AFC North Week 4 Recap

AFC North Week 4 Recap
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The Bengals pressured the Chiefs into seven field goals
Cleveland Browns @ San Diego Chargers
You can read the detailed recap here.

Kansas City Chiefs @ Cincinnati Bengals 

The Bengals solidified their status as one of NFLs best teams after taking out the surprisingly struggling Chiefs 36-21. They were able to do it with a balanced offensive attack, much to the dismay of  most fantasy owners. Jeremy Hill was the beneficiary with an extremely productive 9 carries for 40 yards and 3 touchdowns. Andy Dalton continued his incredible start to the 2015 season, and has arguably been the best quarterback in the AFC if not the NFL in both wins and productivity.  The Bengals won with big plays through the air, and finishing on the ground. They also sealed the game with a fumble recovery deep in KC territory, leading to a 18 point 3-score game with 4:50 to play.
Lowlights: Cincinnati gave up 461 yards to the Chiefs, but luckily the Chiefs turned potential touchdown drives into SEVEN field goals after long time-consuming drives (five ending between the 5 and 23 yard line).  Another team with that kind of offensive success could have turned FGs into TDs, making this a close contest, if not a Bengals loss.  Also, kicker Mike Nugent has to be a concern as he missed his second field goal in the last three attempts, adding to the extra point he had blocked in week one.
Highlights: The Bengals defense did have some say in keeping KC to field goals.  They forced KC into passing situations and sacked Chiefs’ quarterback Alex Smith 5 times (although it’s par for the course as he has now been sacked 19 times in four games).  It was a classic bend-but-don’t-break effort. On offense, the Bengals big differentiator so far in 2015 has been their ability to finish drives with big demoralizing plays and touchdowns, which was no different on Sunday.  After their five TD effort, they now have 16 TDs and only five field goal attempts on the year, an extremely impressive ratio.
Overall, the Bengals offense again looked solid against a team that was expected to pressure Andy Dalton into mistakes.  Dalton has just one interception and nine touchdown passes. It doesn’t hurt that he has one of the best performing offensive lines in the NFL after a quarter of a season (two sacks against). Although the Bengals deservedly are in everyone’s top two in the AFC, they do have a challenge over the next three games (vs Seahawks, @ Bills, @ Steelers) before hosting the Browns on a short week.  If they can beat the Steelers and go 2-1 or better in that stretch heading into the Browns game,  they may lock up the AFC North in record time.  If lose to the Steelers, and drop at least 2, the North is still anyone’s division, and pressure will mount going into the intrastate matchup.
Next up, the Bengals host the extremely tough but offensively challenged Seahawks.

Baltimore Ravens @ Pittsburgh Steelers

This contest seems like it was played weeks ago, so game meaning will be discussed rather than game details.  I think the players and coaching staffs would agree that it wasn’t exactly a game they would like to remember regardless of who won.  The game ended in overtime with the Ravens somehow prevailing 23-20.
What the win means to the Ravens: 
This was essentially a must-win for Baltimore.  A loss would have dropped them to 0-4 (all AFC losses), and 0-2 in the division. If 10-6 is the standard to make the playoffs, they would be forced to go 10-2 in their last 12 games. Even if 9-7 makes the playoffs, 0-2 in-division and 0-4  in-conference would force a 10-6 record considering the tiebreaker issues the record would have created.
The win gives the team hope. When looking at the schedule during the preseason, most would have given the Ravens a 2-2 record to this point considering road games in Denver and in Pittsburgh after a short week. The Ravens will essentially need to find one unpredicted win over the next 12 games to keep inline with expectations. What makes their position even more favorable, is that ONLY FOUR AFC TEAMS HAVE A WINNING RECORD. This is a staggering stat that nobody could have predicted.
That said, they barely beat a depleted Steelers team led by a quarterback who had only a few solo practices with the starting unit. The Ravens are also depleted, and added to the infirmary list by losing  their top wide receiver (5 weeks) and top slot receiver (season-ending), and both happen to share return duties.  The already thin and inexperienced WR corps just officially became a group of no-namers and hasn’t beens. The next five weeks will show what this group is made of or isn’t made of.
Whether or not the Ravens will be able to get their season back on track starts with their next two games: at home versus the Browns, and on the road against the struggling 49ers before heading to Arizona. The Cardinals game will again be one of those preseason unexpected and unpredicted wins. If they can get out of the next three games with a 3-4 record or better, the Ravens may still have a shot. If they are 2-5 or worse, Ravens fans may be looking at the 2016 free agents and draft lists.

What the loss means to the Steelers:
This certainly was not a must-win, and with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger out, it was not a sure win; but with the way the game unfolded, it was definitely disappointing to the Steelers that they didn’t win. They had a chance to bury their divisional rivals and stay within a game of the Bengals (if not share the lead) after holding a 20-7 3rd quarter advantage. The loss put the Steelers in a 5-team pile at 2-2 instead of being one of five teams with a winning record in the AFC.
The good news is that, minus their quarterback, the Steelers will now have a full and healthy group at the offensive skill position, and backup quarterback Mike Vick will have 11 days to practice with the 1st team in what is basically a bye week. Vick did show signs of confidence in the first half, but seemed to either lose his focus, or started to telegraph his plays due to a limited playbook. He can only get better, and one can only assume that his kicker, offensive coordinator, and head coach will help him out a little more than they did this past Thursday.  Vick still possesses many of the physical tools a QB needs to have success in the NFL.
A confident Vick will be essential while the Steelers work their way through the 2nd half of the most brutal opening eight games in the NFL. Next up is the explosive but bipolar Chargers offense in San Diego, followed by a tough game at home against the Cardinals, then against KC in always tough Arrowhead Stadium, and ending at home against the red hot Bengals. Big Ben may return after week eight, but most likely right before their bye week against the Browns. On paper, the week 11 bye for the Steelers looked to be perfect for a Thanksgiving break, but having a bye between weeks 4 and 8 would have given Big Ben an extra start in 2015.
If the Steelers can hover at .500 or better before Ben’s return, they should have a good shot at the playoffs. Saying that, and speaking the obvious, the earlier he can return (and return at 90-100%) the better the Steelers chances.


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