Posted by ESPN.com’s James Walker
After a wild slate of games, here are seven observations in the AFC North for Week 1:
It’s extremely early, but don’t be surprised if Denver Broncos receiver Brandon Stokley’s tipped, 87-yard touchdown catch against the Cincinnati Bengals is a play of the year candidate at the end of the season. It will be hard to top in terms of distance, wow factor and importance as it won the game for the Broncos. According to the NFL, it was the longest game-winning touchdown from scrimmage in the final minute of the fourth quarter in league history. The coverage was there. So I’m not sure what the Bengals could've done better other than knock the ball down instead of tipping it up. But in my view it was purely a fluke play and an awful break for Cincinnati.
If you’re a fan of the Bengals, at what point do you worry about starting quarterback Carson Palmer? In his last five starts dating back to last season, Palmer has thrown twice as many interceptions (six) than touchdowns (three). He struggled against the Broncos, recording 247 yards, two picks, and also was sacked three times. Despite Denver's lucky break, the Bengals scoring just seven points at home with Palmer under center is unnaceptable. Rust was an issue Sunday, because Palmer missed most of the preseason. But the fact that he didn’t play well last season when he was healthy makes it important to start putting together big games.
Speaking of quarterbacks, for those who feel Joe Flacco might fall victim to a sophomore slump, forget about it. The Baltimore Ravens quarterback had a career day in his 2009 debut, throwing for 307 yards and three touchdowns in Baltimore’s 38-24 win over the Kansas City Chiefs. The coaching staff in Baltimore is still trying to figure out how high Flacco’s ceiling is. So they keep giving him more and more responsibility and information to see what he can handle, and Sunday was another example.
But perhaps one of the biggest surprises of Week 1 was how poor Baltimore’s special teams played against Kansas City. The Ravens have two very good special teams’ minds in assistant Jerry Rosberg and head coach John Harbaugh, yet this continues to be a problem area. Last year I thought the Ravens were just average on special teams -- not bad, not great. But I would guess average is unacceptable for Harbaugh considering his pedigree. Expect the Ravens to make special teams an even bigger point of emphasis in practice this week.
The rapport between Cleveland Browns quarterback Brady Quinn and top receiver Braylon Edwards wasn’t very good in a 34-20 loss to the Minnesota Vikings. Edwards was thrown to five times by Quinn and finished with just one reception for 12 yards. On Quinn’s interception, Edwards admittedly finished the route incorrectly by running inside, while the ball was thrown outside. But the two were never in synch all game, which can't be the case for Cleveland’s offense to be successful.
Can the Pittsburgh Steelers run a no-huddle the entire game? Although quarterback Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t seem too opposed to the idea, it would be extremely difficult for an entire game. Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians runs a lot of different formations, and that requires plenty of substitutions of tight ends, running backs and receivers. Unless Pittsburgh is willing to simplify its sub packages -- a big if -- don’t expect to see Roethlisberger in a no-huddle offense for four quarters.
Next weekend will be very dangerous for the division as all four AFC North teams are on the road. The Browns (0-1) play at Denver (1-0). The Bengals (0-1) travel to play the Green Bay Packers (1-0). The Steelers (1-0) will meet the Chicago Bears (0-1) at Soldier Field, and the Baltimore Ravens (1-0) go cross-country to meet the San Diego Chargers. That’s why Week 1 was so important for the AFC North to win at home, because no team wants to fall into a 0-2 hole to start the year.