AFC North: 2013 Week 9 Rapid Reaction

Rapid Reaction: Pittsburgh Steelers

November, 3, 2013

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- A few observations from the Pittsburgh Steelers' 55-31 loss to the New England Patriots.

What it means: There shouldn’t be any playoff talk around the Steelers’ locker room after the team lost six of its first eight games for just the fourth time since 1970. This team would have to win seven of its final eight games to have any chance of making the playoffs, and the Steelers haven’t shown that they can string more than two wins together at a time. Focus now will turn to bigger-picture issues such as what younger players the Steelers should play over veterans in the second half of the season and who will take the fall for what is sure to be Mike Tomlin’s first losing season in Pittsburgh.

Stock watch: A complete and utter collapse by the defense has left that proud unit in tatters. The Steelers allowed Tom Brady to throw for 400 or more yards for the fifth time in his career and also yielded 100-yard games to three Patriots receivers, including rookie Aaron Dobson. New England was also quite effective running the ball, as evidenced by the 610 yards of offense it rolled up against a defense that had allowed the fewest total yards in each of the past two seasons. The Steelers have scoffed for several years now at the perception that their defense has gotten old. Brady, who threw for 116 yards last Sunday, made the Steelers’ defense look ancient.

Gronk effect: The Steelers had done a good job of holding opposing tight ends in check save for a 61-yard reception allowed to the Bengals’ Tyler Eifert in the second game of the season. That changed Sunday, when Rob Gronkowski announced that he is back from forearm and back injuries in a big way. He and Brady exploited the Steelers’ lack of speed at the back of their defense as the two hooked up seven times for 119 yards and a touchdown in the first half alone. Gronkowski, who graduated from Woodland Hills High School in Pittsburgh, finished with a career-high nine receptions for 143 yards and a touchdown. He also drew a pass-interference penalty in the end zone late in the first half that set up a Patriots touchdown. Gronkowski has four touchdowns in three games against the Steelers.

Next up: The Steelers return home next Sunday to play the 3-6 Bills. It will be interesting to see the reception the Steelers get from their fans -- and how many empty seats there will be at Heinz Field. The last time fans saw the Steelers in person the team had just beaten the Ravens on a field goal as time expired to breathe new life into their season. Now the Steelers have little hope of turning their season around after deflating losses at Oakland and New England. The boo birds could be out in full force as the unthinkable in Pittsburgh has happened: the Pirates played meaningful games in October, while the Steelers won’t play any meaningful games after October.

Rapid Reaction: Cleveland Browns

November, 3, 2013

CLEVELAND -- A few thoughts on the Cleveland Browns' 24-18 win over the Baltimore Ravens:

What it means: The Browns can think about competing in the AFC North. Only one team in the division is over .500, and that’s the Bengals. But they lost their best defensive player to a knee injury when Geno Atkins went down in Thursday night’s game. The Browns are 4-5, one-half game ahead of the Ravens and one-and-a-half behind the Bengals, with a game in Cincinnati after the bye. Cleveland is in second place and after everything that’s happened this season can actually think about doing something the final seven games other than playing out the string.

Stock watch: Jason Campbell is here to stay. Or until he gets hurt. Campbell shrugged off an early late hit when 340-pound Haloti Ngata fell on him after a scramble to throw three touchdown passes against a Ravens defense that should have been rested and organized after a bye week. Instead, Campbell played the same kind of calm, composed game he played in Kansas City. In two games, he has zero interceptions and five touchdown passes.

The swarm: The Browns' defense made the Ravens look pretty bad at times with their combination of pressure and blitzes. The Browns were aggressive against the run, and attacking against the pass. It made Joe Flacco look bad, and never let noted Browns-killer Ray Rice get going. If the Browns get consistent effort like that the rest of the season, they will be in a lot of games.

End of the streak: The Browns had lost 11 games in a row to Baltimore heading into the game. Coach Rob Chudzinski said the division had treated the Browns like a kid brother and it was time for the team to step up. They did, and despite trading their starting running back and using three different starting quarterbacks they are in second place in the division nine games into the season.

What's next: The Browns have their bye week and won’t play again until Nov. 17 when they visit Cincinnati to play the Bengals.

Rapid Reaction: Baltimore Ravens

November, 3, 2013

CLEVELAND -- A few thoughts on the Baltimore Ravens' 24-18 loss to the Cleveland Browns.

What it means: The Ravens (3-5) fell into third place in the AFC North and 21/2 games back of Cincinnati. This continues a downward spiral for the Ravens, who lost for the fourth time in five games. It ended the Ravens' 11-game win streak over the Browns, who hadn't beaten Baltimore in 2,177 days (November 2007). The Ravens also lost for the first time after the bye in coach John Harbaugh's six seasons. The Browns (4-5) moved into second place in the division.

Collapsing on Flacco: Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco was off his game, and it could have been the result of the hits inflicted on him. He was sacked five times (tying a season high) and hit a total of eight times. It was rough going for Flacco from the start, when he missed on 10 of his first 15 passes. He finished 24-of-41 for 250 yards and two touchdowns, with one interception.

Stock watch: Rising: Marlon Brown. The rookie wide receiver accounted for 14 points with two touchdowns and a two-point conversion. Undrafted coming out of Georgia, Brown has a team-leading five touchdowns this season.

Major breakdowns: The Ravens gave up three touchdown passes to Jason Campbell after allowing four of them the past six games. Cornerback Lardarius Webb got faked out badly in the open field on Davone Bess' 20-yard touchdown in the second quarter, and no one covered tight end Gary Barnidge on a 4-yard touchdown pass. The secondary couldn't get the opponent off the field late in the fourth quarter for a third straight game.

Costly drop: With the Ravens trailing 14-10 in the third quarter, Tandon Doss let a punt go through his arms, giving the ball to the Browns at the Baltimore 11-yard line. The Browns needed only two plays and a bad penalty by the Ravens (12 men on the field) to get into the end zone. Doss was the NFL's second-best punt returner entering this game.

What's next: The Ravens play their first home game since Oct. 13 when they host the AFC North-leading Bengals. Baltimore has beaten Cincinnati the past three times at M&T Bank Stadium, but streaks don't seem to matter much when it comes to the Ravens this season.

Rapid Reaction: Cincinnati Bengals

November, 1, 2013

MIAMI -- A few thoughts on the Cincinnati Bengals' 22-20 overtime loss to the Miami Dolphins.

What it means: Thursday night's game was about one thing for the Bengals: survival. They nearly did just that. Unfortunately, in the end, it was the Dolphins' defense that had more mettle. Miami was able to come through with the win after bringing relentless pressure on Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton in the middle of the overtime period. It was Cameron Wake's blitz past Bengals guard Kevin Zeitler that led to the game-winning safety. This loss doesn't mean the Bengals are a bad team, it just means that they didn't have quite enough gas in the tank after a rough nine-week stretch to start the season.

Stock watch: Giovani Bernard continues to impress. The rookie's weaving, winding, tackle-breaking 35-yard touchdown run near the start of the fourth quarter wasn't just the latest in a stream of highlights for the South Florida native; it may have been the best array of moves he has showcased since donning a Bengals uniform. Reminiscent of the king of extending the play, Barry Sanders, the run started with a pitch right, saw a cutback to the left sideline and concluded as a score in the middle of the field. The Dolphins missed five tackles on the play. Bernard finished with 79 yards on nine carries and two scores. One of his touchdowns came at the end of a drive in which he carried the ball four times for 27 yards. It sparked the comeback. Bernard's successful game might have had a minor cost, however: He was run from it with a rib injury.

Geno sacked: The Bengals lost one of their big defensive stoppers in the second quarter when defensive tackle Geno Atkins suffered a right-knee injury. It wasn't clear by the end of the game exactly how much time, if any, he might miss because of the injury, but the ailment itself appeared at the time to be rather significant. He needed assistance as he gingerly walked off the field.

What's next? The Bengals take their 6-3 record on the road to face Baltimore on Nov. 10. With nine days to heal their very weary bones, the timing of the AFC North matchup couldn't be better. It will also be the end of a four-cities-in-five-weeks tour, on which they are now 3-1.