To say it was a wild week in the AFC North might just be the understatement of the year. We saw a little bit of everything: a near upset from Baker Mayfield & Co., surprise victories, crushing defeats, and through it all that classic AFC North grit that’s come to define the division for almost two decades.
Unfortunately, the Ravens fall into said “crushing defeats” category, but it’s a long season. Us tenured Baltimore football fans out there know this feeling well. The Ravens come out against a perceived “lesser” opponent and drop the ball (literally and figuratively), and then the following week steal a win from one of the top teams in the league like it never happened. There’s a reason that losing seasons come once in a blue moon for the Ravens, and after only one loss there’s no reason to jump off the ship quite yet. Today we’re here to talk about the other teams in the division though, so let’s dive in and check the pulse around the AFC North.
We’ll start with the team who faced a similar result to the Ravens in week 1, defeat snatched from the hands of victory so to speak (albeit to a far superior opponent). The Browns outplayed the Kansas City Chiefs for the vast majority of their game, but a few untimely mistakes ultimately cost them a massive statement win in the opening week.
In the first half, Cleveland stormed out to a convincing 22-10 lead on the back of their superstar running back Nick Chubb. Coach Kevin Stefansky showed some serious guts going for it on 4th down deep in Kansas City territory early, and had a creative game plan all throughout. A game plan riddled with play action passes to maximize Baker Mayfield’s strengths.
In the second half, the Browns still played with a similar toughness. Had they not committed the key mistakes that they did, we could easily be talking about a Cleveland victory this week. However, even one mistake is too many when you’re playing against Patrick Mahomes and company.
First, it was the normally automatic Chubb coughing up a fumble just across the 50 yard line that led to Kansas City points. The Browns would come back with another score of their own, showing off that aforementioned toughness, but a late muffed punt by Jamie Gillan deep in Cleveland’s own territory would set the stage for Mahomes and Travis Kelce‘s vintage late game heroics. In the end, a Mayfield interception on the final drive would cement the victory for Kansas City.
Despite the tough loss, Cleveland still looked as good as any team in the division on Sunday. They did a lot of things right, and had the defending AFC champions on the ropes until one bad drive and a fluke mistake ripped it away for good. Myles Garrett looked to be in elite form as always, and despite Odell Beckham Jr being a late scratch to the lineup, Mayfield still had a solid performance all around. The interception to end the game can’t be ignored, but Mayfield has a real knack for the play action game, and his ability to spread the ball around to every player on the field will be highly beneficial for Cleveland this season.
This week they’ll look to right the ship against a much more manageable opponent in the Houston Texans. While Houston looked good against a less than prepared Jaguars team, it’s likely that the Browns will begin their winning ways for 2021 against Tyrod Taylor and the gang. Unless of course, as JuJu Smith-Schuster coined last year, “the Browns is the Browns.”
There isn’t a soul on earth who would tell you that Pittsburgh played a great game on Sunday, even the Steelers faithful themselves. One thing they did show in spades though, was heart. On a day where points were at a premium, the Bills went into the halftime locker room up 10-0 on the defending division champions after a Josh Allen to Gabriel Davis touchdown in the final seconds. The Steelers offense was stagnant, to the point where even a two score lead felt insurmountable.
The second half wasn’t much better in terms of statistical production, but the Steelers slowly chipped away at Buffalo’s lead with a pair of field goals, before a Diontae Johnson circus catch in the end zone gave them the fourth quarter lead.
With 9:45 left to go in the game, special teams would be a major factor as they were with Cleveland. Only in Pittsburgh’s case it was to their benefit, in the form of a blocked punt leading to the game sealing touchdown for the black and gold.
It was far from pretty, but up until recently in the AFC North it usually never was. T.J. Watt showed that he was worth every penny he just received by logging two sacks and causing havoc for Allen all day long. The newly acquired Melvin Ingram also played a solid role, notching a sack of his own in a key moment for the defense.
Overall, it looks as if the Pittsburgh Steelers are once again primed to be right in the thick of the divisional race. After so many counted them out in the preseason, they’re rolling into week 2 with a massive chip still on their shoulder against the Las Vegas Raiders. Can they have more success against Jon Gruden and company than the Ravens? Only time will tell.
Perhaps the surprise of the day was the Bengals pulling off a gritty overtime win at home vs the Minnesota Vikings. This game started out similar to Pittsburgh and Buffalo, as both teams struggled to find their offensive footing early. A touchdown by Adam Thielen in the middle of the second quarter would break the stalemate, and also broke the floodgates open for both teams.
Joe Burrow would go on to throw back to back touchdowns in the final two minutes of the half. One to Tee Higgins and another to Ja’Marr Chase, who burned Mike Hughes for a 50 yard bomb and seems to have quieted all the talk about his drops over the last few weeks. Minnesota would not go quietly into the night however, as these teams traded points for the entire second half and needed another frame just to decide a winner.
The Bengals managed to hold Pro Bowl running back Dalvin Cook to just 61 yards on 20 carries, and forced him to fumble at the game’s most crucial moment in overtime. Minnesota was rolling, and looked to be well on their way towards a game winning field goal before emerging star safety Jesse Bates put his helmet into Cook’s midsection, causing the ball to pop loose.
With seconds left in the extra period, Burrow hit tight end CJ Uzomah with a pretty floater on fourth down off play action to put Cincinnati in field goal range. Kicker Evan McPherson knocked in the game winner from 33 yards out, and this week the Bengals are celebrating.
Perhaps the Bengals deserve more respect than we’ve awarded them over the last few months. Given the massive amount of talent across the top three teams in the AFC North, it was easy to paint Cincinnati as the clear cut bottom dweller. While they’ll likely still finish in last place once the dust settles in December, they showed on Sunday that there’s plenty to be optimistic about going forward in the Queen City.
Up next on the slate for the Bengals is a matchup against the Chicago Bears and their old friend Andy Dalton, who hardly showed anything to get excited about in their opening contest Sunday night (save for a rushing touchdown from their QB of the future Justin Fields). It might have sounded crazy even days ago, but at this time next week we could be referring to this team as the first place Cincinnati Bengals.
The NFL season is a long and arduous one, where week 1 can rarely be an accurate descriptor of year-long success. With that being said, all three teams around the division have to feel much better about their opening performances than the Baltimore Ravens do today. Perhaps week 2 will bring about a balancing of the tides, but with the Kansas City Chiefs coming to town and everybody else facing much less potent competition, the Ravens could easily find themselves behind the 8 ball when we next meet.
No time to panic yet though.
In fact, we’re just getting started.