by Stephen Stone (@SrStoneSports

Cold Hard Football Facts AFC North Beat Man

We are halfway though the season, and for the first time all year, the league is starting to take shape. The AFC North has gone through radical change in recent weeks and now the Steelers, left for dead as recently as mid-October, look like the best team in the division. Moreover, based on what I saw from Denver and Houston, Pittsburgh looks as good as any other team in the conference. 

I wondered late last week if the Steelers and Giants would give us a Super Bowl preview. I don’t know if that premonition will ultimately come to pass, but I know if it does, I’d be ok with it. In the shadow of a crisis, Pittsburgh and New York played a fantastic football game today, and the Steelers showed why they should be mentioned with the class of the conference. 

Here’s how week 9 unfolded in the AFC North: 

1. Pittsburgh continued to play classic Steelers ball (Pittsburgh 24 New York 20) 

The Steelers were put into an uneasy pregame situation on Sunday as they had to travel from Pittsburgh to New Jersey just hours before kickoff. But when you are as well-coached as the Steelers, you can overcome just about any roadblock. Pittsburgh did what Pittsburgh does - putting together a strong game plan, playing excellent defense and running the ball down the opponent’s throat. 

Pittsburgh’s Isaac Redman rushed for 147 yards, giving the Steelers their third straight week with a 100-yard rusher. Meanwhile, the defense kept Eli Manning from throwing a touchdown pass while Roethlisberger completed 70 percent of his passes and tossed two scores. 

The Steelers still trail Baltimore in the standings, but have looked significantly better than the Ravens in recent weeks.

Speaking of which...

2. The Ravens eeked out another sketchy victory (Baltimore 25 Cleveland 15) 

Baltimore is supposed to be a championship contender, but they haven’t looked like one in a long time. Championship contenders put bad teams away. Championship contenders don’t trail the Browns in the fourth quarter. However, the Ravens pulled it together in the last five minutes of the game and saved themselves from a brutal loss. 

It wasn’t all bad for the Ravens. There were some high points (in addition, obviously, to the victory.) Joe Flacco’s passer rating in Cleveland was 39 points higher than in his average road game. The defense forced two turnovers and kept Cleveland out of the end zone.

But we haven’t seen Baltimore beat a good team in a while. Once again, the Ravens were bailed out by their opponent. 

Case in point...

3. Brandon Weeden put together his lowest rated performance since week 1.

He managed to stay far above his historically bad opening day stink-fest (mainly because it’s virtually impossible to replicate something like that) but Weeden, combined with truly questionable decision-making from Pat Shurmur, failed to formulate a formidable challenge for the Ravens defense.

Weeden completed only 54 percent of his passes, thew two costly interceptions and could only muster 4.8 YPA. This led to an abysmal 44.4 quarterback rating. Weeden has shown flashes of brilliance at times this season, but he must show more consistency if he is to lead the Browns to any kind of success. 

4. The Bengals were Peyton Manning’ed (Denver 31 Cincinnati 23)

Cincinnati gave number 18 all he could handle for much of the game, but when crunch time came around, Manning would not be held down. 

Cincinnati has fallen mightily since its 3-1 start and the inability to stop the pass on defense is one of the primary reasons. The Bengals are near the bottom of the league in many defensive passing Quality Stats and if they can’t find a way to fix the secondary they will keep losing football games. 

5. Division power rankings after week 9

1. Pittsburgh Steelers - The Steelers are still a game behind Baltimore (they get their first crack at them next week) but they sure look like the better team.

2. Baltimore Ravens - I know they haven’t played well in quite some time, but as long as they keep winning they’ll be in good position to make the playoffs.

3. Cleveland Browns - Weeden looked bad today, but he is slowly improving and the team is growing with him.

4. Cincinnati Bengals - This team is in disarray. Will this finally be the last straw for Marvin Lewis?