Stephen R Stone (@SrStoneSports)
Cold Hard Football Facts’ AFC North Sniper
Is this the year of the “by default” champion? As we headed into week 7, the best team in the AFC East was 3-3. Same with the AFC west. I don’t know if Atlanta is a great team but they’re going to clinch their division by Veterans Day. Baltimore and Houston were the only two teams in the AFC with winning records, but as they faced off today I found myself asking: “These are really the best the conference has to offer?”
People will make a lot of Houston’s dominance over Baltimore, but I’m still not ready to buy into the Texans. Sunday afternoon’s contest was more about how bad the Ravens are than how good Houston is. And now, with all their injuries, the Ravens are reeling, but they are still heavy favorites to win the AFC North.
Here are five things that I saw Sunday in the division
1. Joe Flacco’s road woes continued (Houston 43 Baltimore 13)
The dichotomy between Flacco’s performances on the road versus at home is striking. Heading into this weekend, the difference between his rating at home versus on the road was an incredible 44.2 points. That number should be even greater following Sunday’s abysmal showing.
Flacco completed 48 percent of his passes, was sacked four times and managed a pathetic rating of 45.4. He may not have had much help from his defense, but by turning the ball over twice he did nothing to help the offense. If that was the best Baltimore could muster in an alleged conference championship preview, the team is simply not good enough to contend for an AFC title.
2. Indianapolis running backs more than tripled the production of Cleveland backs (Indianapolis 17 Cleveland 13)
One thing to be excited about if you’re a Browns fan: Brandon Weeden is getting better with each week. One thing to not be excited about: Cleveland’s anemic running game.
Brandon Weeden really was great on Sunday. He didn’t turn the ball over and had two spectacular-looking touchdown passes - all en route to a 94.0 quarterback rating. He completely outplayed Andrew Luck. The only problem was, Luck had much more help from his running game than Weeden.
Trent Richardson tried to play but was too hurt to be a factor, so that didn’t help Weeden’s cause. All-in-all, Cleveland backs amassed 42 yards on 16 carries. Meanwhile, Indianapolis running backs combined for 136 yards on 34 carries. That kind of support allowed Luck (who helped his own cause with two rushing touchdowns of his own) to be more successful and pick up the victory.
3. Pittsburgh dominated Cincinnati between the goal lines (Pittsburgh 24 Cincinnati 17)
It may have been a one-possession game, but the Steelers went up and down the field at will against the Bengals. The defense shut down AJ Green and the offense held onto the ball for 37 minutes and 30 seconds.
All-in-all, Pittsburgh ran 70 plays versus Cincinnati’s 49 and won the yardage battle by a total of 431 against 185. The Steelers are back in the divisional race again because it established dominance on the road against its rival.
Speaking of which...
4. Marvin Lewis is now 1-10 at home against the Steelers.
Cincinnati has had success in the 10 years under Lewis’ leadership, but the team cannot find a way to beat Pittsburgh at home. This includes the devastating playoff loss in 2006 that led to Ben Roethlisberger’s first Super Bowl victory and ends with Sunday’s loss.
Lewis and the Bengals must find a way to protect their home field against divisional opponents if they are going to succeed as a championship contender.
5. Divisional power rankings: week 7
4. Cleveland: The Browns are getting better because Brandon Weeden is getting better. However, he’ll need a healthy Trent Richardson at his side to grow by any substantial margin.
3. Cincinnati: My preseason prediction about this team is looking better and better. The Bengals limp into their bye week losers of three straight and holders of a 3-4 record.
2. Pittsburgh: I’m not saying that the Steelers are back per say, but they are in the best position to challenge Baltimore. If the running game continues to improve, the Steelers could get back into the race by playing classic Pittsburgh football.
1. Baltimore: Until further notice, this team is the best in the division and one of the best in the conference. Many flaws were exposed on Sunday, but they might just be in position to win the division by default.