1. Trent Richardson, Brandon Weeden and the Browns offense showed signs of life last week. Taking into account not just this weekend’s matchup but the road ahead, are you buying the Browns offense as a unit on the rise?
Pat McManamon: Of course. If you donít, itís a long, dim road ahead. The way the two played in Cincinnati, though, gives legitimate hope that they may be the right pair. New owner Jimmy Haslam told season ticket holders in a conference call this week that Richardson was a catalyst in getting the team focused during the week, and after the game Richardson said his voice may be young but it still should be heard. Thatís called the right attitude. His play showed ability not taught. Weeden rebounded from a dismal performance to play very well. Itís just one game, but if that isnít hope for a battered fan base, then what is?
Zac Jackson: No, not buying yet. Buying Richardson as a workhorse and a centerpiece for the road ahead, yes, but not until the quarterback, receivers, offensive line and play-calling do it consistently — and against better defenses than the Browns saw last week — am I buying. Richardson either went to Kobe’s doctor in Germany or he’s just a freak of an athlete who got well in a hurry, and he’s the guy who can help the offense get well from here. Based on last year and Week One, this offense has nowhere to go but up. That’s a good thing; let’s just see consistency and continued progress.
2. The Bengals got a win over the Browns last week, and Andy Dalton and the wide receivers come out of that game feeling good about themselves. The Bengals defense gave up more than 400 yards for the second straight week, though. and now faces Robert Griffin III and the Redskins. Are the Bengals on the right track, or is there trouble ahead?
McManamon: The defensive issues seem real, and serious. Plus the Bengals lost Thomas Howard, their leading tackler in 2011 to an ACL injury in practice (Guess these things do happen outside Cleveland). Cincinnati relied heavily on its defense a year ago. As Dalton grew, the defense kept games close. But in two games the Bengals have given up 47 first downs, 869 yards and 71 points — with the second game against a rookie quarterback. That has to raise serious concerns in Paul Brown Stadium.
Jackson: The offensive surge last week is the first bit of consistency the Bengals have shown since August. The real challenges are head, but the defensive issues figure to be an ongoing challenge. Maybe Mike Zimmer can duct tape things together, but it’s going to take an all-around effort to win road games like the one the Bengals face this weekend and the bigger division games that lie ahead. Teams are taking the deep ball away from A.J. Green and going bombs away on the Bengals secondary, and until we see differently the wins figure to be tough to come by.
3. Speaking of the Bengals receivers, the Browns have major secondary issues with Joe Haden suspended for three more weeks. What’s the bigger concern for the Browns, run defense or pass defense? Can the Browns win a game without Haden?
McManamon: The bigger concern long-term is the run defense. Itís been a concern since 1999; the Browns have not been able to get it right. But for the next three games, the bigger concern is the secondary. Because the depth is being challenged. Haden is not Deion Sanders, but heís a very good corner. And one good cover guy can change a defense. Until he returns, the Browns have to patch things as best they can and hope something works.
Jackson: The Browns can win a game without Haden, but only if they get a lot of bounces, find a way to create some pass rush and keep the defense off the field. It sure looks like they’d better beat Buffalo or they won’t beat anybody for a while. Against the Bills, the run defense is a bigger concern because C.J. Spiller is playing like Superman and creating big play after big play. It won’t be pretty next Thursday in Baltimore, so Dick Jauron needs to use whatever magic potion he can find against his former team or things could get really ugly.
4. We tried to crown the Ravens a week ago, then they gave a game away in Philadelphia. The Steelers responded as the Steelers typically do. How long before we can establish a real pecking order in the AFC North?
McManamon: Not until week 11, and maybe not until week 13. Because those are the two weekends when Baltimore and Pittsburgh play. How those games go could determine who wins the division. It happened last season, it should happen this one as well. The only two teams that will reveal themselves the next month are the Browns and Bengals. The Browns have a very tough stretch of Buffalo, the Giants, Baltimore and Cincinnati. They could be (un)officially out of things after those four games. The Bengals have Washington, Jacksonville, Miami and Cleveland. They have a chance to get something going, but if they falter in those games it could be a long NFL season in Ohio.
Jackson: The Ravens gave away a chance at getting some separation and real momentum, but when healthy they’re still the division’s best team. Nobody’s going to run away with this thing, and at this point it’s even too early to officially say the Browns are going to be stuck in last place. The Bengals are at a winnable — and must-win — point of their schedule. The Ravens have a hundred reasons why their Sunday night game with New England isn’t just another game, and the Steelers are in a tough spot on the West Coast against a desperate team. Yeah, it’s going to be a while before we know anything, but Baltimore looks like the class of the field.
5. What happens this weekend? Can the Browns contain C.J. Spiller and get Richardson rolling? Can the Bengals keep the Redskins under 30 points? Who comes out of the weekend in first place in the AFC North?
McManamon: It will be a tough weekend for the pro teams in Ohio. Buffaloís defensive front has a chance to control the game, and C.J. Spiller has a chance to pick up some serious yards. As well as the Browns rookies played, theyíre still rookies. Look for the Bills to win. The Bengals have to cope with Robert Griffin III. Cincinnati has not stopped a quarterback yet, and RG3 has lived up to every expectation. The Redskins win. As for first place, itíll be tied. Baltimore will beat New England, and Pittsburgh will win in Oakland.
Jackson: I want to pick the Browns. I want to think the home crowd and a big dose of Richardson and another top effort by D’Qwell Jackson and some more Phil Dawson magic will be enough. I want to. And I will, 20-17, but I just don’t trust it. I want to think the Bengals get on a little run, too, but I don’t trust the back seven of the defense against RGIII in a game the Redskins need, too. I’ll take Washington is a close, high-scoring one. Give me the Steelers in a close, ugly one in Oakland, and the Ravens in a shootout in the night game.