NFL Nation: Midseason 09 AFC North

Midseason Report: Ravens

November, 11, 2009
11/11/09
12:29
PM ET
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Power Rankings: Preseason: 10. This week: 14.

2009 Schedule/Results

James Lang/US Presswire
Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice has improved in his second season.
Where they stand: The Ravens (4-4) started fast but have fallen behind in the race of playoff contenders by losing four of their last five games. It’s not totally impossible for Baltimore sneak into a wild-card spot, but time is quickly running out. The Ravens have the talent to compete with anyone, but their inability to finish games in the first half of the season has put them in a very tight spot. The AFC is deep as usual this year and it will probably take a minimum of 10 wins to get into the postseason. That would leave the Ravens will very little margin for error as they would have to win at least six of their final eight games.

Disappointments: Baltimore’s pass defense has been consistently poor all season. It’s the only problem the coaching staff has been unable to figure out. Their major free-agent signing, cornerback Domonique Foxworth, has been a disappointment. Fellow cornerback Fabian Washington and backups Chris Carr and Frank Walker also have played inconsistently. On top of that, the Ravens have been unable to generate a consistent pass rush. The front seven isn’t winning as many one-on-one matchups as it did last year, which isn’t helping. If the Ravens' struggles in those areas continue, it’s going to be a long second half.

Surprises: Ray Rice showed flashes as a rookie. But this year he took a major step forward to developing into the full-time feature back. The Ravens saw this early in the offseason as Rice put on some extra muscle to help him run between the tackles. As a result, the team has gone away from their three-headed monster approach to get the ball in Rice’s hands as much as possible. He is the most dynamic weapon the Ravens have on offense and will increasingly become a headache for opposing defensive coordinators for years to come.

Outlook: Right now things are not looking good for the Ravens, but I wouldn’t rule them out. This team can get hot at any moment, and if Baltimore ever figures out how to defend the pass better it will become a very dangerous team down the stretch. The Ravens are a team built to thrive in November and December. So don’t be surprised if they get hot in the second half. But with a .500 record, the pressure is on to win now or stay home for the postseason.

Midseason Report: Steelers

November, 11, 2009
11/11/09
12:28
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Power Rankings: Preseason: 1. This week: 5.

2009 Schedule/Results

G. Newman Lowrance/Getty Images
The absence of safety Troy Polamalu has hurt the Steelers at points this season.
Where they stand: Despite losing two of the first three games, the Pittsburgh Steelers are about where they expected to be at the midpoint of the season. They are 6-2, tied for first place in the AFC North and getting stronger in the crucial month of November. Defending a Super Bowl title is never easy, but this year’s team is doing it much better than it did in 2006. The Steelers have a great combination of a balanced offense and a physical defense. It has led to the team’s five-game winning streak, which is second-best in the AFC.

Disappointments: The biggest disappointment has been injuries. A season-ending injury to Aaron Smith (shoulder) was a big blow. Other ailments to Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu (knee), linebacker Lawrence Timmons (ankles) and tailback Willie Parker (toe) have kept those veterans rotating in and out of the lineup. The Steelers have depth at most positions and appear to be getting healthier. But with injuries, you never know when it will be too much to overcome. So far Pittsburgh has done a great job of coaching the next player to step in and fill their role.

Surprises: Pittsburgh has a pair of big surprises in rookie receiver Mike Wallace and second-year tailback Rashard Mendenhall. Few people knew what to expect from these two entering the season. Wallace was a third-round pick just trying to fit in with veterans Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes, while Mendenhall didn’t show much as a rookie and was coming back from a shoulder injury. But both players have been great. Mendenhall took over for the injured Parker and has 573 yards and four touchdowns. Wallace has 25 receptions for 437 yards and three touchdowns. The play of these two adds new wrinkles to the offense.

Outlook: The Steelers are in a good position to win back-to-back Super Bowl titles for the first time since the New England Patriots accomplished the feat in 2003-04. There are teams -- the Indianapolis Colts, New Orleans Saints and Minnesota Vikings -- that have better records. But in a one-game scenario, the Steelers would have to like their chances against anyone. Look for Pittsburgh to once again make a lot of noise down the stretch. This team is probably more balanced, particularly on offense, that it was last season.

Midseason Report: Bengals

November, 11, 2009
11/11/09
12:27
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Power Rankings: Preseason: 24. This week: 4.

2009 Schedule/Results

AP Photo/Ed Reinke
Through eight games, Cedric Benson is second in the league in rushing with 837 yards.
Where they stand: The Cincinnati Bengals are in great standing. One of the NFL’s biggest surprises, they are 6-2 and tied for first place in the AFC North, setting up Sunday's huge matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers (6-2). The Bengals were my dark horse going into the 2009 season. I felt they had a great chance to win about eight to 10 games this year. But they are exceeding even my expectations. A major reason for that is Cincinnati's 4-0 division record, which gives the team a great chance to win the division and possibly secure a home playoff game.

Disappointments: The Bengals have yet to get any production out of first-round pick Andre Smith. Cincinnati took the right tackle with the No. 6 overall draft pick, and it was a bad mix from the start. A lengthy contract dispute kept Smith away from the team during training camp, and once he signed his deal he broke a bone in his foot that has forced him to miss the first eight games. Smith is practicing, but the Bengals are doing the right thing in not rushing him back. It also helps that the offensive line is playing well without its first-round pick.

Surprises: Despite his strong finish to the 2008 season, no one expected Bengals tailback Cedric Benson to light up the league this year. Benson is second in the NFL in rushing with 837 yards. He has six touchdowns and four 100-yard games. After the Bengals picked Benson off the scrap heap last year, he turned out to be a perfect fit for the team. Quarterback Carson Palmer is keeping defenses honest, which allows Benson to run the ball with fewer people at the line of scrimmage. Barring injury, Benson has a great chance to make it to his first Pro Bowl.

Outlook: Palmer said in the summer that this was the best group of guys that he’s played with, and so far he’s proven to be correct. This Cincinnati team is even better than the group in 2005 that last made the playoffs. This year, the Bengals have a tough, physical defense to go with a balanced offense. So they can beat you in a variety of ways. The schedule gets much easier for Cincinnati in the second half, meaning the Bengals are here to stay. They are a tough matchup and the type of team no one wants to face in the postseason.

Midseason Report: Browns

November, 11, 2009
11/11/09
12:26
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Power Rankings: Preseason: 28. This week: 32.

2009 Schedule/Results

Kevin Hoffman/US Presswire
Cleveland Browns head coach Eric Mangini has been navigating a quarterback carousel.
Where they stand: The Cleveland Browns (1-7) are even worse than originally projected. Although I predicted this team would finish last in the AFC North by a sizable margin, I felt the Browns were capable of winning four or five games by simply playing smart football. But halfway through the season even that low total seems tough. This team lacks talent on both sides of the ball and doesn’t have enough great players to overcome mistakes. Of Cleveland's seven losses, four have been by three touchdowns or more.

Disappointments: The quarterback carousel in Cleveland between Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn has been a major disappointment. Coach Eric Mangini spent the entire offseason evaluating the two and said he planned to stick to his decision. But after Quinn won the job in the preseason, Mangini reneged and benched him after only 10 quarters. Anderson’s performance was even less inspiring as he had the lowest passer rating of any starting quarterback in the league. Cleveland is going back to Quinn for Monday's game against the Baltimore Ravens. The Browns have to see what the former first-round pick can do this season.

Surprises: When you fire your general manager eight games into a new regime, that is a huge surprise. George Kokinis was let go by the Browns during the bye after a short and mostly uneventful stint in Cleveland. Kokinis had the official title of GM. But it was pretty clear early that Kokinis was not getting final say on the roster decisions when the team kept bringing in former New York Jets players during free agency. Naturally there was some butting of heads behind the scenes and in the end Kokinis lost his job. Now the Browns are in search of a new personnel leader.

Outlook: The Browns are going to be hard-pressed to win games in the AFC North. So their best chance to turn things around probably is winning outside of the division. The Browns have games on their schedule against the Detroit Lions, Kansas City Chiefs and Oakland Raiders that on the surface seem winnable. But the Browns have to play a lot harder and a lot smarter during the second half. Don’t think for one second that these games aren’t important. Browns owner Randy Lerner will be watching his team very closely to determine if this group is headed in the right direction.

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