Cleveland Browns make AFC North interesting to watch

September 15, 2014|Mike Preston

Congratulations to Cleveland Browns fans. They finally have a competitive team back in the National Football League.

The Browns were on that level in December 2002, the last time they went to the playoffs. Of course, they lost in the first round to the Pittsburgh Steelers, but after two weeks of the 2014 season, Cleveland is making the AFC North race interesting.

The Cincinnati Bengals (2-0) are still the favorite to repeat as division champions, but the other three teams — Ravens, Browns, Steelers — have split their first two games.

The Browns, who play the Ravens on Sunday in Cleveland, have performed well. They've lost to Pittsburgh, 30-27, but then upset New Orleans, 26-24, two days ago for their first season-opening win at home in 10 years.

Miracles still exist.

"We may be in the best division in football," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "That's the way the season started. I'm not surprised by that. I'm not at all surprised by the challenge that faces us.

"The stadium is going to be rocking I'm sure in the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame capital. I'm sure they'll be fired up and ready go, and so are we. We're looking forward to the challenge."

The Bengals, though, are still the favorites. Cincinnati held on for a season-opening win against the Ravens, and then routed the Falcons, 24-10. The Bengals were expected to win, but not that big.

If there was a time to catch Cincinnati struggling, it was going to be early in the season with two new coordinators: Hue Jackson (offense) and Paul Guenther (defense). But the Bengals dominated Atlanta with 472 yards of offense and now have beaten quarterbacks Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan.

On paper, Cincinnati has one of the most talented teams in the NFL with defensive players like tackle Geno Atkins and linebacker Vontaze Burfict and skilled offensive players such as running back Giovani Bernard and receivers A.J. Green and Mohamed Sanu. But the Bengals have quarterback Andy Dalton, who has yet to win a playoff game in three straight postseason appearances.

Until then, can we please stop all the comparisons to Flacco?

Quite a few of the so-called preseason experts picked Pittsburgh to win the AFC North, but those expectations are too high. The Steelers kept veterans players around too long before inserting new talent.

They still have a good head coach in Mike Tomlin and several outstanding skilled players in quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, running back Le'Veon Bell and receiver Antonio Brown, but there is no big hitter on defense. Safety Troy Polamalu is too old and the Steelers can't bring pressure off the edges consistently anymore. Besides, Roethlisberger looked terrible and the offense very gimmicky when the Steelers lost to the Ravens here last Thursday.

On the other hand, Cleveland looks solid. The Browns' defense was aggressive and hard-hitting in the first half and linebackers Karlos Dansby and safety Donte Whitner swarm to the ball. There are few better cornerbacks than Joe Haden.

Few teams are running the ball better than Cleveland, which is averaging 152.5 yards and paced by running backs Terrance West, the rookie from Towson (35 rushes for 168 yards), and Isaiah Crowell (16 for 86).

For the first time in recent years the Browns can physically man up with a defensive front seven and dominate.

"They have two rookie running backs who are playing extremely well," Harbaugh said. "Crowell is doing a great job, too. Another guy we liked on tape. They have some young, strong backs in there. They're doing a nice job."

The problem with the Browns is at quarterback. Brian Hoyer is a tough competitor and is 3-1 in the four games he has started in Cleveland. But he is inaccurate on intermediate and long passes.

So is Flacco, but at least he is in the same stadium. Hoyer threw three passes in the first half against New Orleans that had more hang time than most of the punts.

If the Ravens can stop Cleveland's running game and force Hoyer to beat them, they will win Sunday. It will be tough because the Browns are feeling good about themselves. They came close to beating rival Pittsburgh, and they upset the Saints, an early-season favorite.

In a city that is dreary and gloomy and where the sun doesn't shine, the Browns have shed some light. And before this season is over, they'll pull off more upsets in the NFL.

But they are still a year and a quarterback away while Pittsburgh needs more playing time together. The Bengals have the talent, but not a proven winner at the game's most important position.

The Ravens?

They're going to be right there in the division race until the end. And with a few breaks, they could sneak in and win it. But it won't be easy. It was expected to be an interesting race, but it's tougher now.

Cleveland has gotten better.

mpreston@baltsun.com

twitter.com/MikePrestonSun

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