Welcome back and all that. Each week, I’ll post a quick writeup of pending AFC North games, with a few notable points and, yes, timely, knowledgeable predictions regarding the games’ outcomes.
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.
Cleveland Browns @ Cincinnati Bengals
Sunday, October 25, 1:00 pm, CBS
This year’s first installment of the Crisis Bowl features teams with nearly palindromic records and even fewer similarities beyond that. The Browns, always aware of Ye Olde NFL Measuring Stick every season, decidedly clocked in a few feet short in their mismatch against the rejuvenated Steelers, while the Bengals have been nurturing their frustration over blowing a 21-point lead – and subsequent game – to the middling Indianapolis Colts. The Browns, while engaging in mild finger-pointing, are professionally sorting out playing time and protection schemes. The Bengals are attempting to keep veteran players and coaches from clashing internally over playing time (playing time!) and hoping to survive the turmoil long enough to turn over a few more roster spots and jettison older, crankier talent.
This should make for an interesting game anyway. Offensively, the Browns have a lot to prove to themselves, and it will probably begin by re-establishing their ground attack against the Bengals’ wobbly run coverage. Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski is a major proponent of play-action schemes; this will also be key in easing pocket pressure on QB Baker Mayfield, whose pocket awareness has been sorely tested lately. The Bengals will counter with their plodding, base 4-3 set while depending on their suspect LB corp to slow the Browns rushing attack. This probably won’t work per talent differential alone, but it’s schematically the right thing to try, I suppose.
Bengals rookie QB Joe Burrow has been the least of their problems and stands to be the 2020 Offensive Rookie of the Year in what would be a runaway vote currently. Burrow has shown his “rookieness” and his maturity in alternating fashion, as he’s struggled to times to simply pull the ball down or throw it away. His poise has been excellent overall, and the Bengals will need better offensive line play to ensure he survives his rookie season at all, as the team is currently on track to allow 75 sacks. The Browns will undoubtedly blitz Burrow often to add to that total, so his success will depend on adequate protection, chiefly from pass-rushing DE Myles Garrett, who stands to be the biggest difference maker in this one.
DOOOMMEEEEDD: Browns 27, Bengals 24
Me: Browns 28, Bengals 16
Pittsburgh Steelers @ Tennessee Titans
Sunday, October 25, 1:00 pm, CBS
Two of the NFL’s unbeatens meet to remedy that situation in Nashville, where the Titans are beginning to be recognized as one of the NFL’s elite teams while the Steelers have been coasting on their decidedly-easy early schedule. Ye Olde NFL Measuring Stick projects both teams to be playoff contenders, and so far, neither has disappointed. The Titans have been unfairly pigeonholed as a rushing team due to the impressive exploits of mammoth RB Derrick Henry, but the Titans have actually passed for roughly 260 yards/game, good enough for 11th overall. The Steelers’ offense hasn’t produced the yardage one would expect, but their point differential is impressive, which makes it easy to deduce the Steelers’ defense has been excellent at producing turnovers and quick opposing offensive possessions, usually resulting in short fields for venerable QB Ben Roethlisberger and company.
The Titans will undoubtedly run the ball often, and with the Steelers’ loss of standout MLB Devin Bush for the season, stopping the aforementioned Henry becomes a major challenge. Look for the Steelers to use bigger sets in early downs to compensate, because if Henry has success setting up play-action, the Steelers’ vaunted defense could very well struggle. Offensively, the Steelers will do what they’ve been doing – spread the ball around, run often if only to establish the ground attack, and let the offensive line do most of the work. Of note is Steelers multi-faceted rookie WR Chase Claypool, whose scoring output lately has paced the team and opened up new avenues for Roethlisberger, particularly in the short passing game. The Titans’ defense seems to be a reflection of head coach Mike Vrabel’s experiences as a LB in New England, consisting of a bunch of well-rounded, solid players but no real stars, rendering them an effective, if a trifle boring, overall unit. This one will be close.
DOOOMMEEEEDD: Steelers 24, Titans 23
Me: Steelers 24, Titans 27