Wilson: The AFC North is still up for grabs

Sure, Bill Cowher sometimes makes us want to poke our eyes out with forks -- and the Bengals game was the most recent example -- but there are greater forces at work in the AFC North than Cowher's predilection for momentum-killing, game-changing decisions: alcohol, injuries and luck. Blogger Ryan Wilson investigates.

Maybe the Pittsburgh Steelers should be 2-1 right now, or even 3-0, but they're not. They're 1-2, coming off a demoralizing loss, and are currently a half-game out of last place in the division behind the 4-0 Baltimore Ravens and 3-1 Cincinnati Bengals.

Week 4 is about the time teams across the league start to cement their identity for the 2006 season: the Raiders and Bucs are playing for the 2007 draft, the Eagles and Bears are playoff contenders, and the Saints and Jets are the two big surprise stories.

In the AFC North, though, things aren't quite so clear. The Ravens are undefeated, but their first two wins came against middle-of-the-pack Arena League teams and the Browns and Chargers both had opportunities to win in Weeks 3 and 4. But hey, like my grandmother used to say, "Coulda killed a chicken don't make no stew," so you won't hear any crying from me.

But – and you knew there was a "but", right? – things just got a little trickier in Baltimore. The team lost starting left guard Ed Mulitalo for the season to an arm injury. Apparently, kick/punt returner B.J. Sams was so broken up about it that he decided to get loaded and drive drunk before finally getting arrested.

So in the span of 24 hours, the Ravens lose a starting lineman and depending on how the league rules, Sams could miss at least four games. Sams is much easier to replace than Mulitalo because return men are a dime a dozen in this league. Unless, of course, you're the head coach of an unnamed AFC North team, in which case your special teams talent evaluation skills can best be described as Bernie Lootz-esque. Wideout Mark Clayton handled the duties in college and there's no reason to think he won't be adequate in Baltimore. Mulitalo, on the other hand, could be a much bigger loss. I've been screaming this since the off-season, but it's worth repeating: the Ravens' offensive line stinks. They're 4-0, so they must be doing something right, but I'm still convinced it's mostly smoke and mirrors at this point.

We'll get a better sense of how big these losses are when the Ravens play the Broncos on Monday night.

Cincinnati, the other AFC North front-runner, is one more DUI arrest away from imploding. After the Bengals-Steelers game, Chris Henry, along with Odell Thurman and Reggie O'Neal, thought it would be a good idea to beer-bong-a-thon it out at a local bar, and then drive around Cincinnati. Shockingly, Thurman was arrested for DUI. More shocking, Henry avoided getting cuffed and stuffed, but he did manage to puke out the car window while Thurman was in the process of failing his sobriety test. So props to him for that.

Head coach Marvin Lewis has gotten a reputation for fielding a team of thugs, and for the most part it's well deserved. It's also important to remember that before Lewis arrived in Cincinnati, the team last made the playoffs in 1990 and hadn't been competitive since, well, 1990. Couple that with the fact that the Bengals had the smallest scouting department in the league and it's not hard to figure out why they sucked for more than a decade. Sure, Lewis may have had to cut some corners, but he hasn't had a losing record in his three full seasons with the team, and they finally returned the playoffs in 2005.

That said, Lewis now has to deal with all the headaches that go along with running a penal colony. And things are so bad the head coach actually didn't dress Henry, the team's best receiver, for last week's game against the Patriots. Cincinnati got smoked, and Henry's presence may have minimized the damage, but I don't think he was the reason the Bengals lost (not unless he can play defensive line). And Lewis may deactivate Henry in the future too. From the Dayton Daily News:

"I didn't have anybody taunting, getting into anybody's face or anything like that," Lewis said. "I had guys doing it the way they're asked to do it. I didn't have to worry about a guy taking off his helmet on the field. That's a key thing.

"I'm not singling out Chris. I only get a chance to dress 45 guys. We need to make plays on special teams. Antonio [Chatman] gives us an opportunity to do that. Down the line, we could have some tough decisions on who's going to get suited up - and that's a good thing."

But as MJD points out on AOL, Lewis is making an example of Henry:
I hate to quibble, Coach Lewis, but you absolutely are singling out Chris Henry. You know how I can tell? Because he scored two touchdowns against the Steelers, and was probably the Bengals MVP in that game ... and the next week, he was deactivated. That's not just a coincidence. Touchdown-producing receivers don't get benched for the sake of "making plays on special teams." Not unless they're being singled out.

Not that I think Lewis is at all in the wrong here. Just as no one else was deactivated, no one else puked out of Odell Thurman's window while he was being handcuffed and taken to the hoosegow. No one else (perhaps on the planet Earth) has been arrested four times since December.

So basically, Lewis's job responsibilities look something like this (in order of importance): Prison warden, probation officer, judge, jury, head coach. This is not the recipe for winning football.

Lost in all the "America's Most Wanted" talk is how most of the national media were screaming that Cincinnati was a Super Bowl team following their victory against Pittsburgh. In fact, Cincy's bandwagon took on so many passengers that it broke down right about the time the Patriots put the finishing touches on that 38-13 beat down.

How anybody could anoint the Bengals the best team after the Steelers contest is beyond me. It was like, I don't know, they didn't even watch the game. ESPN's Eric Allen said – with a straight face – that the Bengals have a strong running game and their run defense has improved, which in a weekend full of idiotic observations and mindless opinions, was the most idiotic and mindless. And that's saying something when you work with Michael Irvin.

In addition to the Bengals' run defense being more embarrassing than their uniforms, Carson Palmer hasn't exactly been lighting it up. Here's what Aaron Schatz says about Palmer in this week's FOXSports column:

For all the talk about Daunte Culpepper's problems in Miami, has anybody noticed that Carson Palmer hasn't exactly been lighting it up after his early return from ACL surgery? According to our metrics, he's been a perfectly average quarterback so far this season.
Granted, the Steelers have their own issues with Roethlisberger, but it's still worth noting that Palmer isn't infallible just because the national media says as much.

So even though the Steelers have put themselves in an early-season, self-inflicted hole there's no reason to panic. Conceivably, the Ravens could win 11 games this year, but a season-ending injury to the starting left guard and the kick/punt returner getting for driving drunk changes things. It'll be interesting to see how Plan B works out.

The Bengals have legitimate "crash and burn" potential and I'm conservatively setting the over/under for Chad Johnson putting Marvin Lewis in a sideline figure four at Week 9.

This is all well and good, but the fact remains: the Steelers have to play better if they want to turn things around. The Ravens and Bengals can implode all the way to Week 17, but if Pittsburgh continues to turn the ball over and make hair-brained special teams decisions, it won't much matter.

Some fans are worried that San Diego will be a tough test for a struggling Pittsburgh team. I couldn't disagree more. By all accounts, the Chargers should've beaten the Ravens last week but with a 13-7 lead, Marty Schottenheimer went to the four corners about five minutes into the third quarter. Consequently, San Diego lost the game thanks to maybe the most conservative game plan since the invention of the forward pass.

Any coach that makes Brian Billick look smart isn't a very good coach in my opinion. As somebody wrote on Football Outsiders: "Marty will take a bad team and make it good, and take a great team and make it good."

Knowing that, I like Pittsburgh's chances.

Steel City Insider Top Stories