NFL Nation: AFC North

CINCINNATI -- Tuesday's late-morning practice was barely one minute old when rookie cornerback Darqueze Dennard was engulfed by a media crush.

As one of the first young Cincinnati Bengals out of the post-practice huddle, Dennard was ripe for the reporters' picking. With his first 11 training camp workouts officially behind him, the interested parties were curious to get his thoughts entering the most important game of his young professional career.

"That first game is important for a rookie," Dennard said.

[+] EnlargeDarqueze Dennard
AP Photo/Al BehrmanRookie CB Darqueze Dennard has veterans and coaches singing his praises.
Indeed it is. First games are all about getting comfortable with the speed of the game at its most elite level. They also are about beginning to learn officials and their tendencies, and to start charting which coverage techniques work best against which receivers.

As important as Dennard's first action in Thursday night's preseason opener against the Kansas City Chiefs might be, he really shouldn't feel any pressure. Before he even boarded the plane for Kansas City, Dennard already was held in high regard by his head coach -- the man who has the final say on any playing time he might earn.

"Darqueze Dennard, in my eyes, has been very impressive thus far," Marvin Lewis said in Cincinnati just last week.

He reiterated that belief Thursday morning when chatting with Bengals radio play-by-play announcer Dan Hoard at the team hotel in Kansas City. Hours before a preview show advancing the 8 p.m. ET kickoff, Lewis told Hoard that Dennard was "the best rookie corner I've seen," according to a tweet Hoard posted.

It's not hard to believe. Although the transition to the NFL continues for the first-year corner out of Michigan State, Dennard has looked like he belonged from the day he arrived in Cincinnati. He has taken the advice he has been given and built upon it. He has looked sharp in coverage during the open practices, and even better at jumping routes and deflecting or intercepting passes when they have come his direction.

Dennard's play so far has peaked 12-year veteran Terence Newman's optimism.

"If he stays on this path, the sky's the limit for him," Newman said of Dennard. "I've seen a lot of DBs come and go. And I've seen a lot of them come in [from college] and they've had good press technique."

But few like Dennard.

Before he was selected 24th overall, the 2013 Thorpe Award winner had been praised around the draft community for his ability to go everywhere on the field that his receiver went. If his receiver put on a double move, Dennard was known to stay right on his hip, barely biting on the fake. If the receiver ran all the way across the field without drawing a throw, Dennard was right in his face for every step. His man-press cover skills were his most touted playing trait, and a large reason why he was coveted so early in the draft.

"I was told that one of his inadequacies was possibly playing the ball down the field," Lewis said. "And sometimes I think college corners get knocked for that, particularly if they were a physical player in college. But one of the things that’s impressed me so much is his ability to track and play the football on vertical throws.

"If you want to be a great corner at this level, you have to have those capabilities, and he’s shown those thus far.”

Dennard was taken aback last week when he heard his teammates and coaches were proud of his progress so far. He anticipated growing pains this year and has been surprised to hear that the people in charge of his playing time haven't noticed many of them. When he does need something corrected, he usually fixes it on the second try, Lewis said. Occasional discussions with veteran cornerbacks like Newman, Adam Jones and Leon Hall have helped.

"Having those guys around me and listening to them and to hear their rookie stories and how they came about, just doing that, I'm already putting it in my mind just to expect the worst," Dennard said. "That allows me to be prepared for anything I have to go through."

If Dennard really has reservations about his rookie season, he hasn't voiced them, Newman said.

"He doesn't have many questions, so when he asks you a question, sometimes it's like, 'Oh wow, he's really asking a question?'" Newman said. "But that's what I like about him. He doesn't seem like he's too big to say he doesn't understand what's going on."

The rookie also isn't too big to shirk a compliment. When told by a reporter last week that Lewis said in a news conference he was impressed by his play, Dennard smiled and paused before responding.

"Really? That's my first time hearing that," Dennard said, adding, "I'm honored. I'm just honored he even said that about me. But I've just got to continue to get better, as always, and find my niche to help the team win."

It's still a long camp, but the early returns on this first-round investment seem to be paying off for Cincinnati.
CINCINNATI -- By now you've probably read about how the Cincinnati Bengals structured Andy Dalton's contract in a way that works well for both him and the team.

Dalton has a chance to make as much as $115 million over the life of his six-year contract extension. He's at least in line to see $96 million if he remains with the organization through 2020.

It's a deal that also provides relatively easy outs for the team if it ever feels beyond 2015 that it wants to move on from him because his performance didn't meet the expectations it set forth. The agents to whom I've spoken see it as a team-friendly contact, but they also can see where Dalton didn't get fleeced. The $25 million Dalton stands to make in the first two years of the deal is about what had been expected. For a player viewed as arguably a second- or third-tier signal-caller, Dalton's extension has been viewed by player reps I've talked to as a win. Most wish the guaranteed money he received went beyond the first three days of the deal, though.

Dalton
Dalton
Dalton is slated to make $17 million of guaranteed money. He earned a $12 million signing bonus when he signed and will claim a $5 million roster bonus for this season on Thursday. He also has $100,000 coming Thursday for a roster bonus that was part of his rookie deal.

When it comes to awarding guaranteed money early, this is part of the Bengals' contractual practices. They typically give whatever guaranteed money they're awarding up front, while increasing base salaries as the deal continues. Some teams backload contracts with guaranteed money or offer de-escalators and decreasing base salaries. It's a way the Bengals feel they are exercising a measure of loyalty and trust in the player and his agent.

Dalton was set to have a cap value around $1.7 million this season before the deal was struck. Now he'll make just more than $9 million, while averaging $16 million during the life of the deal.

Courtesy our friends at ESPN Stats & Information, here is that year-by-year breakdown of Dalton's contract:

2014
Base salary: $986,027
Proration: $2,973,036
Roster bonus: $5,100,00*
Workout bonus: $0
Cap Value: $9,059,063
Cash Value: $18,086,027
Dead Money: $12,573,036
Guaranteed Money: $5,000,000
Cap Savings: -$8,53,973
Post-June 1 Cap Savings: $1,086,027
*He makes an additional $100,000 reporting bonus from his previous contract.

2015
Base salary: $3,000,000*
Proration: $2,400,000
Roster bonus: $4,000,000
Workout bonus: $200,000
Cap Value: $9,600,000
Cash Value: $7,200,000
Dead Money: $9,600,000
Guaranteed Money: $0
Cap Savings: $0
Post-June 1 Cap Savings: $7,200,000
*He can make up to $3 million with escalators involving playing time, making the playoffs and advancing in the playoffs.

2016
Base salary: $10,500,000*
Proration: $2,400,000
Roster bonus: $0
Workout bonus: $200,000
Cap Value: $13,100,000
Cash Value: $10,700,000
Dead Money: $7,200,000
Guaranteed Money: $0
Cap Savings: $5,900,000
Post-June 1 Cap Savings: $10,700,000
*He can make up to $3 million with escalators involving playing time, making the playoffs and advancing in the playoffs.

2017
Base salary: $13,100,000*
Proration: $2,400,000
Roster bonus: $0
Workout bonus: $200,000
Cap Value: $15,700,000
Cash Value: $13,300,000
Dead Money: $4,800,000
Guaranteed Money: $0
Cap Savings: $10,900,000
Post-June 1 Cap Savings: $13,300,000
*He can make up to $3 million with escalators involving playing time, making the playoffs and advancing in the playoffs.

2018
Base salary: $13,700,000*
Proration: $2,400,000
Roster bonus: $0
Workout bonus: $200,000
Cap Value: $$16,300,000
Cash Value: $13,900,000
Dead Money: $2,400,000
Guaranteed Money: $0
Cap Savings: $13,900,000
Post-June 1 Cap Savings: $13,900,000
*He can make up to $3 million with escalators involving playing time, making the playoffs and advancing in the playoffs.

2019
Base salary: $16,000,000*
Proration: $0
Roster bonus: $0
Workout bonus: $200,000
Cap Value: $16,200,000
Cash Value: $16,200,000
Dead Money: $0
Guaranteed Money: $0
Cap Savings: $16,200,000
Post-June 1 Cap Savings: $16,200,000
*He can make up to $3 million with escalators involving playing time, making the playoffs and advancing in the playoffs.

2020
Base salary: $17,500,000*
Proration: $0
Roster bonus: $0
Workout bonus: $200,000
Cap Value: $17,700,000
Cash Value: $17,700,000
Dead Money: $0
Guaranteed Money: $0
Cap Savings: $17,7000,000
Post-June 1 Cap Savings: $17,700,000
*He can make up to $3 million with escalators involving playing time, making the playoffs and advancing in the playoffs.
The Baltimore Ravens failed to make the playoffs for the first time under coach John Harbaugh, ending a postseason streak for the franchise as well as the division.

For the first time since 2007, only one team from the AFC North reached the playoffs. That was a string of five straight seasons with multiple playoff teams for the division, the longest current streak in the NFL.

The AFC North was the only division that had at least two playoff teams in 2008 (Pittsburgh and Baltimore), 2009 (Cincinnati and Baltimore), 2010 (Pittsburgh and Baltimore), 2011 (Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati) and 2012 (Baltimore and Cincinnati). The AFC North was the last division to send three teams to the postseason until the AFC West accomplished that feat this season.

How impressive has this been? The longest playoff streak now belongs to the NFC West, who has had multiple teams reach the postseason in two straight seasons.

It's now up the Cincinnati Bengals, the division's lone representative, to extend another streak for the AFC North. This division has sent a team to the AFC Championship Game for the past three years.

All-AFC North: Cincinnati Bengals

January, 2, 2014
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NFC Teams: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A trio of defensive stars, two Pro Bowl offensive players and an injured specialist comprised the Cincinnati Bengals' six selections to the ESPN.com All-AFC North team that was released Thursday. The four reporters who cover the teams in the division made the picks.

Linebacker Vontaze Burfict, the NFL's leading regular-season tackler, was joined by defensive ends Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson on the defensive side of the all-division team. They were all part of a unit that finished the year ranked third in total defense, and one that was second in the league in limiting third-down conversions. Last Friday, Burfict was named to his first Pro Bowl as an inside linebacker. The second-year player, who was originally signed as an undrafted rookie, finished the regular season with 171 tackles, a forced fumble, two fumble recoveries and an interception. Dunlap recorded a career-high 58 tackles and had 7.5 sacks. Johnson, who could be heading toward free agency in the coming weeks, had a career-high 56 tackles and led the league with eight batted balls at the line of scrimmage.

Cincinnati's offensive selections were led by receiver A.J. Green. He was selected to the team after catching a career-high 98 passes for another career-high 1,426 yards. He finished just 15 yards shy of a franchise record. He was joined on the all-division team by offensive lineman Andrew Whitworth, who made it as a left tackle. Across the last five games, Whitworth shuffled between left tackle and left guard as injuries depleted the Bengals' offensive line. Particularly, it was left guard Clint Boling's ACL injury against the Chargers in Week 13 that caused the shifting to occur.

Another injured Bengal was included on the All-AFC North team. Punter Kevin Huber, who had an average net of 40.5 yards before a season-ending jaw injury in Week 15, made it as the division's top punter. He had punts of 75 and 70 yards this season ahead of the blindside hit against the Steelers that broke his jaw. The NFL later said a flag should have been thrown for the hit, but since one wasn't, Huber and his coverage team allowed their only punt return touchdown of the season.

Despite winning the AFC North, the Bengals were outpaced on the all-division team by the Browns and Ravens. Both teams had seven players selected. Like the Bengals, the Steelers also had six. One of Pittsburgh's selections, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, made it when the Bengals' Andy Dalton didn't. Dalton had more wins, yards, touchdowns and a higher QBR than any other quarterback in the division. He also finished the season setting a pair of Bengals records. In addition to Dalton, a case for inclusion could have been made for rookie running back Giovani Bernard, receiver Marvin Jones, defensive tackle Domata Peko and cornerback Adam Jones.

CINCINNATI -- All of a sudden, thanks to Baltimore Ravens kicker Justin Tucker's powerful right leg, we've got a playoff race in the AFC North.

That's not the worst news for the Cincinnati Bengals, but it certainly isn't the best, either.

While the Bengals are still quite grateful at this point to be heavily involved in the NFL's playoff push, they are now a couple of scenarios away from actually watching this promising season come to an abrupt and shocking end with them sitting at home.

Yes, that really can happen, Bengals fans. Seriously.

Even if Cincinnati (9-5) wins this weekend when it hosts Minnesota, it still could miss the playoffs with a loss to Baltimore at home in two weeks. The Bengals and Ravens would both have 10-6 records, with Baltimore claiming the division title tiebreaker because of a season sweep over the Bengals. Cincinnati already lost in overtime at Baltimore, 20-17 on Nov. 10.

Along with that, if the Miami Dolphins win their final two games against the Bills and Jets, they would be 10-6. Like the Ravens, the Dolphins have a tiebreaker over the Bengals, thanks to their win over Cincinnati in South Florida on Halloween. If that tiebreaker were enacted, it would mean Miami would take the sixth and final AFC playoff seed. Cincinnati would effectively be shut out.

See, Bengals? Now do you see why winning at Pittsburgh on Sunday night was important? The 30-20 defeat you took wasn't just an ordinary loss like some of you were wont to say after the game.

"It doesn't matter when you lose them," center Kyle Cook said. "If you lose them all at the beginning of the season, they're going to hurt at the end. Every game you lose is a lost opportunity."

It was actually very easy to agree with Cook when he made this statement in one one-on-one interview inside the Bengals' locker room just after Sunday night loss. It was easy to understand the core of what he was saying: That all losses are bad and you try your hardest not to let any happen at any time of year.

But when you have December games like Monday night's 18-16 Ravens' final-minute win over the Detroit Lions, you begin to realize that for teams as talented and as strong as the Bengals were early in the season, late-season losses really can be painful. A loss in the regular-season finale, and a team that a month ago -- heck, two days ago -- looked like an easy lock to win the AFC North, might not claim the title, after all.

Two more wins, and a Ravens team that two months ago looked like a shell of its defending Super Bowl champion self could actually walk away with the division again.

A division race that appeared over back in October, has grown open.

This is why, for the next two weeks, the Bengals must do everything in their power to turn defensive end Michael Johnson's words into prophecy. Just after Sunday's loss, he told reporters: "We're going to come back and win two in a row at home and go into these playoffs and wreak havoc."

Paul Brown Stadium has been a relative house of horrors for opposing teams all season. There, the Bengals are 6-0 and have completely dismantled their opponents on both sides of the football. Of all the disappointment the Bengals have been handed the past two days, this glimmer of optimism might actually end up being all they need to make Baltimore's Monday night moot.

Now more than ever, the desire to fulfill their preseason goal of going undefeated at home takes on added significance. Two wins in two weeks could very well end up being what stands between them and their third straight postseason bid.

Quick Take: Ravens at Patriots

January, 15, 2012
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Three things to know about Sunday's AFC Championship Game between the Baltimore Ravens (13-4) and New England Patriots (14-3):

It's only fitting: The Ravens and Patriots have been the best teams in the AFC all season, so it's only right that they settle it on the field to see who represents the conference in the Super Bowl. Baltimore and New England did not meet during the regular season. The teams last met in 2010 when New England won in overtime. The Patriots and Ravens also split two meetings in 2009, with New England winning in the regular season and Baltimore winning in the playoffs.

Quarterback disparity: New England's biggest advantage will be at the most important position: quarterback. The Patriots have Tom Brady, who is coming off an NFL-playoff record six touchdown passes and 363 yards passing against the Denver Broncos. Brady is peaking at the right time. Meanwhile, Baltimore counterpart Joe Flacco is inconsistent. Flacco had another shaky postseason outing against the Houston Texans on Sunday, completing 14 of 27 passes for 176 yards and two touchdowns. Clearly, Flacco must play better at New England.

Patriots' D needs to keep momentum: Was it New England's defense, or was it the opponent? The Patriots played their best defensive game of the season, holding the Broncos to just 10 points and 252 yards. New England baffled Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, holding him to 136 yards passing and sacking him five times. New England will be tough to beat if its defense maintains this level of play. Of course, the Ravens have more dynamic weapons on offense and present a stiffer challenge than the Broncos.

Patriots-Broncos II: Take your pick

January, 9, 2012
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The New England Patriots (13-3) got the easiest matchup possible in the divisional round by drawing Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos (9-8). But as the Pittsburgh Steelers found out Sunday, nothing is guaranteed in the postseason.

So who wins Saturday's playoff game between New England and Denver? Take your pick.

Will it be Tom Brady and the Patriots advancing to the AFC Championship Game? New England is a huge favorite. The Patriots romped the Broncos in Denver, 41-23, in Week 15. Should we expect more of the same at Gillette Stadium?

Or will Tebow's magical run continue? Denver looked good against a tough Pittsburgh team. The Broncos now have momentum and will try to take advantage of New England perhaps gaining rust after two weeks off.

Using our SportsNation poll, vote for who wins Saturday's divisional round game between the Patriots and Broncos. You can also share your thoughts in the comments section below.

AFC North Stock Watch

September, 13, 2011
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NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

1. Cleveland Browns: The Browns finished the preseason with optimism and were favorites to beat the rebuilding Bengals at home. But Cleveland continued its longstanding trend of playing poorly in regular-season openers. The Browns fell to 1-12 in Week 1 since returning to the NFL in 1999. Cleveland had too many penalties (11) and some odd, unexplainable mental errors. The Browns have another winnable game Sunday against the Manning-less Colts. If Cleveland blows this one and falls to 0-2, it's going to be a rough season.

2. Pittsburgh Steelers' defense: Pittsburgh's defense has been too good for too long to write off. But the Steelers did look old and two steps slow on that side of the football in Sunday's loss to the Baltimore Ravens. Pittsburgh's defense has eight starters over 30. The unit had a poor game against the Green Bay Packers in the Super Bowl and struggled again in Week 1. That is a concern. Baltimore had surprising success running and passing against the Steelers. We will see in Week 2 how Pittsburgh's proud unit bounces back against Seattle.

3. Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers quarterback: Roethlisberger had a great preseason but accounted for five turnovers in Week 1. He threw three interceptions and lost two fumbles. The Steelers can't win when Roethlisberger is this careless with the football. The offensive line certainly didn't help. Pittsburgh allowed four sacks.

RISING

[+] EnlargeTerrell Suggs
Larry French/Getty ImagesTerrell Suggs had a big day for the Ravens, recording five tackles and three sacks.
1. Ravens' defense: Baltimore tied a team record with seven turnovers against Pittsburgh. I thought about breaking down the accolades individually in this "Stock Watch," but there were too many good performances. Defensive end Terrell Suggs had three sacks and became Baltimore's all-time sack leader with 70.5. Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata had four tackles, caused a fumble and tipped the ball at the line for a Ray Lewis interception. And Ed Reed had two picks off Roethlisberger for another multi-interception game.

2. Joe Flacco, Ravens quarterback: Flacco finally got over the hump of beating Pittsburgh with Roethlisberger under center. Now, he can move on with the rest of his season. Few quarterbacks have faced more offseason scrutiny that Flacco. He responded with 224 yards and three touchdowns against Pittsburgh. The pass protection was good and Flacco took advantage. He looks ready to make a jump in Year 4.

3. Cincinnati Bengals: The inexperienced Bengals showed some moxie with a come-from-behind road win over the Browns. Cincinnati scored 14 unanswered in the fourth quarter and did it without their starting quarterback, Andy Dalton, who was out with a forearm injury. Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis has said numerous times that he likes this young group.

Confirmed: Ravens AFC North favorites

September, 11, 2011
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Ray RiceAP Photo/Nick WassBaltimore running back Ray Rice rushed for 107 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries in a convincing win over the rival Steelers.
BALTIMORE -- It may go down as the most unpopular prediction in AFC North blog history. But after Sunday's game, it's also the most accurate.

The Baltimore Ravens are the new favorites in the AFC North. I wrote it in July -- to the shock and chagrin of many -- and I’m saying it again. After Baltimore's 35-7 blowout win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, it's especially true.

I didn't have a good feeling about the Steelers this offseason. I trust my gut on these things. Pittsburgh struggles after Super Bowls (trend alert) and had too much bad news outside of football (focus alert). The Steelers also are a year older and a year slower. Father Time is undefeated in athletics.

Meanwhile, the Ravens quietly closed the small gap on their biggest rival in the offseason, getting better, younger and faster. All those facets were on display during one of the most lopsided games in this rivalry.

The victory was a measure of revenge for the Ravens, who were knocked out of the playoffs by Pittsburgh last season. Baltimore finally -- and convincingly -- cleared the Steelers' hurdle.

"It's a new year," Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. "2010 and all the other years are way behind us. ... New pieces, new faces."

Ravens tailback Ray Rice described the win as a "physical, executed beatdown."

"It was domination," Ravens Pro Bowl linebacker-defensive end Terrell Suggs said.

Both statements are accurate.

With the exception of a fake extra point, the Ravens didn't trick their way to victory. They lined up and pounded Pittsburgh. By midway through the third quarter, the Steelers had no answers other than a lot of pushing and shoving.

[+] EnlargeBen Roethlisberger
AP Photo/Nick WassPittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger tossed three interceptions in a loss to the Ravens.
Pittsburgh committed seven turnovers. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had one of his worst games. He threw for 280 yards and a touchdown but also had three interceptions and two lost fumbles. The Ravens also dominated in the trenches.

Rice (107 yards) ran wild. Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco (224 yards, three touchdowns) had good pass protection and was masterful. The Steelers were two steps behind the Ravens the entire game.

"That's pretty easy to assess, ladies and gentlemen. We got handled in all three phases today," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "We accept responsibility for the plays that we made and didn’t make."

The Ravens will go as far as Flacco takes them. The early signs are positive, as Flacco played his best game (117.6 passer rating) against the Steelers.

Flacco was poised and made several of the best throws of his career. A 27-yard touchdown pass to receiver Anquan Boldin against tight coverage in the first quarter displayed Flacco's natural ability. He has seen enough of the Steelers' coverages that he should be more familiar with them than most quarterbacks.

In his fourth season, Flacco was criticized heavily this offseason by media and opposing players, including Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley. The monkey is off Flacco's back for now. He turned the Steelers into believers while staying even-keeled about his performance.

"There's always going to be critics," Flacco said. "Turn around, 10 weeks down the road and something might happen. Then, OK, [the criticism] is back again."

Pittsburgh looked slow on defense. That's probably the Steelers' biggest concern.

There were signs of cracks in the defense late last season when the Green Bay Packers ripped the Steelers for 288 yards passing in Super Bowl XLV. Pittsburgh brought back the same group this year, and the unit didn't get any younger or faster. Eight of Pittsburgh's 11 starters on defense are 30 or older. At some point age will catch up to the Steelers. Perhaps we are seeing the start of it in Week 1.

"I'm not ready to judge it from a speed standpoint," Tomlin said when asked about the defense. "We didn't turn around enough ball carriers. We didn't get off well enough on third down. We didn't create turnovers. Usually speed is a part of that equation, but I'm not ready to say that at this juncture."

Pittsburgh need not push the panic button yet. Yes, the Ravens are division favorites, but that doesn't mean the Steelers are out of the hunt. Barring injuries, both teams will make the playoffs, but the teams' roles have clearly reversed. Pittsburgh must catch up to the Ravens in the division for the first time in a long time.

The Steelers, who play host to the Ravens on Nov. 6, will try to avoid an 0-2 start next week at home against the Seattle Seahawks. Pittsburgh is too tough and too talented to go away.

"One game doesn’t knock anybody out of the playoffs," said Ravens safety Ed Reed, who had two interceptions. "We've seen that year in and year out. Those guys improve at the latter part of the season always. We know for a fact Pittsburgh will bounce back."

Wrap-up: Bengals 27, Browns 17

September, 11, 2011
9/11/11
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Here are some thoughts on the Cincinnati Bengals' 27-17 victory against the Cleveland Browns at Browns Stadium:

What it means: It means the Bengals aren't the worst team in the NFL. The Bengals came in last twice in ESPN.com's Power Rankings, and I keep voting against it. Perhaps the Browns should be considered for the No. 32 spot. Cleveland lost at home to a rebuilding Bengals team playing its second-string quarterback (Bruce Gradkowski) for significant playing time. The Browns continued their longstanding trend of losing season openers. Cleveland is now 1-12 in Week 1 since returning to the NFL in 1999.

What I liked: The Bengals started fast and showed a lot of poise in the fourth quarter for a young team. Cincinnati jumped out to a 13-0 lead, gave up 14 unanswered points, then dominated the fourth quarter. Bengals running back Cedric Benson had a huge day, rushing for 121 yards and a touchdown.

What I didn't like: It's a new era in Cleveland, but the Browns looked similar to previous years with sloppy play. Cleveland committed 11 penalties for 72 yards. The Browns also started slow at home. That forced second-year quarterback Colt McCoy to throw way too many times (40), which wasn't Cleveland’s intention entering the game. Also, you never want to see a starting quarterback injured, particularly in his NFL debut. Bengals rookie quarterback Andy Dalton was knocked out of the game with an arm injury.

What’s next: The Browns will try to get their first win against the Manning-less Colts in Indianapolis next week. The Bengals, who are tied with the Baltimore Ravens atop the division, will play a road game against the Denver Broncos.

Rapid Reaction: Ravens 35, Steelers 7

September, 11, 2011
9/11/11
4:18
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A few thoughts on the Baltimore Ravens' convincing 35-7 win against the Pittsburgh Steelers:

What it means: Baltimore finally beat Pittsburgh in a big game -- and it wasn't even close. It has been years since the Ravens overcame Ben Roethlisberger & Co. when it mattered. Pittsburgh knocked Baltimore out of the playoffs two of the past three years. It was also Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco’s first win over the Steelers when Roethlisberger was under center.

Turning point I: The first drive set the tone for Baltimore. The play calling was sterling, and the Ravens marched 66 yards on three plays. Flacco threw this best pass of the day -- a 27-yard throw in tight coverage to Anquan Boldin. Baltimore’s offense was a couple of steps ahead of Pittsburgh the entire game.

Turning point II: The first drive of the second half went even better for the Ravens. Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata crushed Steelers tailback Rashard Mendenhall on the first play after intermission. Mendnenhall fumbled, and it was recovered by Ngata. That set up a touchdown catch by Ravens tight end Ed Dickson. The Ravens, who never trailed, led 29-7.

Turnover city: The Ravens forced seven turnovers, tying a team record. The Steelers were sloppy and outplayed in every area. Roethlisberger had two fumbles and three interceptions. Ravens safety Ed Reed (two) and linebacker Ray Lewis (one) intercepted Roethlisberger.

What happened to the Steelers' run defense? I don't know whether I've seen Pittsburgh's run defense play this poorly in a long time. The Steelers were No. 1 against the run last season, and their D is usually air-tight. But the lanes were open from the beginning when Ravens tailback Ray Rice took the first carry 36 yards. Rice finished with 107 rushing yards and two touchdowns.

What’s next: The Ravens will try to improve to 2-0 with a road game against the Tennessee Titans. The Steelers will look to pick up the pieces and avoid an 0-2 start next week at home against the Seattle Seahawks.

Steelers-Ravens halftime notes

September, 11, 2011
9/11/11
2:37
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BALTIMORE, Md. -- The Baltimore Ravens lead the Pittsburgh Steelers 21-7 at halftime.

Here are some notes at intermission:
  • Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco is ready for this game. He made some of the best throws in the first half that I've seen from him in four seasons. The first was a 27-yard touchdown pass to Anquan Boldin against good coverage by Steelers cornerback Bryant McFadden. The other was a throw down the seam to tight end Ed Dickson, although it was called back because of a holding penalty. Flacco completed his first six passes in the game and looks in control.
  • Baltimore is bringing a lot of extra linebackers and defensive backs on the blitz. The Steelers are countering with delayed runs and draws that are working. Pittsburgh tailback Rashard Mendenhall has 44 yards on eight carries.
  • Ravens running back Ray Rice has fresh legs and is running well. Rice usually struggles against Pittsburgh but has 89 rushing yards and two touchdowns (one rushing, one receiving) in the first half. His first run of 36 yards up the left sideline was started by a good kickout block by offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie.
  • Ravens rookie cornerback Jimmy Smith injured his ankle on the opening kickoff and didn't return in the first half. His return is questionable. Steelers middle linebacker James Farrior also is sidelined. But no injury was reported. Farrior started the game and it’s unknown if it was a coach's decision or injury to sub him for Larry Foote.

Steelers-Ravens inactives

September, 11, 2011
9/11/11
12:00
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BALTIMORE, Md. -- Here are the players you won't see in Sunday's game between the Ravens and Steelers.

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Steelers

Final Word: AFC North

September, 9, 2011
9/09/11
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 1:

Getting over the hump: The Baltimore Ravens have somewhat downplayed the big-picture significance of this week's matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Yes, it's just one game. But it's also an opportunity for the Ravens to make a huge statement. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has had Baltimore's number. Pittsburgh has beaten the Ravens in all the significant games the past few years, including two postseason games after the 2008 and 2010 seasons. If the Ravens want to win the AFC North, they have to get over the Steelers hump eventually. Week 1 would be a good time for Baltimore to get over that hurdle.

[+] EnlargeBen Roethlisberger
Jason Bridge/US PresswireGetting pressure on the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger could be a key for the Ravens.
Sacking Ben: One of the biggest keys for Baltimore will be sacking Roethlisberger. The Ravens' pass rush struggled last season. They registered just 27 sacks in 16 games. New Ravens defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano wants to change that. Baltimore plans to be more aggressive with its blitzing. Pittsburgh's offensive line has struggled at times with blitz pickups in the preseason. Keep an eye on this facet of the game.

Dalton’s debut: Cincinnati Bengals rookie quarterback Andy Dalton will make his regular-season debut Sunday against the Cleveland Browns. The Bengals are counting on Dalton this year. The second-round pick has had mixed results in the preseason. Dalton has talent around him, but it's a young group trying to learn how to play together. Avoiding turnovers will be key.

Shurmur's first game, too: Rookie head coach Pat Shurmur will try to do what Cleveland's previous four coaches could not, which is win his Browns debut. Cleveland is 1-11 in season openers since returning to the NFL in 1999. The Browns have not won a regular-season opener since 2004.

Haden vs. Green: A fun matchup to watch will be the game within the game between Browns cornerback Joe Haden and Bengals receiver A.J. Green. The pair are former first-round picks from the SEC and played against each other in college. Haden is now Cleveland's No. 1 corner and will be asked to shut down Green, who is projected to be Cincinnati's top receiver. This should be a good rivalry to watch for years to come.

AFC North Week 1 X factors

September, 8, 2011
9/08/11
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Everyone is familiar with star players like Troy Polamalu, Ed Reed, Peyton Hillis and Cedric Benson. But who will be the lesser-known X factors in these Week 1 matchups?

Here are some additional players who could make an impact Sunday's games in the AFC North:

Lee Evans, WR, Baltimore Ravens

Experience: Eighth season

Analysis: Baltimore traded for Evans to add speed to its receiving corps. Pittsburgh and other teams often stacked the box against Baltimore's offense. Opponents didn't respect the Ravens' ability to throw deep. That's where Evans can be a difference-maker. He has the speed to blow by defenders for long gains. If Evans makes a big play or two this weekend, that increases Baltimore's chances against Pittsburgh.

Antonio Brown, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers

Experience: Second season

Analysis: The last time Brown played the Ravens, he got behind Baltimore corner Lardarius Webb for a huge catch in the playoffs to set up Pittsburgh's game-winning touchdown. Brown has carried that momentum into the preseason. He's been Pittsburgh's most productive receiver in exhibition games and won the job as the team's third receiver. The Ravens have to account for Brown, in addition to Hines Ward, Mike Wallace and Heath Miller.

Leon Hall, CB, Cincinnati Bengals

Experience: Fifth season

Analysis: The high-profile matchup between Bengals receiver A.J. Green and Browns No. 1 corner Joe Haden will get a lot of press. But in contrast, Hall will be asked to shut down Cleveland's passing game, led by quarterback Colt McCoy. Hall recently received a big contract extension. He would like nothing better than to make a few big plays against Cleveland in Week 1 to justify his pay raise.

Ahtyba Rubin, DT, Cleveland Browns

Experience: Fourth season

Analysis: The Bengals are not hiding the fact they want to run the football. Look for Benson to get a lot of carries to test the young defensive line of the Browns. That's where Rubin comes in. He's the only proven player on Cleveland's front four. Rubin will team with rookie first-round pick Phil Taylor as the biggest pieces to Cleveland's run defense. If Rubin is disruptive to Cincinnati's rushing attack, that will go a long way toward stopping the Bengals' offense.

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