By Stephen Stone
Cold Hard Football Facts' AFC North Beat Man
This is what we thought we knew heading into the weekend:
-The Ravens were the best team in the division and one of the best in the league
-Pittsburgh had fallen off, and was on its way down
-Cincinnati’s success last year was a fluke
-Brandon Weeden was a bust and Trent Richardson may have been one too
Now, that’s not to say that one, two or even all of those statements won’t ultimately prove to be true. If we are to dismiss sentiment based on one week, it can take the same amount of time to re-validate it.
However, as teams live and die on the strength of their quarterback play, the fact that every quarterback turned his performance around this week - whether for better or for worse - shows how unpredictable this division will be this season.
The AFC North returns three playoff teams. All three are 1-1.
Since the 2002 realignment, no division with three returning playoff teams failed to produce a 2-0 start before this week. It’s going to be a wild ride in the division this year and we’re just getting started.
Here are five cold, hard football facts from Sunday’s games:
Philadelphia 24 Baltimore 23
1. Joe Flacco’s Real Quarterback Rating was cut in half.
This is the first year that they said “Joe Flacco, this is your team.”
I sat next to a die-hard Ravens fan from Baltimore this afternoon who said this to me. He spent much of the day singing the praises of Flacco’s leadership and I admired his optimism. I also appreciated his knowledge of modern football. He knows that if Baltimore is going to win the Super Bowl this year, Flacco has to carry the offense on his shoulders. But at the end of the day, it appeared the Ravens and Flacco have much to work on.
In week one, Flacco posted a Real Quarterback Rating of 111.07. On Sunday, Flacco’s Real Quarterback Rating fell to an abysmal 52.65.
This was, of course, just one example of Baltimore’s offensive ineptitude, because...
2. Baltimore converted only four of its 14 third downs.
The Ravens forced two turnovers last Monday night and dominated. On Sunday, they forced four and lost. One of the differences?
Baltimore’s performance on third down. The Ravens’ third down conversion rate dropped from 33 percent in week one to 28 percent in week two. That may not sound like much, but consider this: Going back to the beginning of last year, the Ravens are 12-1 when they convert 33 percent or more of their third downs and 1-4 when they convert less than one third of their money downs.
One of the more effective metrics for measuring quarterback play is how well he does on third downs, so Flacco will have to improve in this area if he’s going to successfully lead this squad to a championship.
Pittsburgh 27 New York 10
3. If Pittsburgh protects the football, Pittsburgh wins.
Last week, Ben Roethlisberger threw a bad pick-six that lost the Steelers the game against Peyton Manning and the Broncos. No such incident occurred on Sunday, as Big Ben and crew managed to preserve the football on every possession. It’s a good thing too, because the Steelers don’t lose when they don’t turn it over. Pittsburgh’s hasn’t lost a turnover-less game since 2010.
Cincinnati 34 Cleveland 27
4. The division's young guns show improvement.
Roethlisberger is the division’s unquestionable leader at the quarterback position, despite Flacco’s potential ascension this season - but there is some competition coming down the pipeline. Andy Dalton made the Pro Bowl as a rookie and after last week’s debacle the “sophomore slump” whispers began (Related: sophomore slump is a myth). Dalton responded with three touchdowns in a Bengals victory, but the quarterback in this game that really impressed me was Brandon Weeden.
So much was made about the dichotomy between Weeden and Robert Griffin III’s week one performances. RGIII was the first rookie quarterback in NFL history to throw for over 300 yards with multiple touchdowns and no interceptions in his debut. Weeden threw four interceptions. RGIII inspired a viral sensation this week. Weeden inspired laughter. RGIII was placed on Canton watch. Weeden was placed on McDonalds drive-through duty watch.
Seven days later, Weeden pulled a Griffin, breaking the 300 yard threshold with multiple touchdowns and zero interceptions. Not only was Weeden’s 6.94 Real Quarterback Rating the worst in the league last week, it was a good 30 points lower than the 31st ranked quarterback. His 106.66 Real Quarterback Rating in week two would have been good enough for eighth in the league last week. He may not be as good as week two Weeden again in the near future, but he showed that he can, in fact, play in the game.
5. Cleveland’s offense has hope for the future.
Weeden’s performance was complemented by a tremendous ground game, led by Trent Richardson. The third overall pick rushed for 109 yards and scored two touchdowns, becoming the first Browns rookie running back to pass the century mark since Lee Suggs in 2003. Moreover, Weeden’s 322 yards passing and Richardson’s 109 yards rushing marked Cleveland’s first 300/100 combo since 2007. The future may not be now, but it is bright.