Analysis  

 

Baltimore Ravens down but still on top of weak AFC North

No team was humbled more in Week 1 than the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens -- and yet, no team in the AFC North is in better shape.

Baltimore was bludgeoned by the Denver Broncos on Thursday in a brutal start to the season. But that was just the beginning for the AFC North; every team lost in Week 1, matching a milestone of futility that has been achieved just two other times (by the NFC South in 2011 and the AFC North in 2002) since realignment in 2002.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are a total mess. The Cincinnati Bengals are supremely talented, but I wonder (again) if there is a limit to their greatness. The Cleveland Browns are the Cleveland Browns.

Understand that I'm not merely overreacting to Week 1. This is consistent with what I wrote in the offseason. We're just now seeing things play out for real and in clearer focus.

Really, the Steelers are in trouble. They could challenge Baltimore for the title of "Most Humiliated" after a 16-9 home loss to the Tennessee Titans that wasn't even that close. Their offense was inept. Isaac Redman finished with an end-zone fumble and 9 yards on eight carries; that can't happen. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, offensive coordinator Todd Haley, Pittsburgh's running game and offensive line -- all were predictably putrid on an awful day at the office against a defense that will not be confused for the 1985 Chicago Bears.

This offseason, I wondered aloud how the Steelers would score points, given their major shortcomings with regard to talent. On Sunday, it was rougher than I imagined -- and that wasn't even the worst part. Star center Maurkice Pouncey tore ligaments in his knee and has been place on injured reserve, just like veteran linebacker Larry Foote, who ruptured his right biceps.

I predicted the Steelers would finish the season at 7-9, but now I'm not quite sure how they even get to seven wins.

The Bengals had the Chicago Bears beat on Sunday before sloppy and foolish play led them to cough up an 11-point, second-half lead. It didn't exactly inspire confidence in a team thinking (wrongly, in my opinion) "Super Bowl" this season.

Linebacker Rey Maualuga had a true bone-headed play at the end of Sunday's loss, committing an inexplicable personal foul after the Bengals' D had stopped Chicago on third down. Sans that stupidity, Cincy would have gotten the ball back for another crack. Instead, Bears quarterback Jay Cutler took a couple of kneel-downs to ice the game.

The Bengals have talent; nobody can deny that. Receiver A.J. Green had his usual freakishly amazing outing. The defense has good players and is well-coached under coordinator Mike Zimmer. But I don't think Marvin Lewis and Andy Dalton are an elite coach-quarterback combination. You can win games with them in the regular season, but their limitations come up in big spots (as they did in successive playoff games against the Houston Texans the past two postseasons). On Sunday, Dalton threw a couple of picks against Chicago, while Lewis allowed the team to run out of timeouts early in the second half, continuing a troubling pattern.

Cincy was a "flavor of the moment" pick among the gurus this preseason. Maybe it was the defense; maybe it was the "Hard Knocks" effect. I think the Bengals can win nine games, but I don't have them in the playoffs. Even if they somehow sneak in, I don't think they'll advance very far.

And then there are the Browns.

The good vibes brewing by Lake Erie after an optimism-inspiring preseason (I guess there really should be no such thing) were totally deflated when Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden threw his third pick of the day against the Miami Dolphins.

New coach Rob Chudzinski's team should have more wins this year than it did in 2012. Running back Trent Richardson should be solid, and Ray Horton is a good defensive coordinator. But let's not confuse things. The Browns were a grotesque 1-for-14 on third downs, and Weeden was sacked six times. Cleveland is a ways away and clearly the worst team in the division.

Which leads us back to Baltimore.

The Ravens undoubtedly missed Dennis Pitta in Denver; Ed Dickson couldn't catch a cold, while Dallas Clark and Brandon Stokley looked old, slow and steps away from retirement. Coach John Harbaugh failed to challenge a catch by Broncos receiver Wes Welker that was really a drop, missing out on a chance to force a punt at the beginning of the third quarter. Given an extra opportunity, Peyton Manning drove Denver to a go-ahead touchdown that totally shifted the momentum of the game. Speaking of Manning, his whopping -- and historic -- seven touchdown passes embarrassed a defense that many members of the media elite (I'm raising both hands) said would be better than it was last year, a defense that other members of the media elite (my hands are still up) said would beat Manning.

And that wasn't all. On a second-quarter punt return, rookie Brynden Trawick collided with Jacoby Jones -- knocking the return specialist and home-run hitting receiver out for 4-6 weeks. If such buffoonery had been perpetrated by the New York Jets, it would have inspired a creative name and drawn widespread mockery for at least a year. Meanwhile, as Baltimore dealt with losing yet another pass catcher, former Ravens playoff hero Anquan Boldin had a monster first outing with the San Francisco 49ers.

All that said, the Ravens got royally robbed when they were prevented from opening up the season in Charm City. The Baltimore Orioles should've moved their game so the reigning Super Bowl winners could have begun their title defense at home.

I have to believe Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell was simply channeling his inner Cam Cameron when he eschewed the running game early on Thursday. I have to believe that, with the Ravens' passing attack as depleted as it is, Caldwell knows running backs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce are two of the three best players (receiver Torrey Smith is the other) on his offense.

I have to believe Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil will torment quarterbacks. I have to believe that the safeties won't be as exposed against quarterbacks who aren't playing at Manning's historically good level.

I have to believe in talent, I have to believe in precedent, and I have to believe in Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome's vision.

Ultimately, though, I don't believe in Brandon Weeden, I don't believe in the Bengals' ability to get to the next level, and I don't believe in the 2013 Pittsburgh Steelers.

Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.

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