AFC North: It's a make or break time for Steelers, Bengals
by Stephen Stone (@SrStoneSports)
Cold Hard Football Facts's AFC North sniper
What a difference three years make. Pittsburgh and Tennessee was one of the marque match-ups of the 2009 NFL season. The Steelers were the defending champions and the Titans were coming off of a 13-3 campaign. The game was so highly anticipated that the NFL scheduled it as the Thursday night season kickoff. In 2012, while still making its way to Thursday night, the game isn’t much more than an afterthought - an insignificant contest between one of the worst teams in the league and a franchise barely hanging by a thread.
That’s the theme heading into week 6 in the AFC North. Pittsburgh and Baltimore may have each won last Sunday, but neither team looked all that good. Cincinnati’s three game winning streak was snapped and Cleveland failed to get into the winner’s circle. Many teams are reaching a crossroads as we get closer to the halfway point in the season. The Steelers and Bengals have to keep pace in the playoff race while Baltimore needs to assure itself it can compete at the top of the conference.
With that in mind, here are five more things to consider this week.
1. The Steelers have won four of the last five against the Titans, each win by an average of 15 points.
There was a time when Tennessee dominated this series between the two former divisional rivals. From 1997 until 2008, the Titans won 10 out of 12 contests. Since then, Pittsburgh has owned them.
It’s easy to expect more of the same on Thursday. The Steelers may only be in the middle of the pack in regards to the Quality Stats Power Rankings, but the Titans are dead last. Ben Roethlisberger should continue his strong season against a Tennessee defense ranked 30th in Bendability, 31st in Defensive Real Quarterback Rating and 31st in Defensive Passer Rating.
2. Baltimore leads the AFC in Bendability and Dallas is 31st in the league in Scoreability.
Tony Romo and the Cowboys have proven to be able to put up a ton of yards on opposing defenses, but they are rarely turning that into points. Dallas is a respectable 16th in the league in yards per game, but unfortunately for Cowboys fans, yards don’t go on the scoreboard. A number of factors - namely turnovers and penalties - have prevented the Cowboys from getting into the end zone and the team currently ranks 30th in the league in scoring.
Meanwhile, Baltimore’s defense is proving to be as stingy as ever, even if the offense sputtered last week. The Ravens’ 17.8 points allowed per game ranks second in the conference, even if they are 24th in yards per game allowed.
3. Andy Dalton usually good on the road and always great against the Browns.
The sophomore quarterback is only 5-5 at home, but he takes his game up a notch when he travels. Not only is his road record an impressive 7-4, his passer rating has consistently been better outside of Cincinnati. His career passer rating is four points higher on the rod than it is at home.
Dalton has also owned the Browns in the three times he has played them. In three career games, the Cincinnati signal caller has tossed five touchdowns and only one interception against his in-state rival. He has also won all three games against Cleveland, hitting a quarterback rating over 100.
4. Despite racking up the passing yards, Brandon Weeden continues to struggle with his efficiency.
The Browns may have found the running back of the future, and who knows, Weeden could wind up being the guy at quarterback, but his tendency to be careless with the ball has not yet been eradicated. Things are looking up after a historically bad debut last month, but he’s not there yet.
Currently, Cleveland is ranked 30th in Real Quarterback Rating and last in Offensive Passer Rating. Weeden's productivity won't improve until he has formidable talent around him. Yes, he has a fantastic backfield companion in Trent Richardson, but he'll need more talented receivers before Weeden or his team can think about anything other than last place.
5. The AFC North has the stingiest collection of defenses in the conference.
There have been 19 games played by teams in this division so far. Currently, they are collectively giving up an average of 23.4 points per game. While that can’t hold a candle to the defenses in the NFC West (currently giving up an astoundingly low 15.5 points per game) the North division is leading the AFC.
It’s easy to see why. Pittsburgh and Baltimore have always lived and died on the strength if their defenses. But Cincinnati and Cleveland are quickly improving. The AFC North may quickly turn into a two-horse race but, just as it always has, the division will be battled for and won on the defensive side of the ball.