By Matt Pawlikowski
When it comes to the AFC North, one thing is certain: On any given Sunday when division foes don the pads against each other, it’s going to be a dogfight. Thursday’s contest between the Baltimore Ravens and the Cleveland Browns was a true testament to that. If not for one play, the game could have gone either way in a Baltimore 23-16 victory.
Still, without a doubt, as the Steelers get healthy and watch games this weekend during their bye week, the Ravens at this juncture are the team to beat. If not for a last-second loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, which many blame on the replacement refs, Baltimore would be sitting with a 4-0 slate.
Quarterback Joe Flacco is the biggest reason for that, and he has posted back-to-back 300-yard games while running back Ray Rice also has played a key role. As a unit, Baltimore is averaging close to 420 yards per game and 30 points per game, which both rank fourth in the NFL.
The defensive unit – -much like the Steelers’ — has struggled, especially in the secondary. Although Baltimore’s record is 3-1, it has allowed more than 400 total yards per game ( 27th in the league) and more than 100 rushing yards per game. An even bigger telltale sign is they have allowed more than20 points per game.
After losing the opener, the Cincinnati Bengals have come to life and sit at 2-1, tied for first in the division going into Week Four. Many wait for a breakdown, but this isn’t your same old Bengals. Under the guidance of offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, quarterback Andy Dalton has been solid.
Not only does he rank second in the league in passer rating, but his fourth-quarter stats have been amazing (158.3). It’s one of the reasons the Bengals rank eighth in the league in offense and are sitting where they are after three games. A big factor for that: Dalton, much like Ben Roethlisberger has been spreading the ball out and has hit five different guys for touchdowns already.
If there is an Achilles’ heel for Cincy, it’s the fact their defense has been allowing a ton of points to be scored on them. Defensive end Michael Johnson has been the bright spot, as leads the league in sacks with four and has 14 tackles as a lineman. The Bengals also have had trouble converting third downs, hitting on just 11-of-36 attempts thus far.
Then there are the Cleveland Browns. Since coming back to the league in 1999, they have been searching for an identity. Hard to believe the Steelers were just one game ahead of them after Week Three, especially when your head coach (Pat Shurmur, who more than likely is on borrowed time) has this to say: “We need to play better, we need to coach better, we need to do everything better and then we will win some games.”
While there is plenty of season left, the Browns, despite playing tough at times in their 0-4 start, seem once again headed to the basement of the division.
There’s a saying in Cleveland for all their sports team as of late, “Wait till next year,” and with the Browns that may just be the case. Gone is former owner Randy Lerner who seemed more concerned about his Premier Soccer team in England than American football.
The new owner is Jimmy Haslem, who was part of the Steelers ownership group prior to purchasing the Browns. Haslem told reporters not long after purchasing the team that he plans on doing things the Steeler way.
“We’re going to build through the draft. Rarely did you see the Steelers do it through free-agency. They did it through the draft and that’s what we’ll try to do.” Haslem said.
The Browns drafted two rookies in the first round this year to build around: Brandon Weeden and Trent Richardson. Richardson has proved against some tough competition that he will be a force to be reckoned with in the future.
Weeden, on the other hand, has gotten a rude awaking since taking the helm this season. He had a 5.1 quarterback rating in his first start, and while he has shown flashes of brilliance and an ability to lead his offense, he needs to reduce his interceptions and inconsistency, and increase his completion percentage of 56 percent. A prime example of that came in his game against the Ravens, when he tossed a ball right to Baltimore cornerback Cary Williams for a pick six, changing the entire complexion of the game.
If there is one thing to be said about the Browns, they can play defense under the guidance of Dick Jauron. Already the unit has six interceptions to lead the league, and nine sacks.
And if you let the Browns hang around until the final minutes, they have one of the premier kickers in the league in Phil Dawson, the only holdover from the expansion team of 1999. Thursday he hit three 50-yarders against the Ravens, and Steelers fans remember him well as he led the Browns to a stunning 16-15 victory over them in Pittsburgh his first season.
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Matt Pawlikowski is a veteran journalist covering all things Steelers. His work can be found on Examiner.com.