AFC North: Wednesday reset

by Zac Jackson
posted 12:25 a.m.

Been tending to basketball matters and away from the football temporarily. But I’m back.

So are the Steelers, who still want you to think they never left. Didn’t take long to separate contenders from pretenders in Tampa last weekend, now did it?

It’s the really fun — and really big weekend — in the AFC North this weekend as the Bengals visit Cleveland and the Ravens visit Pittsburgh. Contenders/pretenders again? Maybe. Some guy named Big Ben comes back shortly and might make the early leaders a different kind of dangerous, especially with Carson Palmer struggling and Joe Flacco struggling except when Eric Wright is in single coverage vs. Anquan Boldin.

Let’s size ’em up….

Pittsburgh Steelers (3-0)

Last Week: Won at Tampa Bay, 38-13
This week: vs. 2-1 Baltimore

Good News: Another week, another quarterback, another dominating performance. Charlie Batch flung it around with confidence and threw 3 TD passes, while Rashard Mendenhall’s running and a defense that toyed with young QB Josh Freeman sealed it. The Steelers are clicking, healthy and bring plenty of momentum into their first brawl with Baltimore this week.

Bad News: Baltimore needs the game and will provide much stiffer competition than the Steelers faced last week. Chris Hoke is iffy with a knee injury. But bad news is currently in short supply in Steelerland.

Quick Fix: There’s not a lot to fix. Establishing Mendenhall again this week (and throughout the year) will be important, and Batch will face much a better defense this week as well. It’s one the Steelers would love to have but don’t necessarily need. If their defense plays to its potential, though, they’ll get it and ride into the bye week at 4-0.

Way-Too-Early-Judgment: Some thought last week was a natural letdown spot: Second straight road game, upstart opponent, the Florida heat, the Ravens looming, etc. But  instead it was vintage Steeler Football, feeding Mendenhall as expected and riding a superior defense. Baltimore provides a different kind of matchup challenge, but not an insurmountable one. Around the corner are a week off and Roethlisberger’s return. As long as this team is healthy it’s going to win. A lot.

Cincinnati Bengals (2-1, 1-0 in the division)

Last Week: Won at Carolina, 20-7
This week: At 0-3 Cleveland

Good News: The Bengals defense is playing aggressively and setting up the offense. The special teams play has been steady, and there’s reason to think this team can and will keep improving in several areas going forward. The Bengal cornerbacks should be able to clamp the Browns meager receiving corps this week, allowing the safeties and linebackers to focus on stopping the run and winning the field position game in what figures to be a low-scoring game.

Bad News: The passing game stinks. Carson Palmer is missing open targets, Chad Ochocinco is banged up and the Bengals are only scoring touchdowns when set up with  premium field position. The Browns really need a win and — believe it or not — might be a lot better than the Carolina team the Bengals beat last week.

Quick Fix: Marvin Lewis keeps defending his quarterback, as he should. He should keep giving him chances, too, as the Browns lack defensive speed and got burned by the big play last week. There’s nothing wrong with winning ugly and the Bengals should embrace that. If they don’t beat themselves, they’ll have a chance to stack up some wins.

Way-Too-Early-Judgment: Still too early to panic, still too early to love what you see, still winning. That’s good. Cedric Benson is good enough to keep the chains moving and let the defense rest. The overall talent is good enough to escape Cleveland 3-1. Let’s see what happens.

Baltimore Ravens (2-1, 1-1 in the division)

Last Week: Survived Cleveland, 24-17
This Week: At Pittsburgh

Good News: Joe Flacco is upright and has a performance to build on. Ray Rice took to Twitter to say his knee contusion should be fine. The Ravens clicked when they needed to last week and though they have to be much better this week, their track record says they’re capable of a muscle-flexing victory.

Bad News: The O-line isn’t allowing Rice many chances at getting loose and has to withstand the Steelers monstrous pass rush this week. The defense got punched in the mouth by the Browns power running game. A loss this week would essentially put them 2.5 games behind the division lead and in third place regardless of what happens in the other game.

Quick Fix: Stop the run and win in the trenches Sunday. Get Flacco and Rice going early, hit some short stuff and hope Flacco doesn’t really get pounded. This team has the talent and leadership to win this game if it circles the wagons. It still has the right to improve, too. But this is a very big week.

Way-Too-Early-Judgment: Not sure what to make of last week: Slight letdown or slightly overrated? If this team’s going anywhere, Flacco (1-4 vs. PIT in his career) still has to be better. There are still positive signs, and the patchwork secondary has held up well. The good Ravens teams of the past have won in this spot, and there’s still enough season left if they don’t.

Cleveland Browns (0-3)

Last Week: Lost at Baltimore, 24-17
This Week: vs. Cincinnati

Good News: Peyton Hillis is a beast. Joshua Cribbs keeps fighting, and lots of other guys do, too. The Browns can win this week because they’re at home, need it badly and — if they’re built to win at all — they’re built to win the kind of close game this week’s figures to be.

Bad News: They’re 0-3 for many reasons. They can’t match the Bengals talent and are about to face the best secondary they’ve faced all season with a passing offense that’s barely existent. The future looks, well, it looks like this: Cincinnati, Atlanta, at Pittsburgh, at New Orleans, bye week. It’s brutal. Losing D’Qwell Jackson for the season and having Jerome Harrison, Shaun Rogers and Marcus Benard miss last week certainly didn’t help.

Quick Fix: Keep feeding Hillis. Keep feeding Cribbs, just double-up the sideline oxygen. Trust that Eric Wright is much better than he showed last week. Find a way to create a pass rush, which probably starts with containing Cedric Benson and making Palmer pass. Cribbs, Hillis, the front seven and Phil Dawson can win a game for them this week. But the Browns can’t turn the ball over.

Way-Too-Early-Judgment: Not too early in this case. Not enough talent. Too many coaching blunders and player brain-farts in big moments to overcome that talent deficiency. Probably should stick with the mobile Seneca Wallace this week and not even test the cornerbacks, but we’ll see. It’s really now-or-forget-about-it on many levels this week, so it’s worth watching.