Another week in the NFL, and once again, fans find themselves on a roller-coaster ride early in this 2009-2010 season. As all four teams had division games this week, let's delve into the AFC North's fun-filled adventure.
In Baltimore, the Raven's took it to the Browns and never really let up. With a final score of 34-3, it is the largest margin of victory this week (beating the Giants, who blanked the Bucs 24-0).
While there are many factors as to why this was never even really a game, the most obvious is talent.
Coach Eric Mangini simply does not have enough talent on the roster in Cleveland to compete with a team that has been scary-good in every game so far this year. Example: The Browns won possession to begin the game, threw an interception, and allowed it to be turned into a touchdown less than five minutes into the game.
QB turmoil started anew in Cleveland, as Brady Quinn was benched for lack of production, paving the way for Derek Anderson to show Mangini that he made the wrong choice to start the season. Unfortunately for Anderson, he had no better luck against the Raven's defense than Quinn did, and the two QB's combined to go 17 of 27 for 126 yards and four (that's right, FOUR) INT's.
Coach Mangini is expected to name a starter (yes, this AGAIN!) by Wednesday, leaving Browns fans to wonder if they will ever see the 2007 magic again. Conversely, Ravens QB Joe Flacco threw a career day: 25 for 35 for 342 yards, 1 TD.
It appears that the Ravens' defense is starting to come together (and this was definitely a game that gave it the opportunity), but like most, I am astonished at the way the Ravens have relied on their offense to win games.
As curious as this seemed to me at the beginning of the season, it is obviously a strategy that is working, as the Ravens remain undefeated and the class of the AFC North.
While one Ohio team is struggling, another is surging and living up to their own hype. In Cincinnati, the Bengals held on just long enough to put together a final drive, resulting in a TD and a win over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Bengals, mostly lifeless during the first three quarters (Steelers led 20-9 headed into the fourth quarter, even after giving up a pick-six), found some magic from QB Carson Palmer late in the fourth.
Palmer led a 16-play, 71-yard drive which ended with a four-yard pass to Andre Caldwell who was wide open in the middle of the end zone.
While the Bengals played well and are enjoying a victory they have not experienced since Chad Ochocinco was a rookie, the Steelers and their fans are grimacing once again. For the second week in a row, chances to put a team away have come and gone.
The early game dominance began to fade away when Roethlisberger threw a beautiful pass to Limas Sweed in the end zone, only to have Sweed lose control of the ball as he hit the ground—resulting in an incomplete pass (on a personal note, I have watched and rewatched that catch until my eyes hurt, and to me, it looked like Sweed let go of the ball as his back hit the ground a second time after bouncing from initial impact, which by rule is a completion).
The play immediately following was a painful reminder of the previous week, a missed field goal by Jeff Reed (usually one of the most reliable legs in the league, Reed has now missed three in the past two games).
Following these back-to-back missed opportunities, the Bengals struck back, once off a 23 yard run from Cedric Benson, and the other game winning drive (kept alive on 4th-and-10 by an 11-yard gain on a pass to the halfback Brian Leonard).
The Steelers, usually a team known for generating turnovers, has failed to do so in the past two games. Their defense has been excellent in clutch situations, and has failed to step up in the past two games. That said, the defense did play very well, holding the Bengals to a net total of negative 10 yards in the first quarter (that's right, -10 yards!).
The offense did play well, however has been unable to seal the deal, due mostly to dropped passes and missed field goals.
Steelers WR Hines Ward put the Steelers 1-2 record into perspective pretty well following another heartbreak loss: "If we score touchdowns in the first half, it's not even a game, it's 24-0 or 24-3. It's not very good. You've got to put up seven points instead of 3s. That's how you finish a team off."
On the other side of the ball, the defense is clearly missing All-Pro Safety Troy Polamalu. While they have been effective, they have not come up in the clutch situations that they have been notorious for doing in the past. In the end, I think DE Brett Keisel summed up the Steelers woes fairly well in his postgame interview:
What allowed them to come back and win today?
“They made big plays and we didn’t. It’s something we need to rectify if we are going to be the great team that we strive to be. It’s disappointing, but we have the type of team that knows when things are going wrong. Hopefully, everyone can check himself and come in ready to work on Wednesday.”
Is it encouraging to know you are close to being 3-0, or is it frustrating to know you haven’t been able to get over the hump and stand at 1-2?
“It’s frustrating. I felt like all game we were in control. Even when they made the big pick, we were playing tough. Then, things shifted on us. They made a great drive at the end. They made the plays and we did not.”
What’s the fatigue level like at the end of a game when things are happening like they did today?
“I don’t think we were tired. I don’t think anyone was tired. It was a matter of making plays and not making plays. We strive to be a great defense. We strive to make those plays. If we don’t start making them, it’s going to be a long year.”
As we head into the fourth week, lets look ahead and make a few predictions. It will be the showdown in Ohio this week, as the Bengals head to Cleveland to take on the Browns. This should be another win for the Bengals, and barring some kind of fluke or serious under-appreciation on the part of the Bengals, the Browns should be 0-4 and the Bengals should advance to 3-1.
The Ravens will have arguably the toughest challenge this week, as they head to New England to take on the Patriots. As Brady continues to struggle finding his groove, Flacco could have one of the biggest games of his life as he looks to outshine fellow second year QB Matt Ryan once again.
That said, NE opened up the run very effectively in week three, and shut down Ryan's favorite reads fairly effectively. I could see this one going either way, but in the end I think the Patriots will find a way to best the Ravens.
As for the Steelers, they have a tough opponent as well in San Diego. However, they could not have gotten the Chargers at a better time (well, except maybe week three) as they are pretty banged up already, especially on the offensive line—a weakness that Baltimore exploited all too well for Chargers QB Phillip Rivers.
Look for the Steelers to generate the same kind of pressure and penetration, and get their season back on track with a much needed win at Hines Field.
To wrap this week's analysis up, lets just say that this is the NFL, and anything can happen week to week. For instance, if someone had said before the season began that the Steelers would be 1-2 headed into the fourth week, no one would have believed it.
Had someone else said that the Ravens would be atop the AFC North, and led their by its offense, not its defense, they would have been laughed off.
Yet here we are. Certainly, it is still a young season—and as we have seen already, anything can happen, and we can always expect the unexpected.