AFC North: Trap games separate contenders and pretenders
Stephen R Stone (@SrStoneSports)
Cold Hard Football Facts' AFC North Sniper
Given the season I’ve had as a fantasy owner (awful) and a game predictor (embarrassing) gloating about a successful week feels a little like Cam Newton doing the Superman pose when the Panthers are losing by 20 points. However, the good feelings this season have been few and far between so gloat I shall.
It isn’t just the fact that I am making a strong comeback in fantasy or that I went 11-2 with my predictions this week. What I’m most proud of is how I was able to predict the week to play out.
I said on Thursday that the number of trap games in the AFC North on Sunday meant we had a great opportunity to see shockingly close contests and upset specials. That’s exactly what happened this week as the Ravens and Bengals found themselves in dogfights with inferior opponents.
When the dust cleared at the end of the day, I think we found out what teams in this division are made of. Cincinnati’s upset loss to the Dolphins showed that they might not have what it takes. Baltimore and Pittsburgh played in ugly games, but each managed to get the W. The great teams always do.
With that in mind, here are five things we can take Week 5.
1. The Ravens won without scoring a touchdown for the first time since 2007. (Baltimore 9 Kansas City 6)
Joe Flacco’s MVP candidacy took a hit this week as he failed to get the Ravens offense into the end zone against Kansas City. It’s especially disconcerting considering the fact that the Chiefs came into Sunday ranked 30th in Defensive Real Quarterback Rating and 31st in Defensive Passer Rating. But a tenacious defense that literally knocked Matt Cassel out of the game carried the Ravens to their third straight victory.
Baltimore’s defense had four sacks, two interceptions and two fumble recoveries. The number of big plays made by the ferocious unit made up for a lack of offense. It reminded me of the 2000 Ravens, which may be insulting to the offense, but if it yields the same results I’m certain Baltimore fans won’t mind.
2. The Bengals were held to their lowest rushing total of the season. (Miami 17 Cincinnati 13)
A.J. Green scored a touchdown for the fourth straight week, but the offense sputtered. The lack of a running game - only total 80 yards - was the primary culprit. Yes, Andy Dalton had his worst game since week one, but it’s hard to make plays when there isn’t a running game to alleviate quarterback pressure.
It’s easy to blame the offensive line. Cincinnati’s Offensive Hog Index is the worst in the AFC and the team will not return to the postseason this year if the line play doesn’t improve. In addition to an erratic ground game, Dalton was sacked three times on Sunday. However, some of the rushing woes have to be attributed to the lack of production from the guys in the backfield. BenJarvus Green-Ellis was brought in to be the feature back, but he managed a pitiful 14 yards on nine carries.
3. The Steelers earned a rare victory in the battle of Pennsylvania. (Pittsburgh 16 Philadelphia 14)
Pittsburgh is one of the most successful franchises of the last 50 years, but they have consistently struggled against Philadelphia. The Eagles and Steelers have played each other 22 times over the last half century, and Sunday was only Pittsburgh’s sixth win in the series over that time span.
Pittsburgh won on a last second field goal but they stayed in the game with a defense that prevented the big play. The Eagles were held to only 3.4 yards per rush and 5.8 yards per pass attempt. It’s starting to look like the AFC North will once again be won in a bloody battle between Baltimore and Pittsburgh.
4. The Browns held their own against the champs. (New York 41 Cleveland 27)
I saw the first half of this game coming a mile away. The Giants have a tendency to take naps against lower-echelon teams, especially at home. As I mentioned in this week’s preview column, the Browns were facing a similar scenario that thy did in 2008, when they pulled off the upset victory. So I wasn’t shocked when Cleveland surged to a 14-0 lead and led 17-7 in the second quarter.
What did shock me was how dominant the Giants were after that point. Cleveland seemed to give up once New York got things going. They were especially ineffective against the Giants’ starts - namely Victor Cruz (three touchdowns) and Ahmad Bradshaw (200 yards rushing.) And regardless of how well the Browns looked in the fist half, they are winless because Cleveland fans have yet to see their team put together a complete game.
5. Divisional power rankings: Week 5
4. Cleveland: They are getting closer. Brandon Weeden isn’t as terrible as we all once thought and Richardson continues to impress. But they need to take a step forward next year.
3. Cincinnati: The Bengals’ offensive line may do the team in this year. But like Cleveland, having a young franchise quarterback and a stud weapon (A.J. Green) gives fans hope for the future.
2. Pittsburgh: Sunday was a classic Steelers victory: hard hits on defense and a tough, gritty performance by Roethlisberger. Pittsburgh’s not going away quietly. Sunday said that this team still has aspirations to win the division.
1. Baltimore: The Ravens struggled mightily on Sunday, but a win - especially a road victory - is a win. If the defense can carry the team when Flacco isn’t at his best, it will ensure this team contends all year long.
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