Writers Pat McManamon and Zac Jackson tackle their weekly five questions on the Browns, the Bengals and the AFC North Division...
What is the most surprising element of the Bengals season?PM: Andy Dalton has played fairly well. In fact, he might be better than Colt McCoy right now. Dalton has a better arm, will throw downfield and has had some decent production. His total yards are not as good as McCoys, but his yards per attempt is better. He has a long way to go, and McCoy could eventually surpass him. But at this point Dalton has shown enough to justify the Bengals turning the team over to him.
ZJ: The Bengals are so full of surprises - er, strange stuff - that it's usually tough to dig out real surprises. Maybe the biggest is that they're 2-2 and suddenly full of life and optimism and they've done it without the projected formula of Cedric Benson doing all the heavy lifting for the offense. He got his 25 carries and the chance to be the closer in the opener, but otherwise Dalton has shown he's not afraid to gun it, and his intriguing receiving corps is coming along nicely. My personal feeling is that this team will still find ways to lose games more than it will find ways to win them, but it's in position for a nice - and suprising - little run.
What is the most concerning element of the Browns?PM: Its easy to say McCoy, or the lack of a run game, or the uncertain future of Peyton Hillis, or the right side of the line, or the outside linebackers. And they are all valid. Hillis, for example, must be asking for a ton of money because the Browns have been willing spenders on other guys (Joe Thomas, Ahtyba Rubin, Chris Gocong). But the one surprise has been the emphasis on the short pass from play-caller and coach Pat Shurmur. It could be McCoy, or it could be the coaching emphasis (Sam Bradford had a yards per attempt below six with Shurmur calling plays in St. Louis last season), but it really doesnt matter. If the Browns dont even try to stretch the field, theyre in for a long rest of the season.
ZJ: All that uncertainty laid out above is what's most concerning. This was supposed to be the year to end all ever-changing, never-working, majoring-in-the-minor garbage that's plagued this franchise for more than a decade. It was supposed to end with a GM who picked the coach, who had experience with and the same vision as the GM and the team president, who, presumably is busy doing something. The Browns want to be a West Coast, 4-3, Colt McCoy-driven team and though a month in is way too early to jump to conclusions on how that's all going to work, the year that was supposed to establish McCoy as the quarterback for the system and the franchise has instead given us McCoy looking shaky while throwing to a bunch of No. 3 receivers, four yards at a time. Add that to Scott Fujita and Usama Young "chasing" Jared Cook down the sideline last week and it's fair to wonder what this season is going to yield.
Looking at the division, are the Steelers headed for trouble?PM: Without a doubt. Pittsburgh has some alarming signals. The offensive line is a mess, which means opponents are putting too much pressure on Ben Roethlisberger. The running game cant sustain drives. And perhaps most alarming has been the play of the defense, which ranks 22nd against the run, giving up 119.5 yards per game. This is shockingly un-Steelers. When training camp opened, the Steelers looked ready to play a game. Their transition from the lockout was next to nothing. Which only means the signs of concern should have everyone in Steelers town worried, because if the talent were up to standard the Steelers would have picked right up where they left off. It has not happened.
ZJ: If Roethlisberger getting years taken off of his life each time he drops back to pass counts as trouble, yes, they could be in deep trouble. The Steelers are still talented, still resilient, still well-versed in playing for December and January and playing well then. But they need to play better in October, they need to fix that miserable offensive line and they need their quarterback healthy and upright to do it. Trying times are ahead, and it's fair to wonder if - finally - a few cracks will show.
The Ravens have reached the AFC Title game a couple times. Is You Know Whos former team ready for the Super Bowl?PM: Could be, if they keep playing defense like they have been (third overall, third in rushing). Whos better in the AFC? Maybe New England, but the Patriots defense is awful, and defense wins come January. Tennessee is better than expected, but not to Baltimores level. Same with Houston. In the West, San Diego could make the playoffs, but they always find a way to leave quickly. Oakland? Please. The Super Bowl? Right now, after four weeks, the best team in the AFC plays on Chesapeake Bay.
ZJ: The Ravens clearly loaded up for one (more) run and have lots of pieces, including one of the league's truly unique weapons in Ray Rice and one the unique interior linemen. The jury is still very much out on Joe Flacco, but the good news is he has 12 games to keep improving, keep clicking and this could (should) finally be the year the Ravens get him a home playoff game. Or two. I have said in the past I will pass on buying Flacco Super Bowl stock, however, and for now I'm sticking to that.
What happens this weekend?PM: The Browns will not lose, which is always a good thing. The Bengals go to Jacksonville where they try to follow up on a nice win over Buffalo. This game has factors that favor the Bengals, the most important that Blaine Gabbert is a rookie playing against a pretty good Cincinnati defense. Perish the thought of the Bengals being 3-2 at this point, but it should happen. Cincinnati should beat the Jaguars.
ZJ: The Bengals should beat the Jaguars, can beat the Jaguars, need to beat the Jaguars. Will it actually happen? Recent history says no, even if the recent defensive performance indicates yes. A little chemistry and a little confidence can go a long way in the short-term, though, and the pick from here is the Bengals to win 20-17. In other less-than-sure-fire predictions, Steelers bounce back by a touchdown over the Titans and the Browns score an over 2.5 distractions -- on their bye weekend.