With half of the 2009-10 season in the books, I am once again inclined to dig deep into the wealth of football played to give some insights about current standings and the future of the teams in the AFC North.
Well, as unlikely as it seemed coming into the season, the Cincinnati Bengals are first in the AFC North, and will likely (although after the last "Ohio Bowl," who knows...) finish undefeated inside the division after sweeping Pittsburgh and Baltimore.
In a tight second place are the Steelers, who are attempting to defend their Super Bowl championship with the first back-to-back Super Bowl wins since New England did so at the beginning of the decade.
In a surprising third place ranking are the Baltimore Ravens, who should get back on the winning side of .500 Monday night against the Browns.
Speaking of whom, no surprise that the Cleveland Browns are at the bottom of the division (and league, according to many analysts).
The reasons for the startling rankings through the division are many in number, and have various sources. For the Bengals, I attribute a lot of their success to the health of Carson Palmer.
With a real threat under center, added to the rise of RB Cedric Benson, the team got better instantly. The real, and often overlooked reason for their 7-2 record the Bengals currently hold, is the defense and Defensive Coordinator Mike Zimmer.
Zimmer has been an anchor for a defense who always had potential, but merely lacked direction. Since his tenure began, Zimmer has helped shape the physical, hard-hitting, often-blitzing face the Bengal Defense currently sports.
His leadership has transcended the game of football, as the tragic death of his wife sparked an inspired effort from the Bengal defense (currently second in the league in rush defense).
The Bengals, indeed, seem to be a fearsome opponent this season, much like Ochocinco predicted on "Hard Knocks."
In an equally shocking standing, the Pittsburgh Steelers are second in the division with a 6-3 record. While both the Steelers and the Bengals will undoubtedly make the playoffs, the lack of division title has got to put a huge chip on the Steelers' shoulders.
There are many reasons for the three losses (two of which came against the Bengals), but the first two losses can be placed on the shoulders of the defense, who took their time in finding themselves this season, giving up fourth quarter leads to go from what perhaps should have been a 8-0 start to the 6-2 they recorded headed into today's early game.
The home loss to the Bengals will not be soon forgotten by this Steeler team, but perhaps the bigger concern than the revenge factor is the reason for today's loss.
The Bengals looked like they blitzed at least 75 percent of Pittsburgh's offensive snaps, something that Pittsburgh should be used to. After watching, and rewatching, I have come to the conclusion that Big Ben Roethlisberger should be calling more plays. A lot more.
The no-huddle offense, run by Roethlisberger, has been a huge source of offensive rhythm for the Steeler Offense. Not only does it keep the offense controlling the tempo of the game for Pittsburgh, but it also keeps the opponent's defense from being able to make substitutions.
Today's play calling kept the defense in control of the tempo, and therefore, the game. The screen pass was working well for the Steelers, but the Playcalling did not reflect that fact on the field.
I think Bruce Arians needs to acknowledge his shortcomings today, as his playcalling against a a division rival today most likely cost his team a division title and/or homefield in the postseason.
Changes need to be made, as the Steelers have demonstrated a clear ability to dominate offensively, but need to be given the chance through playcalling, better blocking schemes, and new offensive wrinkles.
Having said all of this, I will reserve the second half of these thoughts until after the Ravens-Browns game on MNF. Thanks for welcoming me back after a long hiatus, everyone!