AFC North Roundup: Pittsburgh Steelers narrowly avoided disaster vs. Cleveland Browns, while Cincinnati Bengals took down Pittsburgh Steelers
The AFC North figures to be one of the more hotly contested divisions in football this season, and Week 1 did nothing to change that expectation. Just how crazy was Week 1 for these teams? Cincinnati and Pittsburgh coughed away a combined 39 points worth of leads on Sunday ... and both won. The Bengals managed to nab a 23-16 win in Baltimore, while the Steelers avoided disaster with a 30-27 victory over Cleveland.
Odds are, the AFC North will be a back-and-forth affair all season long. Sunday reiterated that there are some talented, albeit quite flawed, contenders in the division. Those teams will be hard-pressed to deliver a more entertaining stack of games than they did in Week 1. Here's a quick recap of all that went down:
• A.J. Green to the rescue: Even though Cincinnati led by 15 at the break, it felt like it should have been more. An inability to find the end zone coupled with a flailing second-half effort on both sides of the ball left the Bengals staring at a very disappointing defeat. That is, until Green burned Baltimore yet again.
Green has done just that time and again in his career -- he had three catches of 40-plus yards in two games versus the Ravens last season. His decisive 77-yard touchdown grab Sunday, coming moments after Steve Smith scored on an 80-yarder for Baltimore, did require some good fortune in the form of a tipped ball. Green kept his concentration and made the play, then waltzed into the end zone -- a superstar coming through when his team needed him the most.
• About that Baltimore offense ...: Smith's long touchdown and 345 total yards passing from Flacco will make the final numbers look better than they were. Outside of those highlights, Baltimore's attack looked nothing like the physical unit Gary Kubiak crafted during the preseason. Perhaps Ray Rice's absence (suspension) hindered Kubiak some -- Bernard Pierce, with 14 yards on six carries, did little to deliver any positive momentum. The Bengals' tough front also deserves credit.
Still, the Ravens' hopes for a 2014 resurgence hung in large part on Kubiak sparking the offense. Flacco will have to be better than he was Sunday if that's to happen. The Baltimore quarterback misfired on 27 of his 62 passes, plus ended the first half with an absolutely boneheaded play on which he killed the clock with his team in field-goal range.
It almost goes without saying, but Kubiak also definitely did not plan on Justin Forsett being his lead back. Forset rushed for 70 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries Sunday, lapping Pierce's efforts.
• Where's Johnny?: Standing on the sideline, mostly. Browns head coach Mike Pettine was adamant this week that starting QB Brian Hoyer did not have a short leash, despite being backed up by Johnny Manziel, the league's biggest headline-grabbing player. Pettine's claim was put to the test early as the Steelers raced out to a 27-3 halftime lead against an anemic Browns club.
Pettine stuck with the veteran though, who repaid his coach's faith by helping to orchestrate a 24-0 run in the second half. (Running back Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell aided Hoyer in a big way, combining for 132 yards and two scores.)
Cleveland needed only about 19 minutes of game time to erase that 24-point deficit, with Hoyer capping the rally on a 9-yard touchdown pass to Travis Benjamin. Hoyer then had the Browns on the verge of a go-ahead field goal midway through the fourth quarter, only to see that drive sputter at the Pittsburgh 35. The Browns went three-and-out on their final possession, helping to set up Pittsburgh's win.
Still, Hoyer's second-half performance ought to be enough for him to hold onto his job for the foreseeable future.
• The Steelers dodged a huge bullet: Whatever Pittsburgh did at halftime Sunday, it should never do again. If not for a couple of timely stops and a late Ben Roethlisberger-to-Markus Wheaton completion, Mike Tomlin's team might have suffered one of the worst losses in franchise history -- no hyperbole there; coughing away a 24-point cushion against a depleted Browns offense would have been devastating. And with a Thursday night trip to Baltimore looming, Pittsburgh had to find a way into the victory column here, no matter how ugly it looked.
The reality is, the Steelers will have some ebbs and flows until they shore up their lines. The Browns confounded Pittsburgh's defense with misdirection repeatedly, while the Steelers' interior O-line found itself backpedaling far too often.