Injuries, close losses make the AFC North clearly the Bengals' to lose
The Ravens are 0–3. The Browns are coming off a home loss to the Raiders. The Steelers just lost their starting quarterback—the heart and soul of their team—for at least the next few games. There are 14 weeks left in the regular season, so it is premature to call any division race over. But all signs right now point toward the division title landing in Cincinnati.
Two sizable developments to that end occurred within about 45 minutes of each other on Sunday: Ben Roethlisberger suffered a significant knee injury in Pittsburgh's 12–6 win over the Rams (multiple reports indicated Roethsliberger could miss four to six weeks with a sprained MCL), and the Bengals held on for a dramatic victory in Baltimore.
The latter result kept the Bengals perfect at 3–0 on the season, and they have gotten there with QB Andy Dalton playing perhaps the best football of his career. In the win over Baltimore, he threw for 383 yards and shook off a third-quarter interception to hit A.J. Green for two fourth-quarter touchdowns. With or without the Roethlisberger injury, the Bengals would have headed to next weekend as the division favorite, both by record and by performance.
That Big Ben setback merely solidified Cincinnati's early status. His replacement, the 35-year-old Michael Vick, did not arrive in Pittsburgh until August and has not been a full-time starter since the start of 2013. (Vick did start three games last season with the Jets.)
“He got us out of the stadium,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin said of Vick's appearance Sunday. “That is what the backup quarterback’s job is. If he has to play next week, then he gets a full week of preparation. My standards and expectations will be different under those circumstances. It is above the line today, he got us out of the stadium."
The so-called “standards and expectations” will have to be much higher for the Steelers to keep pace through October. The positive news for them, if there is any in this sort of situation, comes from Le'Veon Bell's return and a defense that has stuffed San Francisco and St. Louis on back-to-back weekends. Those will have to be the elements that carry them in Roethlisberger's absence.
Vick could have a little magic left in the tank—the Steelers' offense has relied for years on Roethlisberger's ability to improvise, and Vick also has a creative flair. Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant (once he's back from suspension) are outstanding deep threats, and Vick still possesses a cannon.
Even in the best-case scenario, though, the Steelers cannot count on Vick to approach the level of Roethlisberger, who last season led the league with 4,952 yards passing.
So, three games into the season, Pittsburgh already finds itself in damage control.
The situations in Baltimore and Cleveland are even worse. A 1–2 start was not wholly unexpected for the Browns, even though Sunday's loss to Oakland counts as an upset. Baltimore's 0–3 beginning, on the other hand, is downright stunning. The Ravens were picked by many (including this writer) to reach the Super Bowl. They may still get there, but first they'll have to become just the sixth team in league history to start 0–3 and reach the postseason.
The Ravens and Steelers meet Thursday, in Pittsburgh, for what should be a telling ballgame. A fourth straight loss would all but eliminate Baltimore from the AFC North race; a win would leave all three of Cincinnati's division rivals with at least two losses and would cast serious doubts over the Steelers' ability to survive sans Roethlisberger.
Cincinnati does have its own tough stretch ahead: Kansas City, Seattle, at Buffalo and at Pittsburgh. A multi-game losing streak is not out of the question.
The current AFC North outlook has just as much to do with what's happening outside the Queen City as it does with how the Bengals are playing right now. Baltimore and Cleveland are in shambles. Pittsburgh could be on the ropes, if Vick does not reestablish himself as a viable NFL starter.
There's a lotta ballgame left. Cincinnati just happens to have a stranglehold on the division race.