewis, who was his usual brilliant self with 117 yards. But this time it meant air time, and Wright guided the Ravens on two scoring drives in the final two minutes. He found Bears castoff Marcus Robinson in the end zone four times, and again for a key third-down gain in overtime to set up Matt Stover's 42-yard field goal.

"Everything came together," said Wright, who bootlegged over to the hospital after the game for the impending birth of his second child. "It's unbelievable, for us to be down as much as we were and to come back."

How about the rebirth in Cincinnati, where playoff fever has replaced the flu as the winter epidemic of choice? The Bengals swaggered into San Diego yesterday as a 3-point favorite, and actually played like one in a 34-27 win. Symbolizing the franchise's turnaround has been the career 180 by Jon Kitna. He tied his career best with four touchdown passes, giving him six in his last two games with no interceptions. For the first time since 1999, the seven-year veteran, perceived as a seat-filler for No. 1 pick Carson Palmer, has more career TD passes (96) than picks (92).

"I think we can take advantage of any secondary right now," Kitna said. "The way that we're playing right now, running the football, we're not going to change our game plan. We've established our identity in the league now and teams have to defend us now."

With Corey Dillon (108 yards rushing) back in the fold, Cincinnati pounded out 22 first downs in the first half alone (33 total) and finished with 454 yards. The domination included running 30 more plays than San Diego (85-55), and converting a whopping 13 of 20 third downs.

There has to be a feeling of injustice today in Cleveland. The division's top defense did its part, but the Browns found themselves on the wrong end of a nap-inducing 13-6 decision despite outgaining the Steelers by a near 2-to-1 margin (303 to 168). Five turnovers will do that. So will finagling a mere field goal out of three trips inside the Pittsburgh 10, gaining a single yard on 10 snaps.

Give coach Butch Davis credit for thinking 7 instead of 3 while on the cusp during the third quarter, but also give him grief for calling a failed double-reverse from the 1 on fourth down. Four minutes later the Browns were poised at the 7 until Kelly Holcomb was picked off in the end zone.

"We kicked ourselves in the teeth the whole game," said offensive tackle Ryan Tucker. "We had the opportunities, we just didn't do anything with them."

Neither did the Steelers, but they're looking at 4-7 for what it is -- an improvement.

"It did not matter if it was pretty, ugly, or 3-0," said quarterback Tommy Maddox after laying a 9-for-24, 73-yard egg. "You want to be good statistically, but you want to win games. That's the most important thing."

If only it were that easy. These AFC North jugger-nots have a combined five more games against each other, including two Week 17 tete-a-tetes (scoreless tie, anyone?). So don't even bother trying to figure out who will advance. The more important issue is why.

Losing his head

There will be a few less members of the Phillip Buchanon Fan Club today, some Oakland teammates included. The second-year cornerback/punt returner had given the Raiders sweet field position with less than four minutes left when he brought back a punt 27 yards to the Chiefs' 26. But instead of setting up a potential go-ahead touchdown, Buchanon set the Raiders back 15 yards by taking off his helmet and taunting the Kansas City crowd. Oakland settled for a field goal and the Chiefs returned the favor for a last-second 27-24 win. Said Buchanon: "I didn't do enough for us to win." But just enough to lose.

Material from wire services was used in this report.

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