Boy, it sure was nice to see the Ravens reclaim the top spot in the AFC North from the comfort of their own couch this weekend, wasn’t it? It feels like every week we know less and less about this division, and just when we think we have a hold on it, it gets flipped on its head again. This week saw an interdivisional matchup that was quite reminiscent of days past, and America’s new football sweetheart being clipped at the knees just when their Super Bowl bandwagon was about to hit the road.
It was a wild one to say the least, so let’s get to it!
Cleveland Browns/Pittsburgh Steelers
The Browns and Steelers met in Cleveland for their first encounter of the season, in a game that very well may have been Ben Roethlisberger‘s last in the “dawg pound.” It’s no secret that throughout his career Ben has had mountains of success in that stadium, but this isn’t the same Browns teams of old. Despite that, one thing that remained the same is the result. It was classic AFC North football at its finest, and when the dust settled it was the Pittsburgh Steelers who edged out a gritty 15-10 win over Baker Mayfield and company.
The Browns offense has struggled mightily in the wake of recent injuries, having scored no more than 17 points in three straight games now. With that said, they still had every chance to win this game late, and a mistake from one of their most trusted veterans may have cost them the chance at being two games over .500.
The first half of this game was a defensive slugfest, with the only points coming as a result of a field goal for each side. The Steelers offense then went three-and-out on their opening drive of the second half, before a D’Ernest Johnson touchdown for the Browns seemingly woke them up. On their next two possessions, they would put together scoring drives of 12 and 13 plays thanks to multiple impressive tosses from Roethlisberger and the strong running of stud running back Najee Harris.
The Browns weren’t out of it yet though. A trio of passes from Mayfield to tight end David Njoku set the Browns up in Pittsburgh territory, followed by a tough run from the banged up signal caller that fired up the home crowd in a major way. For all intents and purposes, it felt as if Cleveland was about to drive down and secure a major 4th quarter go-ahead score. A mere two plays later though, Mayfield fired a pass out left to Jarvis Landry who was then stripped by former Brown Joe Schobert. T.J. Watt would recover the fumble, and take all of the air out of FirstEnergy Stadium in the process. The Browns would have one more crack at it, and to their credit drove all the way down to the Steelers 26-yard line before ultimately being turned over on downs, effectively ending the game.
For the Steelers, this is now their third straight win after starting out the season a dreadful 1-3. We were all ready to bury the black and gold following their heartbreaking home loss to the Packers (yours truly included), but in my best impression of a broken record, the sentiment remains that you CAN NOT count out a Mike Tomlin-led football team. The Steelers defense we’ve grown to know over the years appears to be getting back in a groove, and despite trading away Melvin Ingram this week, have a chance to get even better over the next two weeks. First up, a Monday night home tilt against Justin Fields and the Chicago Bears. Fields had his best game as a pro last weekend vs San Francisco, but that defense is a far cry from the one he’ll face at Heinz Field. It’s this blogger’s humble opinion that the true threat to the Ravens in the AFC North resides in Pittsburgh, PA.
In Cleveland, well, their problems seem to be growing instead of shrinking. Currently sitting at 4-4 and last in the division (after starting out 3-1), their next game comes against the team we’re about to discuss, who are fresh off a completely embarrassing loss and will be looking to right the ship by any means possible. Combine that with the father of the team’s highest paid receiver taking shots at their quarterback on social media, and you have all the makings of yet another stressful week in Cleveland, Ohio.
What usually happens when an NFL team plays completely above their head and blows out a tough opponent in emotional fashion? The following week, it’s let down city. We saw the Ravens become victims of this trend against the Bengals the week prior after destroying the Los Angeles Chargers, and this week it was Cincinnati who fell into the trap.
Led by Mike White, a man who the vast majority of football fans didn’t know existed two weeks ago, the New York Jets came out this week with one intention in mind: spoil the party. After upsetting the Tennessee Titans a few short weeks ago, they knew as long as they kept the game close at the end they’d have a chance.
Late in the first half the Bengals offense really began to hum. Joe Burrow found his favorite target Ja’Marr Chase in the end zone, before tacking on another three points on the following drive to take a 17-7 lead. Everyone in America figured this was the point where Cincinnati would begin to pull away on the scoreboard. Well, everyone except the ones standing on the opposing sideline of course. White would go on to lead his team down field before the half and match the Bengals’ touchdown to make it 17-14, and finished the day with over 400 yards passing when the final whistle blew.
Both teams traded score after score in the second half. Despite building yet another two-possession lead though, the Bengals just couldn’t hold on. We’ve given the Cincinnati defense a lot of credit this year, but there’s no defending their performance in this game; it was flat out bad. The Jets scored on every single one of their drives after the aforementioned touchdown to close the first half, save for the final drive of the game where they ran out the clock.
Now, we can’t talk about this game without discussing the egregious helmet-to-helmet penalty called on Mike Hilton during the Jets’ final drive. White swung a pass out to Ty Johnson from the backfield on 3rd and 11, and the defense had him pegged from the start. Johnson lowered his helmet during the initiation of contact by Hilton and their heads collided, but it was Hilton who would receive the unnecessary roughness penalty and essentially ice the game for New York. Unfair? Yes. However, if the Bengals truly were the cream of the crop in the AFC like all of the pundits professed this week, would they have been in this situation to begin with? The NFL is a week-to-week league if ever there was one, and this game personified that notion.
This game likely won’t define the Bengals’ season, as they’re still one of the most up-and-coming teams in football and are right in the thick of the division race. A rebound opportunity this weekend comes in the form of a home matchup with the Cleveland Browns. With another loss however, the Bengals could find themselves going from first to worst before they even knew what hit them. Granted, “worst” in this division is still good enough to be a playoff team, and a division leader in other places, but this performance followed by an interdivisional loss would certainly be far from ideal for Burrow and company.
A good slogan for the AFC North this season would simply be “where the wild things are”. It’s become almost impossible to predict, but with that uncertainty comes an extremely high level of excitement (and nerves) on a week to week basis. With the Ravens welcoming a Minnesota Vikings team that’s looking to avenge their own misfortunes on Sunday, and the other three teams hot on their heels, it doesn’t appear as if that’s going to change any time soon either. At this point all we can do is try to keep up, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do as we look forward to yet another pulse pounding week in the toughest division in football.