Older AFCE

Older AFCE

State of the State…or something

State of the State…or something
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Your team has no identity.

This time of year, particularly in hotly-contested election years, we’re forced to listen to endless amounts of media-driven babble, most of it centering around ill-founded criticisms of your candidate, his candidate, and her candidate.  It’s safe to say, based on recent statistical data concerning voter apathy, that the majority of you have no idea who these people are, and will simply support your candidate(s) based on party affiliation and amount of stumping power.

Really, are NFL fans any different?

After all, the league’s schedule has officially reached its halfway point, and have our opinions of our respective favorites changed?  Have the teams changed? Are they in a better position to make a playoff run in the second half?  Are we any more informed about the other teams in the NFL, let alone the AFC North?

Do we care?

Here’s a look back at the first half in the AFC North, complete with some actual comments and wisdom from these here boards, y’all.

Enjoy.

Baltimore Ravens

At the season’s outset, the world was held in sway by the specter of former running back Ray Rice slugging his wife/girlfriend/whatever in an elevator.  Which apparently contradicted Rice’s own account of slugging his wife/girlfriend/whatever, because it elicited a vitriolic response from all corners, including those of his own team and administration.

“Rice is a scumbag.  That video shows everyone what they didn’t know, and he deserves to be punished more.”

Forgive me if I’m still confused about what actually changed in the face of the “new” video evidence.  The NFL and the Ravens certainly have much to atone for, particularly for the way they handled their case and player, but the incessant piling on Rice after judgement had been rendered simply reeks of caving to public opinion and presents both entities as sanctimonious and craven all at once.  As a result, the Ravens were, before a single snap had been taken, unceremoniously dismissed and buried by the rest of the NFL and its fans.

Then a funny thing happened.  The Ravens began to play football.  And play it pretty well.

Currently sporting a 5-3 record, the Ravens have been in the midst of remaking their roster after 2012’s Super Bowl win, ruthlessly dumping older players and salaries in an abbreviated effort to get younger and remain relevant simultaneously, and it appears to be working.  They’ll most likely finish above .500 this season, which marked the “low point” of the John Harbaugh era in Baltimore after last season’s lackluster campaign.  This year, the team has clearly started to gain focus, as they’ve proven to be a force against the weaker teams (Atlanta, Tampa Bay) and remained competitive in their losses (Indianapolis, Cincinnati).  Quarterback Joe Flacco is posting career highs in offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak’s offense, and the defense has played very well, despite some obvious warts in the secondary.  This team still isn’t a finished product, which should make them entertaining to watch down the stretch.

Cleveland Browns

The Browns entered the season with a great deal of optimism, most of which revolved around their offseason and new first round rookie experiment, controversial quarterback Johnny “Football” Manziel.  It’s worth noting that Manziel has yet to take a meaningful snap this season with the exception of a wideout “masquerade” play that was ultimately called back due to a formation penalty.

“Every single time Johnny Football has started with the first stringers, he’s thrown a 40 yard completion the first play.”

Preseason hype can be a cruel thing, especially when the subject displays such a shocking lack of maturity.  Manziel may well get his time to shine in the NFL, but it may not be in a Browns uniform.

But let’s not bog ourselves down with minutiae.  The Browns have played very well in stretches, as their talent base is solid enough to rival any team in the NFL.  Their biggest problem appears to be a lack of focus, and more damaging, a lack of identity.  Their most successful games have occurred when they’ve committed to using their bruising offensive line to run the football and eat up valuable time for the opposition.  They’ve also been effective throwing the ball, but without a consistent target, teams have been able to load up the secondary and stymie them, which should have led to running the ball more…

You get the idea.

This team has most of the pieces in place to become a viable threat for several years, but they have to establish consistency in at least one area, and until they’re able to do so, they won’t get far.  Honorable mention to quarterback Brian Hoyer, who’s been able to silence the Manziel chatter and play well.

Cincinnati Bengals

Schizophrenia, thy name is the Bengals.

If we’ve learned anything about the preseason favorites to win the division and possibly contend for a Super Bowl, it’s that they simply aren’t capable of establishing a consistent streak.  They’ve been all over the place, producing breath-taking, stat-defying wins from start to finish, and jaw-dropping awfulness within the course of two consecutive Sundays.

“Just wait until you play the Bengals, your running game will look like world beaters.”

Indeed, the Bengals’ biggest issue this season has been defending the run.  With all-pro linebacker Vontaze Burfict a candidate for Most-Injured-and-Not-Learning-From-It-Player of the Year, his team is clearly suffering from it, and he’ll need to find a redemptive balance at some point if this team is truly going to be a force come playoff time.

Meanwhile, the offense, despite some inexplicable (and fortunately brief) struggles, keeps rolling along.  Quarterback Andy Dalton has been able to offset some erratic play with a single-minded determination to win, as evidenced by his increase in rushing plays, planned or otherwise.  The Bengals are surviving despite the temporary loss of standout wideout A.J. Green, whose puzzling toe injury is supposedly healed enough for him to factor into the second half of the season.  The running game hasn’t been as effective as expected, but providing depth behind starter Giovani Bernard with rookie Jeremy Hill has proven to be a master stroke, as Hill has been more than adequate as a change of pace from the shifty and oft-injured Bernard.

This team can get hot and take it all, or fail miserably at any time.  They’re still a real factor to take the division and capture a top seed.

But who the hell knows what they’ll do?

Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers are clearly the most baffling of our esteemed AFC North bunch, as they’re fully capable of dropping tons of points and yards in bursts, yet allowing the same in humiliating fashion to their opponents.

“The main problem is the team needs tore apart and rebuilt. They’re in cap hell so it’s going to be hard to get guys in there.”

That’s one take.  And boy, are there several others.  Although the naysayers, critics and bridge-jumpers have quieted down considerably in the wake of the Steelers’ resounding win over the Colts this past Sunday, there remain oodles of doubt in the current roster.  They’ve underachieved and overachieved greatly in the same drive, let alone in quarters or entire games.  There’s an unpredictable element to the Steelers that seems to indicate that they’re capable of anything at any time, including dizzying success and stupifying failure.

Even when factoring in the standout seasons being delivered by running back Le’Veon Bell, wideout Antonio Brown, and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, the offense has sputtered at inopportune times finding alternative options.  Newly-discovered wideout Martavis Bryant may very well overtake starter Markus Wheaton, perhaps as soon as this Sunday, because Wheaton has been underwhelming despite showing real promise early.  The Steelers still seem content to trot out the diminutive Dri Archer, whose purpose has yet to be discovered in the scheme of offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s offense, for a few nail-biting plays each game.  And without the defense producing a pass rush until recently, the Steelers have looked helpless trying to stop the run, as evidenced by their dismantling by the Browns a few weeks ago, and the secondary remains a work in progress, as one-time starter Cortez Allen has drastically underachieved.

There’s a sense that they’ve hit their stride and can begin to establish themselves as an AFC power again – 522 passing yards and six touchdowns against one of the better teams in the AFC will do that – but the onus is on the Steelers to show consistency, and to trust their young players to continue growing in their current system.

*   *   *   *   *

Conclusion?  I have none.  This division is as wide open as it’s ever been, with all four teams making a possible claim to the division crown, and actually having the justification for it.

Makes more sense than researching your local candidates, huh?

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