AFC North Report: Status of division over first three weeks is ugly

Steel City Underground’s AFC North Report wraps up the result of each game played by rivals in the division and how the Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, and Cleveland Browns fared against their opponents each week during the NFL regular season. This week we’ll additionally look at the state of the entire division.

The AFC North has traditionally been seen as one of the most competitive divisions in the National Football League in the modern era but the state of the division is ugly after the first three weeks of the 2019-20 NFL regular season. The only team with a winning record so far is the Ravens. On Sunday, every team in the AFC North lost.

With two teams having zero wins, it sets up a situation where divisional games will be even more important this season than they have in the recent past.

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Bengals fall to 0-3 with a loss to Bills

For the second time in three seasons, Cincinnati is starting out its regular season play without any losses. They attempted a comeback against the Buffalo Bills, but after being down, 14-0, at halftime it was an Andy Dalton interception that sealed the loss (his second pick of the game). The ball was tipped twice before Tre’Davious White, who earned the earlier interception, grabbed the second pick, hit the ground, and then began celebrating with his teammates while rookie Bengals head coach Zac Taylor lost his mind with the officials because he felt that White had run the ball out of the end zone. Unfortunately, the play had been ruled dead (when White didn’t advance the ball and got up from the ground), so it wasn’t a safety – which is what Taylor wanted.

Bengals defensive end Sam Hubbard was able to force a fumble that was recovered by linebacker Preston Brown, but with just over seven minutes left in the first half, Dalton had completed just one-of-six passes and it was to John Ross, and Ross fumbled the ball away. Running back Joe Mixon was a nice surprise after putting together just 27 rushing and 17 receiving yards through the first two weeks by carrying the ball 15 times for 61 yards and grabbing two catches for 34 yards and a one-yard touchdown.

“We dug ourselves a hole there in the first half. Which is killer and two games in a row now… Thank God we play sixteen games and not three because it would be a long year.” – Bengals head coach Zac Taylor

One of the Bengals’ biggest issues is one they share with a divisional rival in the Steelers: An inability to get their defense off the field because the offense is running less than efficiently. Until they remedy that, they’re looking at a long season ahead. “Our defense, I wouldn’t say they were tired, but they were on the field a lot,” Taylor admitted after the game, “so it’s hard to pursue the passer as much as you want to. But I thought our defense held up and did a good job considering the circumstances.”

The Bengals and Steelers will meet head-to-head at Heinz Field on Monday Night Football (September 30). The game will determine who, of the two, gets their first win of the season (yikes!)

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Browns’ comeback halted by Rams

After outscoring the Los Angeles Rams in the first half, 6-3, the Browns had an opportunity to tie or win on Sunday night against the NFC Champions. Cleveland was lined up with first-and-goal on the four-yard line and watched three-straight throws from Baker Mayfield go incomplete. Then, on fourth down, Freddie Kitchens opted to not settle for the field goal to tie the game and had Mayfield attempt one last throw. Set poorly, on his back foot, Mayfield threw a pick in the end zone that sealed the Browns’ fate. The Rams won, 20-13.

With the Rams defense applying pressure all night, Mayfield and the passing attack struggled to get into a rhythm as the Browns offensive line continues to be a weak spot on the squad. Mayfield was able to complete just 18-of-36 passes for 195 yards and a single touchdown as a result.

It is all the little details to build up to the end, and if you do not take care of them, it will come back to haunt you.” – Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield

With several backup players in place due to multiple injuries, the Browns were able to limit the Rams to just 20 points defensively. They were able to produce three turnovers, but they were only able to convert them into a single turnover. Myles Garrett, who stripped Rams quarterback Jared Goff, moved to six sacks on the season while the Browns improved to six consecutive quarters without surrendering a touchdown until the third quarter.

The fact that Cleveland has committed 35 penalties through three games is not helping them offensively or defensively. Similarly, their trips into the red zone stalling-out, scoring in just four-of-eight trips, has forced the Browns to rely on field goals rather than touchdowns to put points on the board.

“We didn’t make enough plays to win the game…” Odell Beckham Jr. told the media, “it’s a grit game early in the season.”

To be honest, the first three weeks have been gritty not only for the Browns but for the entire division. With the Browns falling to 1-2 on the season, they’ll be on the road in Week 4 against the Ravens before meeting with three teams that have already shown prowess over the AFC North this season: the San Francisco 49ers (3-0), the Seattle Seahawks (2-1), and the New England Patriots (3-0).

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Ravens outpaced by Chiefs

While things started off fairly well for Baltimore as they faced a juggernaut Kansas City Chiefs team on the road on Sunday, it was evident that Lamar Jackson wasn’t going to be able to just run-and-gun for a win like he had the first two games of the season. With the Ravens defense unable to stop Mahomes, the result was a sobering 28-33 loss.

The Ravens allowed themselves to get too far behind to stage a big comeback. With the Chiefs generating 503 yards of offense, needed big plays from their defense. They had opportunities. Had Tony Jefferson not been called for pass interference the Ravens may have been able to keep the interception made by Brandon Carr. Had Anthony Averett grabbed the loose ball, instead of sliding over it, the Ravens defense would have had a turnover. With a small margin of error, to begin with, it was the errors that kept Baltimore from being able to get the ship righted even though they did make efforts towards evening the score.

“We get a little better, we win games like that.” – Ravens head coach John Harbaugh.

Head coach John Harbaugh was the subject of ire following the loss, despite his thoughts that the Ravens just need to be a little better to get big wins off contenders. The frustration aimed towards the coach was due to several calls that were unpopular and had poor results. Baltimore opted to go for it on fourth down four times against the Chiefs and was able to convert three but when they did it in their own territory, they converted just one-in-two, giving Kansas City a great opportunity to capitalize. The Ravens also opted to not try for the extra point three times, including once in the final quarter, instead choosing to go for two-point conversions that didn’t pan out.

“The point was to score as many points as we could. Every one of those [plays] were clear analytic decisions to go for two,” Harbaugh said after the game. “We’re going to keep playing that way, just for the record. When you write your articles just understand that and we’ll disagree with your criticism.”

So, if you’re a Ravens fan, Harbaugh has put you on notice that the team is going to go for boldness and potentially leave points on the field. Harbaugh further stated that he wasn’t trying to set a tone, but made decisions to be aggressive rather than “playing scared”; the one thing the Ravens aren’t going to do.

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Final thoughts

The state of the AFC North can be summed up in one word following three weeks of play: ugly. No single team has set itself apart, yet. With divisional matchups across the board in Week 4, the picture of who can make a push for the top might shake clearer but as it stands today, nothing is a given.

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