Labriola On

Labriola on the AFC North

Ready or not, here it comes:

• The AFC North stinks.

• Sounds harsh, but this year, at least, it’s true. And there’s really no way to mitigate that. You might choose to cite the injuries to Ben Roethlisberger and A.J. Green, or the new coaching staff in Cincinnati, or the new full-time starting quarterback in Baltimore, or that the pilgrammage from 0-16 to playoff contender takes longer than a season-and-a-half, but injuries and coaching changes and the like happen all over the NFL every year.

• And maybe a case can be made that the AFC North isn’t the worst division in the NFL, not with the AFC East containing a bad New York Jets team and the tanking Miami Dolphins, but I don’t believe there is a division that’s as weak at the top as the AFC North.

• Based on the standings, and since that’s the way the champion of each division will be determined, your Baltimore Ravens are the best in the AFC North right now, and after last Sunday at Heinz Field is there anything about them that’s scary? Sure, the Ravens defeated the Steelers, and that’s the bottom line, but there was nothing particularly impressive about Baltimore outside of its ability to take advantage of the mistakes the Steelers made.

• The Ravens came into Heinz Field as the NFL’s top-ranked rushing team both in yards gained per game and yards gained per carry, and there was nothing about their running attack that was dynamic during any of the critical moments of the game.

• Particularly unimpressive was the Baltimore running game during its two possessions in overtime.

• Coach Mike Tomlin’s decision to take the wind after the Ravens lost the overtime coin toss meant the Baltimore offense would be on the field first, and a touchdown in that situation would win the game. And in a situation where the Ravens started with OK field position – the 25-yard line after Chris Boswell’s kickoff went for a touchback – the Ravens didn’t turn to their running game to march into scoring position because they couldn’t.

• A first down running play turned into a 1-yard loss when the Ravens couldn’t get Stephon Tuitt blocked, The next two plays at least began as passes, but with Lamar Jackson at quarterback, one never can be totally sure that’s the intent. Anyway, the second down play lost 4 yards on a Bud Dupree sack, and then third down offered a dump-down pass to tight end Mark Andrews that gained 1 yard before Sam Koch came on to punt.

• After the Ravens recovered the fumble by JuJu Smith-Schuster at the Steelers 34-yard line provided another situation when a truly difference-making running game could have been a deadly weapon. Sure, Baltimore’s placekicker is Justin Tucker, but running the ball closer to Heinz Field’s south end zone, or even across the goal line, would have been the high percentage move, instead of counting on Tucker’s field goal attempt to take a hard right turn and squeak between the posts after looking like a duck hook when it first came off his right foot.

• But his kick cooperated, and the Ravens deserve credit for coming to Pittsburgh and winning on the road, but it’s also fair to point out that on their second possession of overtime their running game again was a dud.

• On three plays after the recovery of the fumble, all of which were runs, the Ravens gained 6 yards, before turning to Tucker to execute his magic football trick.

• At the end of Sunday, what the Ravens showed at Heinz Field was that the most dynamic part of their game is their placekicker, quite possibly followed by their punter. Both are excellent, but the Ravens defense isn’t very good against the pass, it’s OK against the run, and today sits in the bottom third of the league in points allowed.

• Yes, they’re 3-2 and atop the division right now, but their win total is inflated by a blowout of Miami’s tankers and a 6-point decision at home over the 1-3-1 Arizona Cardinals. As I’m typing this, I can hear Dennis Green’s voice in the background, “If you want to crown them, then crown their (butt)! But they are who we thought they were, and we let them off the hook!”

• The other team currently in the top half of the division standings is the Cleveland Browns, and anyone who has cable and happened to have the television tuned to ESPN last Monday night was in the audience for a detailed audio-visual presentation of what that team is not.

• The Browns put themselves on the radar by finishing 2018 with a 7-8-1 record that included five wins in their final seven games, and they became everybody’s darlings following an offseason that saw them trade for wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. The hype train was steaming down the track even after the Browns decided on a rookie head coach to go with their largely inexperienced roster. And it barely slowed after Tennessee traveled to Cleveland and hammered the Browns, 43-13, in the regular season opener.

• Whether there have been any defections from the Browns bandwagon following the debacle inside Levi’s Stadium is really moot at this point. The 49ers are a good team, no doubt, and coming off a bye certainly had their players rested and probably feeling as healthy as they will for the rest of this regular season, but even that doesn’t explain the degree to which the Browns were dominated in every phase of the game.

• The Steelers also lost to the 49ers, but they were competitive without Ben Roethlisberger and in the game that was Mason Rudolph’s first NFL start. They posted five takeaways, had a 20-17 lead midway through the fourth quarter, and might have won the game had it not been for a James Conner fumble that the 49ers recovered at the Steelers 24-yard line and turned into the deciding touchdown with 75 seconds remaining.

• The Browns offense had eight offensive possessions in the first half vs. San Francisco, and those went this way: punt, interception, punt, lost fumble, red zone field goal, interception, punt, one-play that resulted in a sack before the end of the half.

• In the same first half, the Browns defense allowed an 83-yard touchdown run by Matt Breida on San Francisco’s first possession, and then an 84-yard touchdown drive on the second. By the time the second quarter ended, the 49ers had a 21-3 lead, and anyone who had to get up early for work on Tuesday was able to click off the television certain of the game’s outcome.

• And in terms of the schedule facing the Browns and the Ravens the rest of the way, it’s fair to point out that the degree of difficulty will increase markedly. Baltimore has road games at Seattle, at the Los Angeles Rams, and at 4-1 Buffalo, to go along with home games vs. New England and San Francisco. Cleveland has to go to Gillette Stadium and to Heinz Field, and will play Seattle, Buffalo, and the Ravens at FirstEnergy Stadium.

• But the Steelers should find no solace in what the Ravens and the Browns have not been so far, and in what those two teams will be facing over the next three months of this NFL regular season. In fact, it should honk them off even more, because it simply serves to emphasize the opportunity they are squandering this season.

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