Well, that didn’t go as planned.
Week Four was supposed to feature AFC North domination, with the Steelers in a “must-win” game across the pond and Cincinnati traveling to the Factory of Sadness to take on Cleveland. I’ll try not to mention that the defending champs lost to the Bills. (Oops… but let’s be honest—THE BILLS??)
It’s clear that the landscape of the AFC has dramatically changed. The AFC North might be the conference’s weakest division and at this point it seems very unlikely to produce more that one playoff team.
Take a look around.
The Chiefs and Broncos are 4-0 in the west. In the east, New England is (somehow) 4-0, while the Dolphins are 3-1 after stumbling in New Orleans Monday night. Down south, the Colts, Titans and Texans look to all have a chance to take the division, and should at least be fighting for wild card spots in December.
So, where does that leave the squads over here in the North? Once filled with dominant and feared defenses, the “powerhouse” division of the conference is becoming one filled with teams that others want to play.
Surprises in Cleveland: If you mentioned to anyone that follows the League that one month in the Browns would be tied for first place and ahead of the Steelers by two games, it’s safe to say they wouldn’t take you seriously. Still, shockingly that’s exactly where the Brian Hoyer-led Browns find themselves heading into week five.
Although it appeared that the front office was willing to tank the season and go after a top quarterback prospect in 2014 when they sent Trent Richardson packing, things have instead been going swimmingly for Rob Chudzinski’s crew. They battled hard against Cincinnati for a tough 17-6 victory that left a question to be asked: Is this offense ready to lead a contending team?
Who would have thought that we could sit here and say that Hoyer could lead this team to bigger places, but it seems as though he might just be able to. He’s using his matchup-nightmare of a tight end in Jordan Cameron enough and defenses know it’s coming, but still fail to stop it. Hoyer improved in Week Four, making all of the right decisions and having a near-perfect game.
The running game is still by committee, but that seems to be working better than when they had a single big-name guy. They have a nice balance with Willis McGahee, Chris Ogbonnaya and Bobby Rainey, and they showed that Rainey can be effectively used out of the backfield as a big-play threat in the passing game.
What looked to be a season destined for failure is quickly turning into a storyline that we all need to watch in Cleveland.
Battle vs. the Bills: Cleveland fell to Buffalo last year in a 24-14 final, but this game promises to be close until the end. We know all too well what the Bills are capable of, but after the Browns watch the film, they’ll have a plan for E.J. Manuel and C.J. Spiller. Don’t underestimate that defense.
Keep an eye on Josh Gordon in this Thursday Night game. Gordon has looked great after coming off of his suspension and there’s no reason to believe that he won’t have a big game against the ailing Bills secondary. (Maybe one offensive coordinator will know how to attack a defensive backfield like the Bills…)
It will be up to the coaching staff to make the decision at quarterback when Brandon Weeden is fully healthy again. Weeden acknowledged that he isn’t guaranteed his job back and with one more solid effort from Hoyer, there’s going to be a true quarterback controversy.
Worst Team in the League: Don’t think that I’m saying Pittsburgh is the worst team in the league, take it from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger after the Steelers fell to the Vikings:
“You could say that we are the worst team in the league… that hurts” said Big Ben to the media.
While I wouldn’t go as far to say that they are the laughing stock of the league, (see Jacksonville) things aren’t looking good for Mike Tomlin’s bunch that just can’t string any consistency together on either side of the football. An identity is obviously lacking for a team that has been plagued by injuries and poor chemistry with offensive play-caller Todd Haley.
Roethlisberger is visibly looking to Antonio Brown for anything to salvage the season as he went to him for 21 catches in the last two games. There isn’t much going right in Steel Town—might it be time to start looking to the Draft?
One Last Hope: With the rest of the division looking just as poor as Pittsburgh, they still have a chance to rescue their season one last time. They get a bye next week as they’ll have time to sort everything out on both sides and prepare for their biggest Week Six game in years against the Jets.
They have to make sure Le’Veon Bell is involved heavily in the offense if they want any chance at making a push. Bell can get them back to the old-school approach of run-first and that will be critical. The bye week will give the offensive line a chance to get healthy and get a game plan together for Rex Ryan’s defense that has proved to be the real deal against the run.
What Happened in Cleveland?: All Andy Dalton and the offense could string together was six points in Cleveland, and that has to be a huge concern. Here are some noteworthy things that went wrong for the Bengals:
- Just 3.1 yards per rushing attempt by Gio Bernard and BenJarvus Green-Elis (better than the Ravens, but still unacceptable with those incredible weapons).
- -2 in the turnover column as Andy Dalton threw an interception and coughed up a fumble.
- Defense failed to cover Jordan Cameron who had a career day with 10 grabs. (This cost Cincinnati, who had been great against tight ends in the previous three weeks.)
- Third Down Defense Fails: The Browns converted 7 of 10 first downs in the second half despite coming in ranked dead last in third down efficiency.
It Only Gets Worse: “Maybe next week will be a comeback?” Think again.
The Bengals host the 4-0 Patriots next week, a team that made a huge statement against the Falcons on Sunday night.
Tom Brady is still showing to be solid even without a crop of weapons. His running backs were able to carry the load and Kenbrell Thompkins is showing great improvement. Can the Bengals’ front seven get pressure on Brady to keep him off balance? If not, it’s going to be a long day for the fans at Paul Brown Stadium.
After New England, the Bengals travel to Buffalo and Detroit for two games that are sure to test them. The Bills will be rested after playing the Thursday Night Game and the Lions are currently sitting at 3-1 with a high-powered offense ready for battle.
Will October provide any clarity in the AFC North? Or will these four squads still be bunched up in mediocrity after Halloween? What do you think?