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State of the AFC North: Week 1

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It was interesting times for the AFC North during this season's openers. After Cleveland and then Pittsburgh went down in defeat on Sunday, it was guaranteed only one AFC North team would emerge a winner from Week One, as Cincinnatti and Baltimore were duking it out on Monday Night Football. So let’s take a look at the three games in the order they were played to give us a snapshot of Week 1.

Philadelphia Eagles at Cleveland Browns

Final Score: Eagles 17, Browns 16

This particular matchup dwarfed all those to follow in one category: interceptions. In QB Brandon Weeden’s "Welcome to the NFL" party, Eagles SS Kurt Coleman and CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie both helped themselves to passes meant for Weeden’s teammates. (Talk about greedy—each of them took two!)

Weeden’s teammates weren’t helping matters either, demonstrating the lamentable tendencies towards dropping passes they had shown in the preseason. However, in the end the fault for the game outcome has to rest mainly on Weeden’s shoulders. Because he was bad. Not just bad, but historically bad. He was 0 for 9 (unless you count the three interceptions as completions) in passes of more than 10 yards.

It isn’t like the Eagles offense didn’t try to help out, either. QB Michael Vick was equally generous with the ball, throwing four picks of his own. This was even more historically bad for the Eagles (who actually have some history before 2002.) According to Elias, this was the most interceptions in a season opener by an Eagles QB since 1941.

This festival of offensive incompetence was finally won, by one point, at 1:23 on the play clock, when Vick actually managed to connect with one of his own receivers in the end zone. Weeden threw one parting shot at 1:12, which was, naturally, intercepted.

The Takeaway:

"Takeaway" seems an unkind word to use under the circumstances. But the correlary to the incompetence of the offense is the great play of both defenses. This is especially heartening for the Browns, who suffered a number of injuries to crucial defensive players in the preseason. According to ESPN Stats and Information, Vick was "under duress or hit" 19 times during the game. This, not surprisingly, impaired his accuracy—Vick was 1 of 16 for 35 yards and an interception during these dropbacks. If defense wins championships, the Browns are going to the Super Bowl! (The only problem with this theory is the obvious need for the offense to stop giving back what the defense taketh away. Wise words for us all.)

Pittsburgh Steelers at Denver Broncos

Final Score: Steelers 19 Broncos 31

The Steelers had hoped to spoil Peyton Manning’s "Welcome Back to the NFL" party. The Steelers’ game plan was apparently to keep Manning off the field, just in case he was as good as ever. Manning didn’t enjoy it much, either: "Roethlisberger was awesome on third down," Manning said of Pittsburgh's 11-of-19 conversion rate. "Wasn't much fun sitting on the bench there all night."

It was an excellent plan, as it turned out, because Manning, after loosing himself from the shackles of any semblance of interference by the coaching staff when he went to the no-huddle, was the surgical carver-upper of defenses of old, much to the distress of the AFC West, I’m guessing. Manning threw his 400th career touchdown pass during a :36 second drive in the third quarter.

Last season’s opener for the Steelers, The Game Which Lives in Infamy, was not nearly as close as the 35-7 score would indicate. This game, despite the awesomeness of Manning, the occasional cases of dropsy by various of the Steelers receivers at crucial moments, the loss of two fifths of the starting offensive line for over half the game, and the absence of James Harrison and Ryan Clark for the entire game, was much closer than it appears.

Neither team scored in the first quarter. The Steelers drew first blood in the second quarter, and led the game until 5:41 in the third quarter. They had the ball and the opportunity to win the game with the score at 19-25 and three minutes left in the game. This was a tailor-made situation for a patented Ben Roethlisberger comeback, but alas, he threw the ball to the wrong colored jersey—the first Pittsburgh turnover in the game—and that was that.

The Takeaway:

If good defense combined with surgical offense wins championships, the Broncos are going to win the Super Bowl this year, assuming everyone (and most especially Peyton Manning) stays healthy and continues to play the way they did on Sunday.

But what of the Steelers? Are they doomed to a season of futility, never quite being good enough? Fortunately, although the schedule looks tough, the Steelers don’t have to play Peyton in Denver again. And given how tantalizingly close they were to pulling out a win, and with a healthy James Harrison and a bit better play from the O line (read, David DeCastro at RG instead of Doug Legursky,) they just might pull off an upset in the AFC Championship Game.

But there are a lot of games to get to that point, for both teams, and a great deal can go wrong in the meantime. For now, the Steelers’ play revealed plenty of stuff left to work on, but honestly they looked an awful lot better than they did in last year’s season opener.

Cincinnati Bengals at Baltimore Ravens

Final Score: Bengals 13, Ravens 44

Monday night’s game was the Joe Flacco Show. Flacco was 21 of 29 attempts for 299 yards, a touchdown, and no interceptions. (The Ravens never turned the ball over, although they fumbled it a few times.) Andy Dalton, on the other hand, was 22 of 37 for 221 yards, no touchdowns, and one interception.

Ray Rice, despite his new contract, continues to be a stalwart of the offense, with 10 rushing attempts for 6.8 yards per attempt and two touchdowns, along with three receptions for 25 yards. TE Dennis Pitta and WR Anquan Boldin both had a touchdown grab as well, and the new kicker Justin Tucker was 3/3 on field goals.

In the meantime, WR Andrew Hawkins was the top producer for the Bengals, with eight receptions for 86 yards. The Law Firm, aka Ben-Jarvus Green-Ellis, was a head-scratcher. Why, when he was producing so well, (18 attempts at an average of 5 yards per pop and the Bengals’ sole TD) was he not used more in the game?

The Bengals’ defense did manage to get to Flacco for three sacks, two of them by Geno Atkins. The Ravens’ D returned the favor, with interest, with four sacks of Andy Dalton. Old Man River himself, Ed Reed, had about his billionth interception in his career, which along with a fumble forced by geriatric Ray Lewis and adroitly recovered by Lardarius Webb, translated into two more touchdowns for the Ravens. (Reed’s return made him the NFL's all-time leader in interception return yards.)

The Takeaway:

I guess the predictions of the Bengals being the class of the AFC North this season have to be put to one side for the moment. I predict Joe Flacco will use the word "elite" in reference to himself, possibly in the third person, approximately 14,000 times this week.

Of course, sometimes what happens in Week One stays in Week One. But something tells me the Ravens aren’t likely to lay an egg against the Eagles next week. I also suspect the Cincinnati game at Cleveland is going to be a slugfest which the Bengals will win. But as always, the NFL season is nothing if not unpredictable.

Final Random Bit of News:

Every NFL game during Week 1 honored Art Modell, except for the Cleveland game. This was by request of the Modell family, who worried about what the response from Cleveland fans might be. Frankly, they were right to worry. Modell lied to Cleveland, moved the team anyhow, and not terribly surprisingly, this still doesn't sit well with Cleveland fans. I don't wish to take away from all the great things Modell did for the league, and for that matter for Cleveland, but imagine how people would feel about the Rooneys if they moved the Steelers to LA, for instance, and you have to have some sympathy for the long-suffering folks up north.

That's my view of the AFC North for this week. If you enjoyed it, join me next week for more rambling commentary and snarky remarks.