Are the Cincinnati Bengals the Team to Beat in AFC North?

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As we approach the full Week 2 slate of games in the NFL, there have already been some surprising results in the AFC North. In the opening week of the season, the Pittsburgh Steelers traveled to Cleveland, where they gave up a nice lead, only to end up with a tie (yes, a tie) with the Browns. Meanwhile, the Baltimore Ravens really put up a dominating performance while hosting the Buffalo Bills, with a final score of 47-3. Andy Dalton and the Bengals traveled to Indianapolis to take on Andrew Luck and the Colts, and Cincinnati came out on top, winning the game 34-23. 

So when the Bengals were getting ready to face the Ravens on Thursday night, the general feeling was that this would be a difficult matchup for Cincy, who should have theoretically met a lot of resistance from Baltimore’s tough defense. Ultimately, the Bengals out on a show, beating the Ravens by the exact same score as they had the week before, 34-23.

Bengals fans should be extremely pleased. Over the past few seasons, Andy Dalton has really struggled in prime time games. Furthermore, All-Pro wide receiver A.J. Green, has typically had a tough time beating the Ravens’ secondary. Green’s numbers from last season against Baltimore were underwhelming to say the least. He had just two catches for 17 scoreless yards in one matchup, and five receptions for 74 yards and no touchdown in the other. So when the two teams met last Thursday, nobody saw Green’s explosion coming. 

Green put on a show in front of the Bengals’ home crowd, scoring three touchdowns in the game’s first 17 minutes. He accomplished the feat in various ways, showcasing just how diverse his skillset is, finishing the game with five receptions for 69 yards and the aforementioned three scores. There is no doubting Green’s abilities to be one of the top receivers in the NFL. It is up to Andy Dalton to continue his strong play as the season goes on, in order to assure that the team meets its potential. Together with his touchdown from Week 1, Green is already halfway to his 2017 total of eight touchdowns, just two weeks into the 2018 season. Dalton also threw his fourth touchdown of the game, on a 14-yard strike to Tyler Boyd later in the second quarter.

Just one week after the Ravens appeared to have one of the best defenses in the league, Dalton dismantled the group, showing just how good his team can be. With the Ravens now holding a 1-1 record, and the Steelers and Browns opening the year with a tie, Cincy is suddenly in the driver’s seat in the AFC North. Pittsburgh is getting ready to host Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs on Sunday, while the Browns are headed to the Superdome, where Drew Brees and the Saints will look to get back on track, after losing their home opener in a wild game versus Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Buccaneers.

All offseason, everyone simply assumed that the Steelers would win this division. Many experts and analysts pegged them as their favorite to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. But Le’Veon Bell’s continued holdout caught everyone by surprise. And while the running back production was not the issue in Pittsburgh’s opening week, it could create enough of a distraction to limit the team’s potential. Steelers backup running back James Conner put up 195 total yards and two touchdowns. But does that really show the whole story? While the production was there, it still allowed Cleveland’s defense to put fewer defenders in the box, thereby limiting Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster’s production. In other words, When Bell is in the game, opposing defenses must respect his explosiveness, and it prevents them from simply dropping back additional defenders into coverage. Bell’s production typically comes in spite of stacked boxes, making his numbers even more impressive. 

Cincinnati’s performances to this point in the season clearly put them ahead of the rest of the division. But this is the NFL, where so much can change from one week to the next, and certainly over the course of an entire season. So while the Bengals should certainly be pleased with where they currently stand, it’s important that they continue to maintain and even improve their high level of play. There is no doubt that the rest of their ultra-competitive division will keep fighting.