Wednesday, October 31, 2012

NFL Mid Season Report and Predictions: AFC North

NFL Mid Season Report and Predictions:
 AFC North

Baltimore Ravens (5-2, 1st Place)
What They Have Gained: The Ravens have done what most good teams need to to win and are winning the games that they SHOULD win. They took the pride of Cleveland, New England, Dallas, Cincy and KC and are in a good position going into the stretch run of the season. The offensive line, one of the main concerns coming into the season, has with stood patches here and there and given Flacco and Co. room to operate against the league. The receiving core is a bright spot for the team and they have taken their never say die approach to another level, winning 3 games by 3 or less and 4 by 7 or less. The bend don't break approach has worked thus far.
What They Have Lost: But.......that is beginning to catch up to the team. If you bend anything far enough it will break. And the Ravens are beginning to show signs of just that. They have lost there identity on defense, on pace to finish outside the top 20 on defense for the second year in a row and only 3rd time since 1999. And for all the talk about rival Pittsburgh's defense's age slowing it down age and injury is actually affecting B'more. Age has begun to catch Ed Reed, a major game changer on defense and injury has cost the Ravens Ray Lewis, there leading tackler and heart of the defense, as well as number one CB Ladarius Webb and cost Terrell Suggs half the season.
The defenses regression is also affecting the offense, who are on the brink of losing its identity, involving top runner Ray Rice less in favor of Flacco's arm due to opposing offenses lighting up the once great defense.

Where They Stand: As it stands Baltimore has clawed its way to first place in the AFC North but are at risk of sinking fast if the holes on D don't get filled and if Ray Rice's legs aren't used to keep opposing offenses on the sidelines. They cannot afford to rest the season hands on Joe Flacco's strong but irratic arm.

What's Ahead: Baltimore is 1-2 on the road and face 5 road games as their team loses key pieces. 5 of the remaining games are against top 15 offenses and the Ravens still face 4 divisional tilts, two against rival Pittsburgh.

Prediction:  8-8

The Ravens struggle but defeat Cleveland and Oakland only to follow with a 1-6 stretch against, Pittsburgh, San Diego, Denver and the Giants to come up short against the Bengals to end the year, losing each game by less than 5 points and missing the playoffs for the first time since 2007.

Pittsburgh Steelers (4-3, 2nd Place)

What They Have Gained: The Steelers have shown detractors that no matter the age of the defense or who plays were the bottom line is the Steelers Defense is good. Really good. Really good without Troy Polamalu for 6 games, James Harrison for 3 games and Lamar Woodley in and out of the lineup. They don’t sack. They don’t get turnovers. But they don’t let you score either. In 4 wins they haven’t given up more than 17 points, averaging 13.3 points given up a win.  Big Ben has taken well to the new playbook under Todd Haley averaging more than 290 yards a game and a 14/3 Touchdown to Interception ratio. Jonathan Dwyer, in the last two games has brought balance to the offense and seems to be a good find yet again for a great drafting team.

What They Have Lost: injuries have blistered Steelers young and old. First Round pick David DeCastro and Sean Spence, their third rounder, both projected starters were lost for the season. Rashard Mendenall has only played in two games. And that age question about the D? It might be a little valid. With father time making bones brittle for the aging D, Troy and Harrison missing games and a slowed bevy of vets in Brett Keisel, Larry Foote, Ryan Clark, Casey Hampton and Ike Taylor, all over 30, made the detractors look right in allowing comeback wins for Tennessee, Oakland and Denver.  In those three losses Pittsburgh held opponents to 37 points in the first half but surrendered 54 in the second half.
And the offense needs to continue to get strong play from the running, unlike the first 3 games and the game against Tennessee. When Pittsburgh rushes for less than 100 yards they’ve lost all 3 games. When they go over the 100 bill mark, they win. It’s that simple.

Where they Stand: The Pittsburgh Steelers have lost to the Denver Broncos, Oakland Raiders, and Tennessee Titans. They had a joke of a running game through 6 weeks that came to a head in the aforementioned loss to the woeful Titans. And those are all reasons why the Steelers are what they are now. With a healthier D and run game they could be looking at least a 6-1 record and the best record in the AFC. But the loses they did encounter allowed them to find people to plug holes along the line, on the defense and in the running game. As strange as it sounds the Steelers are better for losing.

What’s Ahead: The Giants lead off the second half for Pittsburgh and Baltimore gets two shots at the Steelers. Yet those are the only winning teams on slate for Pittsburgh the rest of the way.

Prediction: 11-5

Look for Pittsburgh to have a blistering second half as the defense gets healthier as well as the rest of the team. New York wins a nail biter and Baltimore splits the season series which seems to be the norm for these two squads, but Pittsburgh wins its other 5 contests to win the AFC North.

Cinncinati Bengals (3-4, 3rd Place)

What They Have Gained: The Cinncinati Bengals offense must have liked the way they played last year because they are giving the NFL more of the same. The Red Rocket Andy Dalton and standout receiver A.J. Green are continuing to give the NFL fits. Andy Dalton needs only one more TD to tie his total from last year (14). A.J. Green continues to be his numebr one target with nearly 50 catches and already the same amount of touchdowns (7) he had all of last year. And Cedric Benson's replacement, Benjarvis Green-Ellis is doing his best Benson impression, on pace for nearly identical stats as Benson had for the Bengals last year. This has given the Bengals a top 15 offense and plenty of punch to fight with.

What They Have Lost: A defense. What was once a top 10 defense is now ranked 25th giving up a whopping 26 points a game, including 34 to woeful Cleveland last week. Though they lead the league in sacks the Bengals aer losing the turnover battle, ranking 27th in the Takeaway/Giveaway Differential. Where they ranked 9th in taking care of the ball on offense last year they are 18th this year and the defense still is not getting turnovers as they did before Jonathan Joseph left two years ago. Add that the Bengals are 29th in the league in redzone defense and you have a recipe for trouble.

Where They Stand: The Bengals need to come out of the bye week and prove three things to the NFL if they want to retur to the postseason again this year. They must prove that they can protect the football on offense. This starts with Andy Dalton being more confident in his throws and mechanics and receivers being on the same page with the enigmatic QB. They must prove that they can play in big games. A stinker against Baltimore in the opener, and a a game against Pittsburgh in which the Steelers tried to give them the game to go with a head scratcher against Cleveland stand out in my mind of games the Bengals just weren't ready for mentally. They must step up on defense and create havoc in the secondary and the redzone. If they continue to allow opposing teams to throw without fear and score without obstacle, their 9-7 record from last year will be a distant memory.

What's Ahead: The Bengals face a sandwich of a task in the upcoming schedule with tough home games versus the Manning Brothers in back to back weeks, a soft middle against KC, Oakland, and San Diego, two close ones versus Dallas and Philly then end with a slate of tough matchups versus division rivals Baltimore and Pittsburgh.
Prediction: 8-8

After a pair of tough losses versus the Mannings, the Bengals find the turnover button versus turnover prone
Matt Cassel, Carson Palmer and Philip Rivers, take a revenge game against the Ravens only to get knocked out of the playoffs in the last game of the season against eventual division Champion Pittsburgh.

Cleveland Browns (2-5, Last Place)

What They Have Gained: The Cleveland Browns have begun to dig a core that any team that expects to win must have. Trent Richardson looks every bit worthy of the Top 5 selection the Browns made him in the 2012 NFL Draft. He plays hard, he plays tough, and leads by example, playing through injury and to through the whistle. Brandon Weeden seems competent and able to make all the throws, no matter how limited the targets. Josh Gordon is sneaking into the public eye with his pension for big plays and burning corners. And the offensive line led by Joe Thomas can become a great one in time. The defense can make plays tied for 3rd in INTs (20) and 12th in sacks (19).

What they Have Lost: The one thing you don’t want to lose in the NFL. Games. And with the exception of their blowout loss to the defending Champs (A game they were ahead in by two scores at one point), and an 8 point loss to Buffalo, each game has been within a score to tie or win. They have lost consistency on offense, (scoring more than Twenty 3 times and less than 4 times) and on defense (giving up more than Twenty 4 times and less than 3 times).  Most notably, they have lost their high profile GM and President in Mike Holgrem and lost control of the franchise to a self-proclaimed Steelers fan.

Where They Stand: The more things change the more they stay the same. Through 8 games in each of the last 5 seasons Cleveland is 2-6, 3-5, 3-5, 1-7 and 3-5. They play competitive football but the results are the same.

What’s Ahead: With both wins this year coming at home and all road games ending in losses, four more road trips to Dallas, Oakland , Pittsburgh and Denver don’t looking promising. Nor do visits from Pittsburgh and the RGIII led Redskins. Equally as overmatched Kansas City rounds out their schedule.

Prediction: 4-12

Their propensity for paymaking can only help against KC and Oak, but the Browns won’t make nearly enough plays to win anything else on tap for the rest of the season. The Browns and fans should start counting down to the 2013 Draft and Geno Smith.

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