AFC North: Andy Dalton Looks To Cap Historic Sophomore Season
By Stephen Stone (@SrStoneSports)
Cold Hard Football Facts' AFC North Sniper
This is the seventeenth weekly preview article I have written this year so I know it’s week 17, but as I sit and write this particular blog post I still can’t grasp the idea that the regular season is ending. It feels like it was only yesterday when I told you the Bengals and Ravens would struggle this year and the Steelers would become a major Super Bowl contender (oops.)
Now the season is winding down and, while I wish the final weekend provided some drama in the AFC North, it appears not to be in the cards. The Steelers and Browns were eliminated. Baltimore has the division title wrapped up. Cincinnati is locked into the sixth seed. The Ravens have no shot at a first round bye, so everything is pretty much going to stand.
Let’s reflect on some individual accomplishments and look at what statistical achievements can be reached in the season’s final Sunday.
1. Andy Dalton could put together the most successful sophomore quarterback season in over a decade. (Baltimore @ Cincinnati)
The second-year signal caller has been brilliant this season. Four more touchdown passes would give him 30 for the year, becoming the first Bengal quarterback to hit the milestone since Carson Palmer tossed 32 in 2005. Even if he doesn’t do so, he’s already in elite company in terms of overall performance in his second season.
Heading into the season’s final week, Dalton has thrown for 3,591 yards and 26 touchdowns on the season. He has a quarterback rating of 87 and he’s leading the Bengals to the playoffs. He is the first second-year quarterback to throw for over 3,500 yards, 25 touchdowns, put up a rating of over 85.0 and lead his team to the postseason since Daunte Culpepper accomplished the feat in 2000. (For the record, Peyton Manning did the same thing in 1999.)
There has been much debate as to whether or not the sophomore slump exists. This year, Andy Dalton is making a compelling case against it.
2. One more win puts Joe Flacco in truly elite company.
Speaking of early quarterback success...
The Baltimore quarterback has had his struggles this year. He never took that step to becoming an elite passer that he promised. However, that doesn’t mean what he has in the early stages of his career isn’t impressive. Including the postseason, a win on Sunday (or if not then, in the first round of the playoffs) will give Flacco 60 victories in five seasons.
How impressive is this? Ben Roethlisberger, who won two Super Bowls in his first five seasons, only won 59 games. Tom Brady, who won three rings, only won 57. (Granted, that’s only because Brady didn’t play his rookie year, but Flacco should get extra credit for starting right out of the gate.) John Elway and Dan Marino each only got to 50.
Credit the defense, the coaching and everyone else that doesn’t wear a jersey that says Flacco on the back, but don’t discredit the man’s ability to win football games.
3. A win on Sunday gives the Steelers 63 wins against the Browns. (Cleveland @ Pittsburgh)
The Steelers haven’t beaten any team more often than they beat the Browns. Dating back to the old Browns, heck, even dating back to the pre-merger days when both teams resided in the NFL (now NFC) these two have been going at it.
It used to be that Cleveland was the dominant franchise, and the Steelers were its whipping boys. In the two teams’ first 18 meetings, the Browns won 16 times. Then the Browns started to fade, the AFL-NFL merger came along and the Steelers built a dynasty that lasted for a decade.
Today, the Browns are the down-on-their-luck squad and the Steelers are the bully. However, this year could signal that the tide is turning. While Pittsburgh can get its 63rd win against its divisional rival this Sunday, a Cleveland victory would give the Browns a seasonal sweep. The last time the Browns swept Pittsburgh was the 1988 season, long before Trent Richardson was born and when Brandon Weeden was 15.
4. The Browns could formulate an offensive rookie trifecta for the ages.
The Browns weren’t a good team in 2012, even if they were probably better than their record suggests. Much of the team’s shortcomings is due to quarterback Brandon Weeden’s erratic play. He had some of the worst single-game performances the league has ever seen. However, he still managed to make plays and, with an explosive outburst in week 17, he could become part of a rookie triangle that may never be replicated.
Ok, it’s going to take a lot to get there, but the Browns will probably be the only team in the division playing hard in week 17. Also, to reach this lofty goal wouldn’t require the breaking of any records, so it’s not physically impossible. Ok, here goes:
First, the easy part. Trent Richardson needs 50 yards to get 1,000 for the season. Easy enough, even if Pittsburgh does rank 8th in Defensive Hog Index. Then, wide receiver Josh Gordon would need 234 receiving yards. That’s a little tougher, I know. Finally, Weeden would have to throw five touchdown passes, all to Gordon. That would give the Browns a 3,000 yard passer with 20 touchdown tosses, a 1,000 rusher with 10 scores on the ground and a 1,000 yard receiver with 10 receiving touchdowns. Oh yeah, they are all rookies. It would be the first time in history that has happened.
Ok, it probably won’t happen considering Pittsburgh’s stellar defense, even if the Steelers are deflated from missing the playoffs, but that fact that it’s possible speaks volumes about the Browns’ future. Throw in a solid defense and you have the makings of a team on the rise in 2013.
5. Which team will finish first in Quality Stats Power Rankings?
If you have read my blogs, you’ll notice that the Steelers, Ravens and Bengals have all held the top spot in my divisional power rankings at some point. You’ll also notice that, despite the fact they have led the division essentially from the word go, I have not been high on the ravens, well, at all really. It was only this week when Baltimore manhandled the Giants that I moved them to the top of the power rankings.
As for the Quality Stats Power Rankings, the Ravens currently hold the number 9 spot. The Bengals and Steelers are 11th and 12th, respectively. While Pittsburgh’s chances of leapfrogging their two divisional rivals are unlikely, the Bengals could dethrone the Ravens with a win against Baltimore this weekend.
All in all, it was an interesting year in the AFC North. The Ravens are the divisional champions, the Bengals have a ton of momentum heading into the playoffs and if Pittsburgh had remained healthy, it could have been the best team. We’ll see what happens this week and into the playoffs.