AFC North Report: Order restored

<p>The AFC North received a shot in the arm for Week 8 and now the AFC South can lay claim to the worst division in the NFL. However, the strength of the North has been re-ordered and now resembles, more or less, preseason expectations.</p>

Pittsburgh Steelers - The Steelers come out of this week as the class of the AFC North. Even the recently woeful special teams looked to be the best of the division. Certainly, the half-game lead over the Browns is quite tenuous. But the Steelers really hold a two-game lead in divisional play (3-0) going into the big showdown next Sunday in Cleveland.

QB Tommy Maddox continues to convert cynics and non-believers into fans. His start against the Ravens may have been the best half of football any quarterback has played for Bill Cowher. The first two touchdowns made the Ravens look no better than a college-level defense. But Maddox appeared to let the Ravens rattle him when the Baltimore defense began acting out of frustration. The Ravens took a few cheap shots at Maddox and Tommy seemed to lose focus. This may be something that deserves watching as the season wears on.

The defense looks much better with LB Kendrell Bell in the lineup. Yet, the way Raven QB Jeff Blake moved the ball up and down the field brought back the painful early-season memories of the success of QBs Tom Brady and Rich Gannon. The Steelers struggled to pressure Blake, but that may have been by design. Blake is still a legitimate running threat, which may have neutralized the Steelers pass rush. Still, the Steelers defense looks like it has not peaked yet.

SteelCity Summary: Forget smash-mouth football. As Maddox goes, so goes the Steelers.

p.s. LB Jason Gildon may be the worst tackler on the Steelers starting defense.

Cleveland Browns - The Browns pulled their season from the brink of disaster and now look forward to the chance to reclaim the North lead from the Steelers. The Browns looked all-the-ready for the proverbial fork to be stuck in them early on against the Jets. Instead, the Browns showed the heart that has become the stamp of Butch Davis teams. The way this team keeps bouncing back from adversity (which has come early and often this season) is very impressive.

The Browns looked lifeless to start the game and the Jets ran up the score. Cleveland's defense finally had enough and began to corral QB Chad Pennington. The Browns needed a number of big plays and the defense (along with the usual suspects on special teams) delivered. The pressure applied by the front seven allowed the Browns to hide their banged-up secondary and escape New York with a big win.

QB Tim Couch was phenomenal and finally may be back from his preseason arm injury. The fans will surely be behind him in force as Cleveland goes up against bitter rival Pittsburgh next Sunday. Another strong effort from the Browns will keep them in the playoff hunt, win or lose.

SteelCity Summary: The Browns seem intent on doing things the hard way. That probably won't play very well next Sunday, especially without a running game.

p.s. The Browns secondary better get well in a hurry.

Baltimore Ravens - The Ravens dropped back down to earth thanks to the schoolyard whooping they received at the hands of the hated Steelers. The Steelers exposed and exploited the Ravens inexperience and lack of talent. Still, the Ravens never quit and kept trying to take it right to Pittsburgh.

I suspect that resident North genius Brian Billick was trying to pull a fast one with the sudden QB swap at the beginning of the game. The injury to Redman was not that serious. Billick thought he might sneak a victory here and continue to ride Big Mo into the playoffs. The Steelers did not look ready for QB Jeff Blake, but the Ravens looked even less prepared for QB Tommy Maddox.

The Ravens now have let the QB issue out of the box. Do they have a shot at the playoffs this year? Yes, they still do, but not with Chris Redman at quarterback. The Ravens have two big road games over the next three weeks, against Atlanta and Miami respectively. The Ravens are a much greater threat to win those games if Blake starts. Otherwise, Redman simply signals that Billick concedes, once again, that this season is strictly for rebuilding.

SteelCity Summary: The Ravens are not a playoff team, but parity is doing funny things to the grand scheme of the NFL these days.

p.s. Like it or not, there is a QB controversy now in Baltimore, despite the loss.

Cincinnati Bengals - The Bengals came off their bye-week with a bit of fire. From the opening kickoff, Cincinnati took it right to a somewhat stunned Tennessee Titans team. The Titans have issues of their own, particularly stopping the run. So, RB Corey Dillon was back to his old tricks and the Bengals looked... NFL competitive for the first time this season. They still lost.

The Bengals lost because they are still prone to mistakes. They lost because their spirit has already been broken. What little pride the Bengals have left will be at stake next week when Cincinnati travels to Houston. The Texans are fresh off a big upset of the Jacksonville Jaguars and have a good enough defense to neutralize Dillon.

The Bengals will have to stick with QB Jon Kitna. He gives them their best chance to win. That's not saying much, but anything has already happened this season and the rest of the North shouldn't take Cincinnati lightly. Still, Baltimore has to be looking forward to their two Bengals games.

SteelCity Summary: Dillon now has no one to blame but himself. He put the Bengals in the game but ultimately could not deliver.

p.s. The Bengals still have a strong two-game lead on the first draft pick of 2003.


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