Eight games in the books for each of our AFC North franchises. It's almost saddening realizing how fast the season has gone so far this year. We've already seen preseason favorites collapse, surprise contenders emerge, and injuries and controversy aplenty around the league.
So here is the mid season report card on each of the four teams in our beloved AFC North division, and what the implications for the second half of the season look like.
Baltimore Ravens (6-2):
Where they stand: 1st place in AFCN (2-1 v AFC North), 1st place in AFC (6-2 v AFC)
Offensive Ranks: 348 ypg (14th overall). 229.2 passing (15th), 118.8 rushing (11th), 21.9 ppg (15th)
Defensive Ranks: 310.8 ypg (9th overall). 206 passing (9th). 104.8 rushing (13th), 17.4 ppg (6th)
Joe Flacco - 1917 yards, 12 touchdowns, 6 interceptions
Anquan Boldin - 40 receptions, 546 yards, 5 touchdowns
Haloti Ngata - 43 tackles (32 solo) 5 sacks
A Year Ago:
2009 Final Ranks: Offense: 13th Overall (18th pass, 5th rush) Defense: 3rd Overall (8th pass, 5th rush)
The Baltimore Ravens were 4-4 at the halfway point last season, slumping to 1-4 in their last 5 games after starting red hot at 3-0. They would go on to be 5-3 in the second half of the season and reach the playoffs as a Wildcard contender and ending up the most successful AFC North team for the 2009 season, capping it with a huge wildcard round victory over the New England Patriots, before losing in the Divisional round.
Second Half Outlook:
The Ravens are in a solid position. 6-2 through 8 games is a solid start no matter which division you are in. The important part now is for the Ravens to shake off the defensive inconsistencies and power into a playoff run. They got off to a good start with the win over Miami. Their remaining schedule is favorable, with 4 home games (TB, PIT, NO, CIN) and 4 away games (ATL, CAR, HOU, CLE) against an opposing schedule who's combined record is 33-32(.507).
The optimist would point to the fact the Ravens are 6-2 in the conference, and have already tied up some potential key tie breakers with wins over Pittsburgh, Miami and the New York Jets.
The pessimist would point to the Ravens schedule. They have Atlanta, Tampa Bay and New Orleans, three tough and winning teams in the NFC conference. They would also point to 3 second half rematches against AFC North Rivals.
The Ravens are what most of us expected them to be, in contention at the mid point of the season. ESPN ranked them the Number One team in the league in the most recent Power Rankings. Well deserved really. The only embarrassing loss on the tally so far is being defeated by the Cincinnati Bengals, who are all but mathematically out of contention. The Ravens are set up for a postseason run barring a mid season meltdown. Their schedule is slightly more difficult than the Steelers, and the Week 13 match up could be a deciding factor in who is crowned Division champ.
Ravens finish the season out 5-3, setting them up with an 11-5 record to go into the playoffs as a Wildcard.
Pittsburgh Steelers (6-2):
Where they stand: 2nd place in AFCN (2-1 v AFC North), 3rd place in AFC (4-1 v AFC)
Offensive Ranks: 299.6ypg (28th overall). 181.9 passing (27th) 117.8 rushing (12th) 21.8 ppg (16th)
Defensive Ranks: 298.2 (4th overall). 240.0 passing (24th) 58.2 rushing (1st) 15.4ppg (1st)
Rashard Mendenhall - 702 rushing yeards, 7 touchdowns
Mike Wallace - 22 receptions, 507 yards, 5 touchdowns, 23.0 yards per catch
Lawrence Timmons - 78 tackles (59 solo), 3 sacks, 2 interceptions, 1 forced fumble
A Year Ago:
2009 Final Ranks: Offense: 7th Overall (9th pass, 19th rush) Defense: 5th Overall (16th pass, 3rd rush)
The Pittsburgh Steelers are in the same position as last year, 6-2. Last year they came off the bye to dominate the previously unbeaten Denver Broncos to improve to 6-2 in what was a 5 game winning streak. The Steelers were being touted as the best in the league and were playing like it. However, this team would lose safety Troy Polamalu and Aaron Smith, and then things got pear shaped. The Steelers pass defense crumbled in the second half of the season, and the Steelers would manage just a 3-5 record the rest of the way, losing 5 straight before winning the final three of the season. It was really a "what if?" type of season.
Second Half Outlook:
The Steelers, much like the Ravens, have set themselves up well for the second half of the Playoff race. The last few weeks have looked inconsistent against Miami, New Orleans and Cincinnati, and the Steelers likewise need to shake off some rust and start playing more complete games. The Steelers remaining schedule is 5 home games (NE, OAK, CIN, NYJ, CAR) and 3 away games (BUF, BAL, CLE) with an opposing schedule who is a combined 29-36(.446).
The optimist would point to the schedule. If we can just win our 5 home games that would set us up at 10-6 at worst, plus Buffalo and Cleveland should be relatively easy wins on the road.
The pessimist would point to games against New England, New York and Baltimore, who are all 6 win teams at this junction as well. The pessimist would also point to our recent struggles in closing out games the last few weeks and fear a second half meltdown similar to 2009.
The Steelers are hitting some bumps in the road yes, but there is no reason to panic. Our schedule is very favorable and the team has the ability to excel in all three areas of the game. The secondary gives up a lot of passing yardage, 1. Because of the insanely good run defense and 2. We prefer to keep opposing offenses in front of us to avoid the big play. This team has the depth built for a serious playoff push, whether we manage to beat out Baltimore for the division is yet to be seen, but lets worry about that closer to seasons end. This is a playoff calibre team.
Steelers close out the season 6-2, finishing with a 12-4 record and the AFC North Division crown, poised for a shot at the Superbowl.
Cleveland Browns (3-5):
Where they stand: 3rd place in AFCN (1-2 v AFC North), 13th place in AFC (2-3 v AFC)
Offensive Ranks: 306.0 ypg (25th overall). 188.8 passing (25th) 117.2 rushing (13th) 19.0 ppg (25th)
Defensive Ranks: 346.4 ypg (22nd overall). 240.5 passing (25th) 105.9 rushing (15th) 19.5 ppg (11th)
Peyton Hillis - 644 yards rushing, 229 yards receiving, 8 total touchdowns
Colt McCoy - 2-1 as a starter, 529 yards passing, Passer rating of 83.5
Scott Fujita - 50 tackles (35 solo), 3.5 sacks, 1 interception
A Year Ago:
2009 Final Ranks: Offense: 32nd Overall (32nd pass, 8th rush) Defense: 31st Overall (29th pass, 28th rush)
The Browns were no doubt one of the leagues worst teams last season, and at the halfway mark were an abysmal 1-7 with their only victory being a 6-3 defeat of the hapless Bills, who werent a whole lot better. They boasted the worst Passing attack in the league, and resorted to running the football as a means of not embarassing themselves any further with Derek Anderson or Brady Quinn. The Browns would win their last four games of the season to go 5-11 and save Eric Mangini's job.
Second Half Outlook:
It may have paid off as things are looking up for the Browns. The are hot at the moment, outscoring the New Orleans Saints and New England Patriots by a combined 65-31 over their last two weeks, who were both considered among the better teams in the league (The Patriots were also the consensus #1 pick in Power Rankings). Theyve proved they dont mind being David vs Goliath in their games. Should they continue this surge in a home game against the New York Jets, then a run to a possible post season berth is not out of the question. The remaining schedule for the Browns consists of 4 home games (NYJ, CAR, BAL, PIT) and 4 road games (JAX, MIA, BUF, CIN) with a combined opponents record of 29-35(.453).
The optimist would look at the schedule and see some very winnable games, including all four on the road. The optimist would also be drunk as a skunk off the teams previous two wins and the fashion in which they were done.
The pessimist would look at the Browns road record this season, 1-3, and despite the four road teams being a combined 10-22(.313), would worry about whether the Browns can win games on the road in which they will be considered the favorites against.
The Browns started slow with their juggling of the Quarterback position, however since Colt McCoy has stepped in, the offense is more stable and efficient, and the McCoy is doing a brilliant job in a short passing style of offense to compliment the power running of Peyton Hillis. This season really relies heavily on Hillis's ability to keep healthy. They do not have another quality running back behind him, and things could derail very fast if forced to throw the ball a lot. They have a chance to be big spoilers this season in the AFC, but looking at how powerful the AFC conference is this season, I find it hard to think anything other than winning out will be enough to make the playoffs after a 3-5 start. They are playing their nuts off for Eric Mangini though, and he should keep his job next season.
The Browns play spoilers to more than one team, and finish out the year 5-3, finishing the year 8-8, narrowly missing a winning season and the playoffs.
Where they stand: 4th place in AFCN (1-2 v AFC North), 14th in AFC (1-4 v AFC)
Offensive Ranks: 345.0 ypg (15th overall). 249.9 passing (6th) 95.1 rushing (22nd) 20.9 ppg (17th)
Defensive Ranks: 338.5 ypg (18th overall). 217.8 passing (17th) 120.8 rushing (23rd) 23.8 ppg (25th)
Terrell Owens - 55 catches, 770 yards, 7 touchdowns
A Year Ago:
2009 Final Ranks: Offense: 24th Overall (26th pass, 9th rush) Defense: 4th Overall (6th pass, 7th rush)
Where has that running game and defense disappeared to? The aspects that made Cincinnati such a contender last season has all but vanished. Last year at this point in the season, the Bengals had just beaten the Ravens for a second time to go 6-2 and were in full control of their own destiny. They had previously beaten Pittsburgh to win that tie breaker, and if not for a week one hail mary going against them, they would have been 7-1. The Bengals would win four of the next eight before losing back to back games against the New York Jets to choke in the playoffs once again.
Second Half Outlook:
The Bengals have virtually nothing to play for now this season other than a bit of pride, and for some of them, they will lay to save their own ass. Marvin Lewis could well be on the out if this run continues, and Carson Palmer is also playing to show he is still a long term option at Quarterback. Cedric Benson needs to prove he wasnt just a one hit wonder, and the Wide Receiver tandem of T.O and Ochocinco need to show they can coexist, as you could see how aggravated Ochocinco was getting shut out of the game against the Steelers and watching T.O steal the limelight in the almost come from behind loss.
The Bengals remaining schedule consists of 4 home games (BUF, NO, CLE, SD) and 4 away games (IND, NYJ, PIT, BAL) for an overall upcoming opponents record of 36-30(.545) which is the most difficult run to the finish for any of the AFC North teams in the second half of the year. The Bengals failed to show up against a first place schedule this season.
The drunk and stoned optimistic Cincy fan will point to every game being an "Any Given Sunday" game, and simply hope for the best.
The wounded and hiding pessimistic Bengals fan has likely stopped watching already this season, and realize that all but one of the teams on the remaining schedule have a chance to make the playoffs, and that they could also be the first team to lose to the winless Buffalo Bills in two weeks time.
This Bengals team is hurting. Both mentally and physically. Perhaps T.O and Ochocinco should realise that they are paid in the offseason to work out and practice with the team, not make reality TV shows. Nothing is guaranteed in this world, and the Bengals have played this season like they expected to get a lot of results without much work. The offseason acquisition T.O has been a success, however the best players from last season have all but disappeared. The team is floundering and has only themselves to blame for a poor performance this season.
The Bengals lose 6-8 of their last games, possible victories could be Buffalo and Cleveland, other than that, there is not much hope on the schedule remaining. The Steelers and Ravens will hope that the Bengals show a little pride and upset other AFC contenders the Colts, Chargers and Jets, but I wouldnt bet on it.
All-AFC North Squad: Starter : Back Up
Quarterback(2): Ben Roethlisberger (PIT): Joe Flacco (BAL)
Running Back(2): Peyton Hillis (CLE) : Rashard Mendenhall (PIT)
Fullback(1): Lawrence Vickers (CLE)
Wide Receiver(4): Terrell Owens (CIN) : Anquan Boldin (BAL) : Mike Wallace (PIT) : Hines Ward (PIT)
Defensive End(2): Haloti Ngata (BAL) : Aaron Smith (PIT)
Safety(2): Troy Polamalu (PIT) : Ed Reed (BAL)
AFC North Pro Bowlers:
PIT: Rashard Mendenhall, Casey Hampton, James Harrison, Lamarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons, Troy Polamalu
BAL: Anquan Boldin, Michael Oher, Haloti Ngata,
CIN: Terrell Owens, Leon Hall
CLE: Peyton Hillis, Joe Thomas, Alex Mack, Lawrence Vickers
That was just a bit of fun there at the end, a little bias in some areas, but which fan isnt I suppose. The Pro Bowlers were who I have personally voted for this season so far.
Thanks again to all those who have made it worth writing the AFC North Round Ups for this season. I still plan on seeing it through all the way to the Superbowl, which hopefully, thats what it will come too