An injury, an upset, and a good old fashioned pounding, and suddenly the AFC North is a race once again. Sunday saw the division go from a two-team race to a three-team battle as the Ravens and Bengals both bit the dust, while the Steelers looked like the champs of last year with a beating of the Chiefs by 38 points. Both the Ravens and Bengals sudden rise to the top now looks as if it may not last long, as the Ravens have lost two straight, and lost starting QB Steve McNair early in a loss to the Panthers. The Bengals still have not grasped the concept of stopping the run, and fell on the road late to the formally winless Buccaneers 14-13. The Bengals offense, supposed to be their strong point, has been in a tailspin, putting up 13 points in each of their last two games. Take away a few costly Steelers turnovers the week before that, and fans in Cincy are gripping even more than they are now.
The wild card in this whole race will be what now happens to the Steelers. Sunday Pittsburgh put all the negative comments and nay saying behind them, and played their best game since a 2005 December beating of the Browns in Cleveland. They used a big-play offense, led by Ben Roethlisberger, and a running duo of Willie Parker and Najeh Davenport who combined to rush for over 185 yards to pound the Chiefs. The game was over at halftime, as the Steelers put up 14 points in the first quarter, and 17 in the second to build a lead that was way too much for KC to overcome. Maybe even more impressive was Pittsburgh’s patchwork defense, which without emotional leader Joey Porter held the Chiefs to 213 yards, and just 38 rushing. Larry Johnson was stopped for just 26 yards on 15 carries. The Steelers, at least for one week, look super again, and now the question is can they follow it up with road games at Atlanta and Oakland before a huge showdown with Denver in three weeks.
The Ravens are in deep trouble. Not only have they lost their last two, but now it looks as if their once stout defense is beginning to get soft, allowing teams to hit for big plays and conversions at key times. The Panthers rolled into Baltimore and put up 414 yards of offense, with 365 yards passing and close to 6 yards per play. They also converted 7 of 15 third downs, keeping drives alive and keeping the Ravens D sucking wind on the field. Maybe bigger than all of that was the fact that the Ravens suffered the loss to McNair, who left the game with a sprained neck in the first quarter. Kyle Boller did a nice job in relief of McNair with three TD’s through the air, but the team was following McNair’s spirited lead and without him, one has to wonder how it will effect the Ravens. The Ravens will have time to get McNair back with a bye then games at the now red-hot Saints and home for the Bengals.
A team that seems even in more trouble is the Bengals, who have just not played well since a week two beating of the Browns. Their troubles are clear, they can’t score at will like it seemed last season, and their defense simply cannot stop the run against anyone. Hanging on for their lives on Sunday 13-7 against the formally winless Tampa Bay Bucs, a late TD pass from Bruce Gradowski to Mark Clayton sealed the Bengals fate. Carson Palmer looks healthy, but continues to struggle, going 24-for-37 for 261 yards. Not bad numbers, but he and the offense cannot get the ball in the end zone. They have scored 26 points in their last two games, both losses. The run defense again failed to do its job, allowing the Bucs to put up 126 yards and an average of 5.0 per carry. In their last three games in which they have gone 1-2, the Bengals have allowed a staggering 532 rushing yards on 104 carries, an average of 5.1 yards per carry. And they say that Marvin Lewis’ strong point is defense?
Where this division goes from here is anyones guess. What at one point looked like the strongest division of the AFC now looks like it has plenty of weak points. Can the Steelers continue to get back on track? Will the Ravens defense return to form? Can Cincy ever stop anyone on the ground and start getting some points? Only time in this wacky division will give us those answers.