AFC North Roundup: Can Ravens Win Out?

In this week's AFC North Roundup, the Baltimore Ravens are confident they can win out, the Cincinnati Bengals have a three-week primetime gauntlet ahead and Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger believes his team can still score 30 points per game.

The Baltimore Ravens improve their record to 2-6 in Week 8 by defeating the San Diego Chargers. It is their lone home victory of the year, one won thanks to a last-second field goal kicked by Justin Tucker. But, despite the two-win record and the loss of star receiver Steve Smith for the year with a ruptured Achilles tendon, the team is confident they can win their final eight games and finish the season 10-6.

On Sunday, following the win, Tucker said that, “we’ve got to give ourselves the best opportunity to go 8-0 the last half of the season. I think we’ve got just the men for the job.” And, based on numbers crunched by ESPN’s Jamison Hensley, it’s not an impossible feat. For example: Baltimore’s final eight opponents currently have a 25-31 record, and only two of those eight are above .500. Further, five of Baltimore’s next eight games are played at M&T Bank Stadium, and those five teams are a combined 6-13 when playing on the road this year. Meanwhile, two of Baltimore’s road opponents (the Miami Dolphins and Cleveland Browns) are currently 2-5 on their home turf.

Winning out will be a tough task. Only eight teams have won all eight of their second-half games since 2005 and no team has gone 1-6 to open a season and then reach the playoffs. And without Smith, their odds of doing either are significantly diminished. The signings of receivers Joe Morgan and Chuck Jacobs (the former to the 53-man roster, the latter to the practice squad) at least boost the team’s ranks at the position, but neither man gives the Ravens what Smith did, from toughness, to speed, to reliability.

None of this has the Ravens, nor their head coach John Harbaugh, deterred. Harbaugh said, “That’s the objective—to win the next game. And our objective is going to be to win the next game. Are we going to define ourselves and say we can’t win every game going forward? There’s absolutely no way we’ll say that. Everybody else can say it.” While the Ravens lack wins, they don’t lack confidence, and that could help carry them to a historic second half of the season.

Cincinnati Bengals: Primetime Tests Ahead

It’s no secret that the Cincinnati Bengals under the primetime lights have been disappointing during the Andy Dalton era, which dates back to 2011, the quarterback’s first NFL season. Since then, the Bengals have appeared in 10 primetime regular season games, winning just three while losing seven. And the next three weeks will see the Bengals on primetime, now that the league announced that the team’s Week 11 game against the Arizona Cardinals has been moved from Sunday, November 22 at 4:05 PM Eastern to that Sunday night, on NBC.

The three-week national stand begins on Thursday night, when the Bengals travel to Cleveland to face the Browns. It continues in Week 10 in a home game against the Houston Texans on Monday Night Football, broadcast on ESPN. And it wraps with the aforementioned meeting with the currently 6-2 Cardinals in Week 11. 

The Bengals are currently 7-0, the first time the franchise has had such a good start. And Dalton and company are playing their best collective football, which is saying something given the fact that the team has never missed the playoffs with Dalton under center. But primetime games (and the postseason, where the Bengals have consistently been one-and-done in the Dalton era) are a different challenge altogether, one the Bengals have struggled to master. Now, they must run a primetime gauntlet in order to maintain control over the AFC North and to prove they are truly one of the NFL’s top teams.

If they can do it? The Bengals will truly be a real-deal team, one that has turned an important corner. If they cannot? Then expect a “same-old-Bengals” refrain from NFL onlookers. Reputations are on the line for the Bengals over the next three weeks.

Pittsburgh Steelers: 30 Points Per Game Still a Reality?

Before the start of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2015 season, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger expressed confidence that his offense can routinely put up 30 points per game. That plan was derailed, however, in Week 3, when Roethlisberger suffered an MCL sprain and bone bruise that cost him four games, only to return rusty in Week 8. The Steelers fell to the Bengals in Roethlisberger’s return, 16-10. They also suffered an even bigger loss: Running back Le'Veon Bell suffered a severely torn MCL that will cause him to miss the rest of the season.

But that hasn’t deterred Roethlisberger from his initial prognostication. Roethlisberger, via PennLive’s Jacob Klinger, said on Wednesday that even with Bell out, 30 points per game is still a reachable figure. “I don't see why anything's changed and it shouldn’t,” said the quarterback. Never mind that Pittsburgh has only reached or surpassed 30 points only once this year, in Week 2 against San Francisco, or that Bell is more than just a runner in Pittsburgh’s offense.

One thing is clear, at least: DeAngelo Williams, Bell’s backup, is more than capable of carrying the team’s rushing load, even if he’s not the receiver Bell is. Williams was the team’s starting back in Weeks 1 and 2 when Bell was serving a two-game suspension and rushed 41 times for 204 yards and three touchdowns. He currently has 310 yards and three scores on 63 carries on the season and is averaging nearly five yards per carry. 

But yards and points are two totally different things, and the latter have certainly dipped during Roethlisberger’s absence—and even during his rocky return in which Pittsburgh scored just one touchdown. With the rust shaken off, the Steelers’ offense should return to form, but without Bell in the mix, a very real void is left. Add into that Pittsburgh’s tough remaining schedule, with opponents that include Seattle, Cincinnati and Denver, and Roethlisberger’s goal of 30 points in a game could be nothing more than a pipe dream.

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