“So you’re back…where ya started…here we go ’round again.” – the Kinks
Two weeks into the 2021 NFL season, and the AFC North has made zero headway in establishing itself. All four teams stand at a statistical tie at 1-1, and all four teams have shown almost equal parts brilliance and abject failure, depending on the game, opponent and execution. As there’s one intra-divisional game this week, this logjam at the top/bottom will change, but due to widespread injuries throughout the division, it’s become increasingly difficult to predict how. I’ll give it an honest shot.
As usual, these picks are for fun and should in no way be used for actual wagering purposes. That is, unless you want to make a ton of money in a legal forum, because we know more stuff and things about football than you do or something.
Chicago Bears @ Cleveland Browns
Sunday, September 26, 1:00pm, FOX
Come on down, Justin Fields. In a game with some regional implications, the highly-drafted QB from Ohio State will make his starting NFL debut for the Bears at the expense of former Bengals QB Andy Dalton, whose frequent injury issues were just too much to overcome to keep the talented rookie sidelined. Despite his inexperience, Fields should prove a challenge for the beleaguered Cleveland defense, as his excellent arm strength and above-average mobility present very different circumstances than the increasingly-flat-footed Dalton would have. Beyond Fields, though, the Bears have little to boast on offense, so it will be on DE Myles Garrett and company to take charge early and intimidate the rookie into making some…well…rookie mistakes.
The Browns should be able to score against a good Chicago defense, even with the presence of all-world LB Khalil Mack. The Browns run the ball better than most of the NFL, so any offensive progress will be determined by establishing bruising RBs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt as early as possible to open up passing lanes via play-action. With the return of mercurial WR Odell Beckham Jr. (and the absence of reliable WR Jarvis Landry), the Browns may have a few downfield opportunities to take advantage of, so it’ll be on the arm of QB Baker Mayfield to ensure they do.
Bears 17, Browns 28
Baltimore Ravens @ Detroit Lions
Sunday, September 26, 1:00pm, CBS
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: The Lions are rebuilding. At least we think they are. If not, this franchise represents the longest current stretch of ineptitude in the NFL, with no real chance of competing for several more years without top draft picks. Having traded their workable QB (Matthew Stafford) for a marginal one (Jared Goff) to save a few pennies this offseason, resulting in an uncontroversial 0-2 start, it would appear the team is resigned to suffer through another double-digit-loss season to bolster their draft stock. It may be the only avenue they have towards success, as Detroit’s commonly cited as a terrible destination for free agents.
That said, the Ravens are coming off an emotional, gutty win against QB Lamar Jackson’s biggest bugaboo in the Kansas City Chiefs; one could easily predict a letdown under these circumstances, especially against a club seeking their first win. While I don’t think it’ll be an easy walkover, it’s hard to envision the Lions deploying enough defensive acumen to slow Jackson and his revolving core of RBs, let alone his slowly-emerging passing attack. The Ravens should have little trouble containing Goff and his myriad options, this will be a week where defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale resumes his blitz-happy ways. There will be little a troubled Detroit offensive line will be able to do to stop it.
Ravens 31, Lions 20
Cincinnati Bengals @ Pittsburgh Steelers
Sunday, September 26, 1:00pm, CBS
This game, which has been largely a one-sided affair in recent years, became interesting when it was announced oft-battered Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger suffered a strained pectoral muscle last week. While Roethlisberger’s histrionics about minor, niggling injuries is well-documented, the amount of abuse he’s taken this season due to a leaky, inexperienced offensive line can’t be understated. “Big” Ben is taking 7.5 hits per game this season, which is unconscionable for a 39-year old QB who openly considered retirement this past offseason. It’s tough to blame the veteran for any of the team’s current woes considering the relative anemia the rest of the offense has shown, including the puzzling lack of carries for first-round RB Najee Harris. Look for the Bengals to apply as much pressure on Roethlisberger as they can via assorted blitz packages and disguises, as this seems to be a viable path to shutting down the Pittsburgh attack completely right now.
But this game’s in Pittsburgh, which has been a relative nightmare for the Bengals. Second-year QB Joe Burrow has also taken his share of blows this season amid strong concern, considering he’s barely returned from season-ending IR in 2020, and his protection seems little better so far this year. RB Joe Mixon has managed to find some running lanes while the passing attack has evolved and will continue to do so, but it’s obviously contingent on Burrow’s health. While backup QB Brandon Allen isn’t a bad option to have on the roster, no one wants to see him in control of this offense. It’s assumed the Bengals feel the same way.
Bengals 24, Steelers 28