The AFC North has long been recognized as the pinnacle of the NFL when it comes to both it’s fierce competition, as well as being a representation of how football should be played.
If Week One was any indication, that reputation is still very much alive. The Pittsburgh Steelers, Cincinnati Bengals, and Baltimore Ravens all got off to a good start to their respective 2016 campaigns by notching an opening week win. The Cleveland Browns... well they didn’t do any of that. Regardless, let’s take a look at how week one shook out in a bit more detail, shall we?
Starting out with the Ravens, the first game against Buffalo felt like so much more than another regular season tilt against an AFC foe. Instead, this game felt like a therapy session for Ravens fans who desperately needed it after a nightmarish 2015 season. The offense got off to a relatively hot start with Joe Flacco connecting on deep balls to several different receivers, including Breshad Perriman who confirmed his existence in beautiful fashion with a leaping 35-yard reception. Mike Wallace also made his presence known with a 66-yard touchdown catch and a few first down conversions during his debut for the club.
However, the real story of this game was the performance by the Ravens defense. After building a deservedly maligned defense in 2015, the Ravens front office made a few moves throughout the offseason that look to be paying dividends for defensive coordinator Dean Pees’ unit. The first is the most obvious; bringing in safety Eric Weddle through free agency. Weddle played well in his first game against both the pass and the run, while also helping get the defense organized. Another move that didn’t get a lot of publicity was the re-signing of cornerback Shareece Wright. Wright was solid in coverage, but made his presence known at the line of scrimmage, racking up multiple tackles for loss. Tyrod Taylor only threw for 111 yards, and a less mobile quarterback wouldn’t have even had that many considering how often Taylor got away from a nearby pass rusher when they had him dead-to-rights. All in all, this was an encouraging week one win that reminded me of a style of Ravens football that I missed seeing every week.
Moving on, the Cincinnati Bengals played one of the better games of the weekend against the New York Jets. It seemed that every single time NFL Redzone cut back to this game, the lead had changed or A.J. Green had sent Darrelle Revis back to the stone age (Or both). For all the talk of his lack of targets as well as the loss of offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton played very well in this game. He’ll need to play to this level week in and week out to compete in this division, which brings us to another team that got it done in opening week.
That of course would be the Pittsburgh Steelers, who could probably throw a jersey and some pads onto a chihuahua and still find a way to get 100 yards receiving and a touchdown out of it. Their Monday night tilt against Washington was a one-sided affair and would’ve likely been a snoozer if not for some very exciting play calling by Todd Haley and equally impressive execution by Ben Roethlisberger and company. The Steelers are widely considered to be the favorite in the AFC North this year, and while their defense looks like it could still be a bit behind the pack, their offense might just be enough to make up for it. Le’Veon Bell and Ladarius Green are still set to return this season, which will only add more firepower to a unit that managed to put up 38 points without them. Keep an eye on emerging rookie slot receiver Eli Rogers who delivered on an offseason filled with praise by performing well in his first game.
Finally, we come to the Cleveland Browns who are largely seen as an afterthought in this division, as well as in contention for the first overall pick in the 2017 draft. Week One was every bit the disaster that it had the potential to be for them for multiple reasons. The first reason is that their starting quarterback Robert Griffin III had a poor performance, and was promptly placed on injured reserve following the game with a shoulder injury. However, what made this game perhaps even worse for them had to do with what the other team’s signal caller did in the game. The Browns deliberately passed on Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz due to internal belief that Wentz would never develop into a top-20 NFL passer. While it was only one game, the Browns top brass couldn’t have felt good watching Wentz air it out on them for 278 yards and a pair of scores in a lopsided win for Philadelphia. We already knew the Browns won’t be going to the playoffs this season, but it’s hard not to feel for a fanbase who has had to endure a generation of ineptitude and will likely have to go through another season of it.
Speaking of the Browns, they’re the next team the Ravens will be facing. Next Sunday in Cleveland, Josh McCown will get under center to face the purple and black, which scares me more than it probably should. I know, I know, it seems irrational. However, McCown has torched the Ravens in his last two starts against them. Here’s hoping that new look defense that I touched on earlier shows up next week in First Energy Stadium. If they do, the Ravens might be looking at a 2-0 start.