Idle Chatter – The weakening AFC North division

Will the fourth and 1 furor that Pat Shurmur started ever die?

Pat McManamon: Sure. As soon as the next perplexing Browns play, call or event. This team has made drama an art form. Everyone last season thought Peyton Hillis was to blame, but it’s continued this season. From strange play calls against the Eagles to that third-and-1 pass against the Giants to the fourth-and-1 pass in Indianapolis. Every week it’s something. Or at least it seems like it.
Zac Jackson: As stated above, the Browns are usually only a Sunday away from the next strange play, decision — or both. Shurmur earned a reputation as a conservative and less-than-confident game manager as a rookie coach a year ago, and little has happened this year to change that. Alex Smith remains a secret weapon, perhaps being saved for a late-game goal line situation. Every short-yardage play remains a mystery. It’s tough on that sideline and even tougher with millions of armchair quarterbacks on Twitter. 

Did the Steelers make a statement in Cincinnati?

McManamon: Don’t they always? Pittsburgh showed toughness and resiliency. And it showed dependence on a proven system can work. How else to explain Jonathan Dwyer running for 122 yards. Pittsburgh looked vulnerable in this game, and they were down 14-3. But a freak turnover changed momentum, and Pittsburgh grabbed it. When the Steelers do that, they don’t usually let go — and Sunday night they figuratively slugged the Bengals in the mouth. Proving once again that it’s never wise to count Pittsburgh out until they are actually out.
Jackson: Yes — that the Bengals stink. Pittsburgh is old, vulnerable and was sloppy, and the Bengals just gradually folded. Did the Steelers make plays? Yes. Do the Steelers always circle the wagons and make the clutch plays? Almost always, yes. That game was much more about the Bengals being less than excellent in any one area and less about the Steelers turning in an  A-plus, season-swinging performance. They still might be there in the end; what we know now is that the Browns are currently the only thing keeping the floundering Bengals out of the basement. 
Andy Dalton threw for 105 yards against the Steelers and has 10 interceptions, one in each game. Is there a problem?

McManamon: Yes. He’s throwing too many interceptions. And against Pittsburgh he didn’t get the ball to A.J. Green. Cincinnati now can expect teams to use whatever coverage the Steelers used that turned out to be so effective. Dalton has thrown an interception in every Bengals game and has 10 after throwing 13 all of last season. Cincinnati’s running game is not strong, so it needs Dalton to play better if it has any hope of overcoming that thee-game losing streak.
Jackson: The Bengals have no flow. There’s no pop in the running game. There’s no commitment to either force-feeding A.J. Green or using him as a decoy. Jermaine Gresham, too, is a sometimes contributor. Dalton has forced a few passes, Jay Gruden has lost a few strategy battles and it’s become a big old mess. Most alarming probably is Dalton’s new habit of throwing back-breaking interceptions, mostly because a quarterback question will break a team quickly. This bye week came at a great time. The Bengals will come back better — in many ways, they have nowhere to go but up.
When did the AFC North become a weak division?

McManamon: Evidently this past offseason. One of four teams is above .500, and that team has major issues. Perhaps we should have seen this coming since the division is playing the NFC East. The other main problem is the division’s two bullies — Baltimore and Pittsburgh — are aging quickly. The shenanigans of last week meant that Pittsburgh still has a chance, Cincinnati’s is fading and Baltimore is in control.
Jackson: Maybe in August when the Bengals and Steelers both lost starting offensive linemen to injury. Mike Wallace showed up only when he needed to, James Harrison and Troy Polamalu never got truly healthy, and the Browns went ahead and used August to prepare to be the Browns again in September. The Ravens have been a tired team the last few weeks that’s still having identity issues, and it’s all added up to a mess. History says two teams will get things righted over the next six weeks, though, and those two play in Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Let’s judge “weakness” again in late December. 
Who wins this weekend, Browns-Chargers and Steelers-Redskins?

McManamon: Wind and wet weather could help the Browns, because the Chargers have to rely on Philip Rivers. But San Diego always seems to come to win easily in Cleveland. The Browns have kept games close all season, but at some point they will lose, and lose big. This game seems like the one. In Pittsburgh, the matchup of Robert Griffin III against the Steelers defense is one of the more interesting ones of the weekend. The Steelers will throw things at Griffin he has not seen, but Griffin brings talents the Steelers have not seen. Griffin wins the day, but the Steelers win the game.
Jackson: The Chargers have pretty much stunk. As Browns luck would have it, the Chargers come in rested, off a bye week, with extra practices and also with plenty of motivation. The Browns will be in the game, but what have they done to prove they can  finish this type of game? The Steelers win because the Redskins are tired and banged up and as special as that RGIII character is, he’s not ready to win in Heinz Field.