As Michael Scott from ‘The Office’ once said, “Well, well, well, how the turntables…”
After a Week 1 that had a good portion of the Ravens flock in full tilt mode, we saw things take quite a turn in the AFC North during Week 2. While it’s still incredibly early to make any definitive statements about the season overall, the one thing that seems certain is that this will be among the most exciting divisional races in football all year long.
The Ravens pulled off what many are calling the biggest regular season victory in franchise history against Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday. In addition, the three other teams around the AFC North seemed to take a step back down to earth after impressive performances across the board in Week 1. Such are the ebbs and flows of the NFL season – some weeks you look like Super Bowl contenders and other weeks you find yourselves being embarrassed by Jon Gruden (who’s apparently the new king of the north judging by the last two weeks).
In a division that will likely come right down to the wire, the team who can prove to be the most consistent week to week will likely be the one who walks away with the crown when it’s all said and done. Without any further ado, let’s once again hop on the rollercoaster and take a ride around the AFC North, Week 2 style.
The Browns were the only other team in the division to pick up a victory on Sunday, but it wasn’t without its fair share of drama. The Houston Texans came to town fresh off a dominating performance against the Jacksonville Jaguars, and were out to prove that it was more than a one-week fluke.
The first half of this game saw the Browns and Texans trade multiple touchdowns, as former Cleveland quarterback Tyrod Taylor was running the Houston offense with a lot of success through the air and on the ground. Unfortunately for Taylor, on his biggest play of the day in which he scrambled into the end zone to tie the ball game, he also injured his hamstring. He would gut out the following drive to end the first half, but ultimately would be replaced by rookie Davis Mills from Stanford for the remainder of the contest.
Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield would also suffer an injury to his non-throwing shoulder after attempting to make a tackle on his second quarter interception. He initially looked to be in a lot of pain, but managed to play through it in a gutsy performance from the fourth year pro.
Once Mills entered the game for the Texans, the Browns were able to impose their will defensively and pull away on the scoreboard. First, it was a third quarter touchdown pass from Mayfield to rookie 6th round pick Demetric Felton. Later, superstar running back Nick Chubb would rumble 26 yards into the end zone to seal the deal for Cleveland. Props to Houston though, they still played their hearts out in the second half of this game without their starting signal caller and hung around long enough to keep this an interesting ball game.
The Browns would’ve surely liked a more dominant performance in this one after last week’s heartbreaking loss to the Chiefs, but a win is a win. They’ve still got plenty to work on as a team, but the same can be said about every other squad in the division as it currently stands.
Up next is another home bout against the Chicago Bears, who will likely be starting a quarterback that’s no stranger to Ohio in Justin Fields. The Texans showed that mobile quarterbacks can have success against this Browns defense (as has Lamar Jackson every time he’s played them, but who’s counting?), and they’ll need to bring their A game next week if they hope to stay on the winning track.
The Ravens and Steelers have had nearly identical seasons thus far, in terms of edging out tough victories against AFC elites while also losing to the Raiders. What hasn’t been identical however, is how each offense has looked respectively through these games. The Steelers suffered a nine-point loss to Derek Carr and company on Sunday afternoon, and despite it being a one-score game at numerous points in the fourth quarter, it just never really felt that way.
The Raiders just flat out dominated this game. They possessed the ball for almost ten minutes longer than Pittsburgh and outgained them by almost a hundred yards in the process. The Steelers drafted running back Najee Harris out of Alabama to help return this running game to the elite level it’s been at in years past, but the offensive line has done him no favors. Through two weeks he has 83 rushing yards, a 3.2 YPC average, and flashbacks of 2016 Todd Gurley under Jeff Fisher are abundant.
At this point in his career Ben Roethlisberger can’t be counted on to win games with his arm on a weekly basis, even with a stud wide receiver group like the one in Pittsburgh. That’s not at all to say he can’t still play, but it’s clear that whatever plan Mike Tomlin and company had on the offensive side of the ball this season isn’t working thus far. The sole bright spot has been Diontae Johnson, who was once again a target monster, hauling in nine passes for 105 yards.
Defensively, the Steelers did some good things in the first half. They bent but didn’t break, forcing the Raiders to kick field goals three times (including one following a Roethlisberger interception that gave Las Vegas great field position). This unit was the sole reason they still had a chance at the end of this game, but the big play ability of Henry Ruggs III was ultimately too much to overcome on a day when the offense did little to assist them.
Luckily for the Steelers, that defense will likely win them more games than they’ll lose this year, and will keep them right in the thick of the AFC playoff picture. They have a chance to correct this week’s mistakes on Sunday against a Bengals defense that’s been a little better than advertised through two weeks. Speaking of Cincinnati…
The Bengals entered Soldier Field Sunday for a meeting with their old friend Andy Dalton and the Chicago Bears. Offensively, this tilt was the polar opposite of what they saw the week before against Minnesota. Until the final five minutes of the game the most they could muster was a mere three points, and even those points felt more like a result of the Bears having the game in the bag. Credit where it’s due though, the Bengals didn’t quit even down three scores in the final minutes of the ball game.
It’s tough to pull anything substantial from this game offensively on the Bengals side. That group is obviously far more talented than the one we saw through three and a half quarters on Sunday, and the more Joe Burrow and company continue to grow together as a group, the less we’ll see of these anomalous stinkers. Ja’Marr Chase once again put his big play ability on display, hauling in a 42-yard touchdown late and continuing to show why Cincinnati selected him over Penei Sewell in this year’s draft.
The defense of the Bengals has probably been one of the biggest surprises in the division so far. After making the play of the game last week in the form of a Dalvin Cook forced fumble in overtime, they held Chicago to 206 yards overall and only 13 points. If not for a Roquan Smith interception return for a touchdown, that late-game stretch from Burrow may have been enough to secure them the win, thanks almost entirely to the defense. Now, the Bears don’t exactly have what we would call a high-powered offense, but only allowing 206 yards on the road in the NFL is impressive no matter the opponent.
Despite the offensive woes in this game, the Bengals seem to have all the makings of a squad that could very well cost a team a postseason trip come January (similar to how they did Baltimore in 2017). Up next is the aforementioned date with the Steelers, and given how their defense has played, coupled with Pittsburgh’s own offensive struggles, they may just be catching them at the right time.
By far the biggest game of their season thus far, it’ll be interesting to see if the Bengals can bring the fight to Heinz Field on Sunday.
It seems redundant to say that the Ravens had the best week of any team in the AFC North, but the overall variance in results across the division on Sunday (compared to Week 1) showed that we’re in for a wild ride over the next three months. With the first two weeks under their belts, now is the time when the race really begins to take shape and we see where each team will stand in the pecking order. It’s truly anyone’s game, but after this week’s return to form it’s hard not to be confident in the Ravens chances at another divisional crown. Two NFC North bouts and an interdivisional matchup are on the slate for this weekend, and all four teams will be desperate to stay in, or return to, their winning ways. All in all, it should be another exciting week around the AFC North!