The Ravens may have been unable to finish against the Falcons, but Sunday managed to take care of any potential fallout from the loss at Atlanta and simply gave the team the added bonus of a few days of much-needed rest. The surging Cleveland Browns took the Jets into overtime, with New York once again escaping from a perennial division cellar-dweller. Cincinnati has begun their slow march back to being the Bungles, making the Ravens’ early-season loss to the now 2-7 Bengals all the more inexplicable and highlighting a team that is utterly incapable of putting together two decent seasons in a row. The biggest highlight of the weekend had to be the Patriots’ shredding of the vaunted Steelers’ defense and the gamebreaking ability of Pittsburgh’s Mike Wallace. Sunday taught us a number of lessons about the AFC North, and what the Ravens are going to have to face from here on out.
For one, the time of sleeping on the Browns is over. Not only did Cleveland crush the Patriots last week, but they came out and played toe-to-toe with the New York Jets throughout the game clear through overtime. While Cleveland had more than enough opportunities to win, one still has to be impressed with the play of Colt McCoy, who continues to understand his role and grow within the offense. The gunslinger from Texas has been replaced with a far more controlled and disciplined edition, but one who retains the creativity that made him college football’s winningest quarterback. With the struggles of Jimmy Clausen and the selective use of Tim Tebow, McCoy’s success is further proof that shorter, so-called “system” quarterbacks can be successful as long as they have the ability to learn and absorb the playbook. McCoy’s passer rating is actually 7 points higher than touted rookie Sam Bradford, and he has not thrown an interception since his first start, against Pittsburgh. Having Peyton Hillis running so well doesn’t hurt, and the defense has been re-ignited after a slow start to the season. The December matchup could be even more of a struggle than the 24-17 Ravens win back in September.
The Ravens will close the season against the Bengals on January 2nd, and at the rate they are going, they will be firmly in the cellar by then. The Bengals kept the score close against the Colts this weekend with a strong showing by their secondary, which gave Peyton Manning his second consecutive sub-standard game. However, in the end Cincy couldn’t get out of their own way. Carson Palmer continues to prove his doubters absolutely right this season, failing to regain his Pro Bowl form despite the plethora of weapons around him. His three interceptions puts him just two away from his total from all of last season. He is still a decent quarterback, but he hasn’t had a truly great season since 2006, despite the skill position players around him. Palmer is quickly dropping into David Garrard/Matt Hasselbeck territory, which isn’t bad, but it is far from where the signal-caller used to be. If the Bengals haven’t lost all hope by then, the Ravens secondary could do Cincy some favors and keep it close, but I don’t expect much from them going forward.
The Steelers had a bad game against New England last night, but not one that makes me think they won’t get right back on track. Mike Wallace showed he was impossible to cover one-on-one, and I already have visions of him playing the Santonio Holmes role in carving up the Baltimore secondary 20 yards at a time. If Hines Ward can return healthy for the remainder of the season, this team will regain its offensive composure. Defensively, Tom Brady simply went off on the Steelers, and had one of those games that great quarterbacks do. He seemed to be a step ahead of Pittsburgh all night, conducting the offense the way commentators credit Manning with doing so often. That game reminded me of the Patriots of old- no-name playmakers being given the ball in the right place and making something happen. This was Tom Brady at his best, and I don’t expect it to be duplicated against the Steelers again this season. I am grateful that Pittsburgh gets to take out their aggression on Oakland and Buffalo before the Ravens have to face them again.
It still looks good for Baltimore in the division, though the sledding gets a lot tougher after next week’s battle with Carolina. Tampa, an explosive Houston passing attack, and the Saints all await, in addition to all three divisional games. Through Week 10 the Ravens are where they want to be, but nothing is a given from here on out.