The AFC North enjoyed an excellent week.
All four teams won, three in dominant fashion, and two were over supposedly-comparable opponents. One was little more than a toss-up. Yet all four teams held sway at home, giving further notice to the NFL that the AFC North is indeed the league’s best division and among the least-desirable home venues to contend with in the playoffs.
“Y’all betta reconize.” Something like that.
Anyway, here’s what happened.
Titans 16, Steelers 20
Considering the Steelers were hosting a Titans team featuring a rookie QB making his second start, one would’ve expected a bit more activity instead of the rather ugly spectacle both teams presented.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: The Steelers’ offense didn’t play effectively and were outgained by their opponent. This has been the case in every game this season, yet the Steelers have soldiered on through timely defense and very timely offense, usually of the last-drive variety. Pittsburgh QB Kenny Pickett had a so-so day, racking up 160 yards passing including the go-ahead TD pass to WR Diontae Johnson with roughly four minutes remaining; notably, this was Johnson’s first score in nearly two seasons, and it certainly made a difference. RB Jaylen Warren, assuming a more frequent role, added 88 yards on 11 carries, and backfield mate Najee Harris rushed for 69 yards and a TD.
That’s about all the Steelers offense that’s fit for description.
The defense had moderate success stifling QB Will Levis, a late interception by LB Kwon Alexander dashed any Titans comeback hopes. Levis was hounded much of the day by LB T.J. Watt, who posted a sack and several QB hits and hurries, and bookend LB Alex Highsmith, who added two sacks and several QB hits of his own. LB Elandon Roberts led the Steelers with nine tackles.
Seahawks 3, Ravens 37
The Ravens seem to be hitting their proverbial stride at season’s midpoint, and they claim they’re still a work in progress.
The Seahawks managed to produce enough resistance to stay within faint hopes of drawing even (17-3) at halftime, but defensive mistakes and a bevy of rushers for the Ravens combined to crush those aspirations. The Seahawks managed only six first downs and 151 total yards on offense, due mostly to the efforts of an excellent pass rush. LB Kyle Van Noy played very well, getting two sacks and seemingly endless QB hurries; edge rusher Odafe Oweh and DT Justin Madubuike each added a sack and, for lack of a flowery description, simply pushed the Seahawks offensive line around all day. S Geno Stone contributed his league-leading 6th interception.
On offense, QB Lamar Jackson really didn’t have to do much. Despite being relatively safe most of the day, Jackson passed for a quiet 187 yards and rushed for 60 before giving way to backup Tyler Huntley midway through the fourth quarter. TE Mark Andrews led the team with nine catches for 80 yards, but the real stars were the Ravens’ running backs; Gus Edwards rushed for 52 yards and two TDs on five carries, while sudden rookie sensation Keaton Mitchell added 137 yards and his first NFL rushing TD in mop-up duty.
Cardinals 0, Browns 27
Shutouts are rare and intriguing in the NFL, as such complete dominance of one unit over another is almost unthinkable given the amount of resources teams dedicate to keeping them competitive alongside the NFL’s marked push for parity and roster balance the last decade or so.
The Browns clearly don’t care about the metrics. Their brutal-at-times shutout of the hapless Cardinals was just fine with them.
In the wake of their decision to trade QB Joshua Dobbs to the Vikings, the Cardinals made the regrettable decision to start rookie QB Clayton Tune, who delivered on little more than his…rookieness, at times in spades. Tune somehow managed to complete more than 50% of his passes (11-20, 58 yards, 2 INTs), but was unmercifully beaten and tossed about throughout the afternoon. The defense totaled seven sacks and countless QB hits, including 2.5 by FA pickup DT Dalvin Tomlinson. S Grant Delpit had a busy day, posting 10 tackles and a half-sack of his own.
The Browns offense witnessed (finally) the return of QB Deshaun Watson, who played adequately (19-30, 219 yards, 2 TDs), if not exceptionally. WR Amari Cooper did substantial damage to the Cardinals with five catches for 139 yards and a TD; the next most-productive receiver for either team was Browns RB Jerome Ford, with 33 yards on five catches. Still, with the absolute dominance of the defense, it’s not like the offense had to do much.
Bills 18, Bengals 24
A playoff rematch from last year, this game featured one contender that’s just become fully healthy, and another that’s struggling to produce meaningful offense outside of its do-everything QB.
Bills QB Josh Allen played Superman again Sunday night in passing for 258 yards and a TD (with 1 INT), and leading the team in rushing with 44 yards and a rushing TD. WR Stefon Diggs contributed six catches and caught Allen’s lone TD pass in the fourth quarter, while TE Dalton Kincaid caught 10 passes, mostly in bailout/dumpoff scenarios. The Cincinnati defense shut down nearly everything else the Bills attempted; the final score doesn’t really indicate how different each team appeared, with the Bills looking indecisive and tentative most of the night.
The Bengals played steady, effective defense, led by ILB Jermaine Pratt’s 11 tackles and CB Mike Hilton’s 10 solo tackles (rare to see this). No other stat line really jumps out, signifying effective team defense in a communal lockdown of the Bills. Some have noted the lack of stars on this defense beyond, maybe, DE Trey Hendrickson; if they play with this sort of balance, stars really make no difference, as evidenced by Hendrickson’s quiet day (one tackle).
Bengals QB Joe Burrow played an even, controlled game (31-44, 348 yards, 2 TDs) although the inconsistency of the Bengals’ rushing attack (54 total yards) was glaring at times; RB Joe Mixon added the team’s lone rushing TD among his 14 carries for 37 yards. Both of Burrow’s TD passes went to tight ends; one to Irv Smith Jr. on the game’s opening drive, and the other to Drew Sample late in the second quarter. WR Tee Higgins, lacking on the stat sheet for several weeks, had eight receptions for 110 yards in a bounce-back game of sorts.