AFC North in shambles through three weeks of play

Predicted to be one of the most competitive divisions in the NFL during the offseason and through OTAs, the AFC North teams saw some rough patches throughout the preseason. Now that the regular season has begun, it has gotten worse. While there is plenty of season left to play, all four teams – the Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns – have come out of their third week of play in a state of disorder.

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The Bengals in desperation mode

After dropping their first two games of the season to the Ravens and Houston Texans, respectively, the Bengals are in full desperation mode following a close loss to the Green Bay Packers on Sunday. Just three points separated the Bengals, who looked to push for a second-place finish in the division behind Pittsburgh early on, and the Packers at the end of the game, but the anger has been replaced by aย sense of discontent and desperation that permeates this team.

Per ESPN Stats and Information, only three teams since the league went to a 12-team format (1990) who began with a 0-3 season record have gone on to enter the playoffs. Of those three, none have made it past the divisional round. Teams are well aware of statistics and probabilities. And players, who don’t enjoy admitting that they keep track, are just as aware.

Marvin Lewis was preparing his team all summer for tough games and digging deep to pull out needed victories, but in their last 11 games (including the 2016 season) the Bengals have not improved and have gone 1-9-1 in games decided by a six points or less.

In his post-game press conference, Lewis expressed the level of disappointment the team has by pointing out that the opportunity was there for a win, but the team did not finish the game. “We’ve got to keep playing,” Lewis said. “We’ve got to regroup … We got off to a good start, but we’ve got to capitalize on (that) and keep on plugging.”

Key stats:

Andy Dalton completed 21-of-27 passes for 212 yards and two touchdowns without an interception. It was his best performance so far this season. Joe Mixon led the Bengals run game with 18 carries for 62 yards. A.J. Green had 10 receptions for 111 yards and a touchdown, getting his wish that the ball would be put in his hands more often.

Darqueze Dennard earned a sack and ten total tackles, leading the defense, while Carl Lawson led the team with 2.5 sacks on the day. William Jackson III had one interception but lost a loose ball.

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Browns still experiencing growing pains

Rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer is correct in saying that one could look at the final score of a game and those numbers could tell a completely different story than what happened on the field. Unfortunately, the 31-28 Browns loss to the Indianapolis Colts hurt that much worse because Cleveland is now also 0-3 on the season.

In just the first half of the game, Cleveland gave up 260 yards and 28 points to a Colts team that has looked terrible early in the season as well having lost their two opening games. The second half wasn’t much of an improvement, for either team, but it was the Browns who came up on the short side of the scoreboard.

Kizer threw three interceptions, including one on the final play of the game that sealed the Browns’ fate. The two previous bad tosses could be attributed to him as much as to his wide receivers, however. Kasen Williams didn’t hold his route and the ball was picked. Kenny Britt, who reached with his fingers as the ball was placed behind him to avoid a safety, tipped the ball right into the hands of Colts defenders. If eight passes had not been just outright dropped, had the game gone differently? Four offensive pass interference calls are enough to take the wind out of any team’s sails.

“We are tired of being short each time … It’s just disappointing to be 0-3 right now,” Hue Jackson said following the game. “It’s not where we thought that we would be. It’s where we are. It’s what we’ve earned.”

Key stats:ย 

Kizer completed 22-of-47 passes for 242 yards and two touchdowns while adding three interceptions. He also added seven carries for 44 yards and a touchdown. Duke Johnson led with six receptions for 81 yards and got a touchdown on the ground. Isaiah Crowell led the team in rushing with 12 carries for 44 yards.

Joe Schobert led the defense with eight total tackles and recorded 0.5 sacks. Christian Kirksey had 0.5 sacks, 1.5 tackles for a loss and five total tackles. Emmanuel Ogbah and Nate Orchard each recorded a sack as well.

Ravens humiliated ‘across the pond’

Although they had prepared for their trip to London to face the Jacksonville Jaguars, the pounding that the Ravens received was not expected – at least not by their team. In their 44-7 loss, Joe Flacco had one of the worst performances of his career and the fifth-worst QBR mark at 0.8 in the league since 2007 per ESPN.

“We couldn’t complete a pass. We couldn’t keep any chunks [of yardage] and we couldn’t complete first downs,” Flacco said after the game. “We left our defense on the field, and (the Jaguars) were scoring touchdowns. Before you know it, the game is out of hand.”

Even inserting Ryan Mallett into the game at quarterback did little to keep the Jaguars from having their way.

Entering the game, everyone in the NFL knew Flacco still was not 100 percent health-wise, but his teammates did little to assist. Injuries have altered the offensive line. Marshal Yanda is done for the season (ankle) leaving the offensive line with Ronnie Stanley and two undrafted rookies in James Hurst and Matt Skura beside rookie Ryan Jensen as Flacco’s protection.

In their biggest loss since 1997 to Pittsburgh (Week 11, 37-0), the Ravens looked almost zombie-like on the field and the result was embarrassing. “We got our butts kicked in all three phases,” safety Eric Weddle said. “That might be one of the worst losses — if not the worst loss — I’ve ever been a part of.”

Their first two wins came partly as a result of defensive turnovers. That wasn’t the case in England. Baltimore forced zero turnovers on a day where their offense could not make a play and paid a stiff price when their defensive secondary was picked apart due to miscues and broken coverage.

Key stats:

Flacco ended the day completing eight-of-18 passes for 28 yards and two interceptions. Mallett completed six-of-nine passes for 36 yards and a touchdown. Alex Collins had nine carries to lead the rushing attack for 82 yards. While Javorius Allen led receivers with five receptions, it was Ben Watson who grabbed the lone passing touchdown.

C.J. Mosley led the defense with eight total tackles as the defense earned zero sacks and no interceptions.

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Trap or not, Steelers let themselves down in loss to Bears

The Steelers entered the game in Chicago with two wins to face a winless Bears team, but miscues and issues with players being out of sync on both sides of the ball were evident on the field. In their first two games, it was the offense that looked like it wasn’t on the same page. On Sunday, even the defense was out of sorts.

The high-profile offense has not performed to the level anyone expected and the players have not shied away from admitting it. “We’re so much better than this,” guard David DeCastro told ESPN. “It’s tough to waste all the talent we have … Look at the offense we have. If we’re not putting up 350, 400 yards a game, it feels like we’re wasting it.”

In the overtime loss, the Steelers saw Ben Roethlisberger sacked three times behind an offensive line that was without Ramon Foster and Marcus Gilbert. Running back Le’Veon Bell, who has looked rusty previously, could not get things in gear and gained just 61 yards on the ground. The lone bright spot was Antonio Brown, who has been setting NFL records for his play despite his surrounding cast of receivers being less than reliable options. As it stands today, the Steelers are 16th in passing yards and 29th in rushing yards.

Defensively, the Steelers could not stop the run – and it hurt them. The Bears were able to utilize and injured Jordan Howard and speedy Tarik Cohen to rack up 220 net yards rushing and two touchdowns. Yes, there were players on defense that were not in the game but injuries do not explain why those who were active could not stand stronger against what had been a weak run game from the Bears in their first two games.

Despite Javon Hargrave and Anthony Chickillo recording a sack apiece, J.J. Wilcox‘s interception and Ryan Shazier‘s two forced-fumbles, the defense allowed the Bears to stay in the game and fell apart in the overtime period for a loss.

Key stats:

Roethlisberger completed 22-of-39 passes for 235 yards and a touchdown without turning the ball over through the air. Bell carried the ball 15 times for 61 yards and a touchdown. Brown had ten receptions for 110 yards and a touchdown. Roethlisberger and Eli Rogers both lost fumbles. Even Chris Boswell was one-for-two on field goals, a rare thing from the ‘Wizard’. Shazier led the defense in tackles with 11.

Looking forward to week four

The AFC North teams will matchup against each other in their fourth week of the season. The Browns and Bengals will go head-to-head while the Ravens and Steelers battle for the top spot in the division. The way this division fell into disarray sets the week up for real battles to show which team can recover the quickest from disappointment.

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