AFC NORTH ROUNDUP: Divisional power experiences a slight shift

Street Talk AFC NORTH ROUNDUP: Divisional power experiences a slight shift

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Baltimore Ravens

"It was huge to come back from the San Diego game and make some plays this week to get the monkey off your back," said Baltimore free safety Ed Reed, who also had one of the four interceptions the Ravens defense had on the day.

John Harbaugh did his best coaching before the Baltimore Ravens even took the field against the Cleveland Browns.

Somehow, Harbaugh convinced his players that the winless Browns could actually pull off an upset. He stressed the importance of treating this game as if it was a tossup, and insisted that a complete performance was necessary for Baltimore to remain unbeaten. Taking that notion to heart, the Ravens gained control from the outset Sunday and cruised to a 34-3 victory.

"They understood this game for what it was and they took care of business," Harbaugh said. "And they did it right out of the gate." Baltimore ended Cleveland’s first drive with an interception; then converted the turnover into a touchdown with less than five minutes elapsed. It turned out to be all the points Baltimore needed to beat the punch-less Browns.

Joe Flacco threw for a career-high 342 yards to help the Ravens more than justify their role as a two-touchdown favorite. Flacco went 25 for 35 with a touchdown, and Willis McGahee’s two TD gave him six in three games. Baltimore is 3-0 for only the second time in franchise history, thanks heavily to an offense that is averaging 34.3 points per game.

Derrick Mason caught five passes for 118 yards, including a 72-yard TD that made it 34-3 with 8:05 remaining. His third reception made him the 23rd player in NFL history with 800 career catches. Baltimore set the tone when Domonique Foxworth intercepted a Brady Quinn pass and McGahee followed with a touchdown run to make it 7-0. The 31-yard drive was extended when Flacco ran for 2 yards on a fourth-and-1. The Ravens added two field goals; then covered 80 yards in eight plays — seven of them pass plays by Flacco — before McGahee ran in from the 15 for a 20-0 lead. Derek Anderson completed his first two passes; then threw an interception to set up Ray Rice’s first career touchdown, a 9-yard run that made it 27-0.

Cincinnati Bengals

“It was unbelievable. It was a blast. It was probably the most fun I’ve ever had playing," said Cincinnati quarterback Carson Palmer, author of the last grinding 16-play drive that consumed five minutes of the last 5:14 of the Bengals’ 23-20 win.

In five frenetic minutes, the Bengals earned some legitimacy and won back their town. Carson Palmer’s 4-yard touchdown pass to Andre Caldwell with 14 seconds left provided a 23-20 win on Sunday that ended the Pittsburgh Steelers’ nearly decade-long domination in Cincinnati, one that appeared set to go on indefinitely until the final drive. Palmer led the Bengals on a 16-play, 71-yard drive against one of the league’s best defenses, repeatedly converting move-the-chains-or-die throws. His 11-yarder to running back Brian Leonard on fourth-and-10 moved the ball to the 4. After a spike to stop the clock, Palmer found Caldwell open in the middle of the end zone. It was reminiscent of Palmer’s long touchdown drive at the end of the season opener against Denver, which the Broncos then salvaged with a tipped, 87-yard touchdown catch. This time, there would be no weirdness.

Beating the Steelers at home was no small thing. Thousands of Steelers fans littered the crowd of 64,538, waving their yellow towels almost nonstop as Pittsburgh dominated but repeatedly failed to take advantage of scoring chances. "Indescribable," said Palmer, who was 20 of 37 for 183 yards. "The fans wanted it as much as we did, and it felt great to see those hands go up signaling a touchdown and hear them roar."

Cedric Benson contributed 76 yards on 16 carries and a TD.

Cleveland Browns

"It’s over. That’s the most positive thing I can say," said Cleveland linebacker D’Qwell Jackson after the Browns lopsided loss to the Ravens.

After Baltimore held the Browns to 78 yards while building a 20-0 halftime lead, Cleveland Head Coach Eric Mangini chose to pull quarterback Brady Quinn in favor of Derek Anderson. The switch did nothing to turn around the fortune of a team that has been outscored 95-29 this season.

"I thought that at that point D.A. might be able to give us a spark. That’s what I was hoping to accomplish coming out of halftime," Mangini said. Quinn went 6 for 8 for 34 yards and an interception. Anderson, who lost his starting job to Quinn last year, was 11 for 19 for 92 yards and three interceptions. "I was a little rusty. It’s been a while since I’ve been out there," Anderson said.

Mangini wasn’t ready to decide who will start next week against Cincinnati. "We’re going to look at it," he said. "I’ll make the decision early (this) week." The Browns have scored one offensive touchdown in their last nine games dating back to last year.

Not only is Mangini winless in his first season as Cleveland’s head coach, but he received unwanted headlines by fining one of his players $1,701 for not paying the hotel bill for a $3 bottle of water. "I’ve dealt with a lot of football players over time and I feel very comfortable with my ability to deal with people," Mangini said. "I think it’s an important thing to be able to teach and coach and to demand high expectations from the people that play for you, and that’s something that I fundamentally believe in."

Jerome Harrison, who started in place of Jamal Lewis, finished with 52 yards, including a 17-yarder that was the longest against the Ravens this season.

Pittsburgh Steelers

"If we score touchdowns in the first half, it’s not even a game," Pittsburgh receiver Hines Ward said. "It’s 24-0 or 24-3. It’s not very good. You’ve got to put up seven points instead of 3s. That’s how you finish a team off."

Pittsburgh had won its last eight games on Cincinnati’s home field. The last time the Bengals beat them at Paul Brown Stadium was 2001, when Chad Ochocinco was a rookie who rarely started and still went by the name of Johnson. The defending Super Bowl champs dominated most of the game but wasted chances to put the Bengals away. Jeff Reed missed another field goal, and Limas Sweed dropped a pass in the end zone, keeping it close to the end. Ben Roethlisberger’s final, frantic heave was knocked down; giving the Bengals a game they viewed as a chance to prove that they can contend in the AFC North. In the end, the defense failed to make a play to finish off the Bengals, reminiscent of the way Pittsburgh missed two second-half field goals in Chicago; then let the Bears pull out a 17-14 win on a field goal with 15 seconds left.

When Roethlisberger and Santonio Holmes had a miscommunication on the third play of the second half – the quarterback made a quick throw, the receiver kept going – cornerback Johnathan Joseph intercepted and ran 30 yards for a touchdown that made it a game. Roethlisberger was 22 of 31 for 276 yards, including a 39-yard touchdown pass to Willie Parker and a 1-yard scoring sneak. He was sacked near midfield on a third-down play as Pittsburgh tried to protect a 20-15 lead, giving the Bengals one last chance with 5:14 to play that ultimately led to their game-winning TD.

The Steelers hadn’t started 1-2 since 2006, the last time they were coming off a Super Bowl win. They opened 1-3 that season and finished 8-8, missing out on the playoffs. With two straight last-minute losses, the Steelers are again finding out how tough it is to be a defending champ.

THE STANDINGS

AFC North

Team

W

L

T

PCT

PF

PA

Home

Road

DIV

PCT

AFC

PCT

NFC

Streak

Baltimore

3

0

0

1.000

103

53

2-0

1-0

1-0

1.000

3-0

1.000

0-0

Won 3

Cincinnati

2

1

0

.667

61

56

1-1

1-0

1-0

1.000

1-1

.500

1-0

Won 2

Pittsburgh

1

2

0

.333

47

50

1-0

0-2

0-1

.000

1-1

.500

0-1

Lost 2

Cleveland

0

3

0

.000

29

95

0-1

0-2

0-1

.000

0-2

.000

0-1

Lost 3

Week #3 Scores

Baltimore    34         Cleveland     3

Cincinnati    23         Pittsburgh   20   

Week #4 Match-ups and ITH Predictions

Baltimore (3 – 0) at New England (2 – 1)

The Ravens take their offensive juggernaut, averaging 34.3 points per game on the road to take on the defensive-genius Bill Belichick led Patriots in what figures to be a very physical confrontation from 2 of the better teams in the league. The Patriots have relied heavily on their passing game and Tom Brady, who has averaged 47 pass attempts per game in 2009. Look for the Patriots to take advantage of favorable match-ups in the passing game, although they desire a more balanced attack. Fred Taylor and Kevin Faulk did combine for 130 rushing yards in their win versus Atlanta.

The Ravens come into this game with both a potent running and passing game. If they can avoid the turnovers that typically cause problems for teams winning on the road, they should be able to take advantage of a good Patriots defense that is going through a transition. Defensively, they will need to bring the heat on Brady to protect a suspect secondary.

Baltimore   24     New England   20

Cincinnati (2 – 1) at Cleveland (0 – 3)

If ever two teams were pointed in opposite directions, these two certainly appear that way. Coming off a breakthrough home victory over the Steelers, the Bengals have an opportunity to beat a wounded animal in their cross-state rivalry. The Browns appeared listless versus the Ravens and will certainly be vulnerable to the Bengals’ offensive explosiveness. On the other side of the ball, an improved and under-rated Bengals defense faces a Browns offense with question marks everywhere.
 

While this match-up has blowout written all over it, this series has taken surprising turns over the years. It will be very interesting to see how the Browns react to their situation now that they are returning home after back-to-back losses in which they aggregated 9 total points.

Cincinnati   30     Cleveland   24

Pittsburgh (1 – 2) vs. San Diego (2 – 1)

Despite the Bengals last minute heroics, the Steelers lost control of a game that they normally win. Perhaps the absence of an injured Troy Polamalu showed itself on the final drive of the game. His presence will surely be missed as Philip Rivers and the high-flying Chargers come to town with an abundance of offensive weapons to challenge the Steelers secondary.

Both teams need to win this contest to keep pace with division leaders. Willie Parker gained 93 yards on 25 carries against the Bengals, and the Steelers will need to run the ball effectively to keep their defense fresh and to maintain control over Rivers. That said, as of this writing there are some growing concerns that Parker might not be available for the contest due to a toe injury (turf). If Parker can’t go, Mike Tomlin will turn to Rashard Mendenhall who was pulled from the Bengals game because of his poor preparedness.  Mendenhall will need to step up particularly with the team’s issues at fullback. The Steelers have lost both of their fullbacks and were forced to re-hire former starter Carey Davis. Davis will be the club’s third starting FB this season. Despite these issues, look for the Steelers to right the ship at home in a seesaw affair.

Pittsburgh   23     San Diego   19  

Record Week #3 and YTD  

      1 – 1

     6 – 4

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Eric Buckner

About Eric Buckner

Eric Buckner is a native of Baltimore and has lived in the area his entire life. A graduate of Towson University , Eric has been a student of professional football since the day he wept in his grandfather's bedroom after the Baltimore Colts were upset by the New York Jets in Super Bowl III. A loyal fan of the Colts and subsequently the Ravens, Eric's passion for the NFL is unwavering as evidenced by his near flawless attendance record at Ravens' games. He's missed only one preseason game -- back in 2005. We'll cut him some slack since he was on his honeymoon. You won't find Eric slacking when it comes to covering the AFC North for ProFootball24x7.com.   More from Eric Buckner

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