Good luck luring Ravens coach John Harbaugh into an on-the-record session handicapping his team’s opposition.
But Harbaugh did offer this blanket assessment as he reviewed his team’s 34-23 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals and looked ahead to a Week 3 matchup with the Denver Broncos: “Nobody in the NFL is a good football team yet. So it remains to be seen who the good football teams are, and that’s what we’ve got to try to become.”
Harbaugh has a point.
After Week 2 of last season, the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles — eventual Super Bowl opponents — each stood 1-1. The New Orleans Saints looked nothing like a looming divisional champion at 0-2. The Ravens, Broncos, Oakland Raiders and Detroit Lions were all undefeated on their way to missing the playoffs.
But the temptation to draw conclusions, especially in an AFC North that has been rich with incident over the first two weeks, is strong.
There’s a sense that with the two-time defending champion Pittsburgh Steelers in turmoil, the division might be there for the taking.
Cincinnati has emerged as the early surprise after two straight losing seasons and talk that longtime coach Marvin Lewis might be pushed out.
It’s not as if the Bengals made radical changes after a thoroughly mediocre 2017. They’re attempting to reverse two years of losing with the same coach in Lewis, the same quarterback in Andy Dalton and the same frontline stars in wide receiver A.J. Green and defensive tackle Geno Atkins.
But Cincinnati’s top players are healthy, and the Bengals have a budding star in running back Joe Mixon, who’s averaging 4.7 yards a carry. Add Mixon to a crew of skill players that includes perennial Pro Bowl selection Green, another solid runner in Giovani Bernard, athletic tight end Tyler Eifert and Ravens nemesis Tyler Boyd, and you see why the Bengals scored 34 points in each of their first two games.
Their pass rush has been formidable as well, with tackles Atkins, Andrew Billings and Ryan Glasgow firing up the middle and ends Carlos Dunlap, Carl Lawson, Michael Johnson and Sam Hubbard crashing in from the edge. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco spent much of Thursday night fleeing for his safety as his blockers struggled to win individual matchups with Cincinnati’s front seven.
The Bengals’ schedule is about to get more difficult, however, with consecutive road games against the Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons, both playoff teams in 2017. They won’t play another divisional game until they host the Steelers on Oct. 14, and the picture could look considerably different by then.
Many perceived the Steelers as a prohibitive favorite heading into the season. They’ve won the division three of the past four years and possess unmatched star power at the skill positions. But their position is shakier after they blew a 14-point fourth quarter lead in a Week 1 tie with the pitiable Cleveland Browns and then lost a 42-37 shootout at home to the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Steelers have fooled us with sluggish stretches before. Last season, they fell to the lowly Chicago Bears in Week 3 and were blown out at home by the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 5. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger fueled speculation that he was contemplating retirement with ambiguous comments about his play and state of mind.
Pittsburgh won 10 of its last 11 regular season games, and Roethlisberger, at age 35, produced his fifth 4,000-yard passing season.
But the tidings from one of the NFL’s signature franchises have been particularly joyless in recent weeks. All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell has held out the first two games of the season as he either pushes for a long-term extension or protects his body with an eye on free agency, depending on whom you ask. Bell’s absence has prompted a rare public backlash from the very offensive linemen who block for him.
Rookie James Conner has played fairly well in his stead, so it will be fascinating to see how Bell is greeted when and if he returns.
Meanwhile, four-time All-Pro receiver Antonio Brown appeared to argue with offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner on the sideline during the Steelers’ loss to the Chiefs on Sunday. The next day, Brown responded to comments from a former Steelers media staffer who suggested he was fortunate to have played his entire career with Roethlisberger. “Trade me let’s find out,” Brown wrote on Twitter. He did not show up for work Monday, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported.
On top of dealing with unhappy stars, Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin faced biting criticism for his team’s defensive performance against Kansas City.
For all their internal unrest and spotty play, the Steelers still have Roethlisberger, Bell and Brown on the roster, and history says their offensive line will improve on its so-so performance from the first two weeks.
Even if they struggle with the surging Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Monday night, write them off at your peril. The Ravens are unlikely to make that mistake as they prepare for a Sept. 30 trip to Pittsburgh. They’ve watched Roethlisberger bounce up like a horror-movie monster too many times.
“Where do we go from here?” the future Hall of Fame quarterback said after his team fell to 0-1-1. “It’s kind of a look-in-the mirror, gut-check [scenario], whatever you want to call it.”
The Browns, as usual, face troubles on an entirely different scale.
They could easily sit 2-0 with stunning wins over the mighty Steelers and the high-octane New Orleans Saints.
Instead, the Browns watched their dreams of beating Pittsburgh vanish on a blocked field goal in overtime and gagged away their bid for a Big Easy upset as kicker Zane Gonzalez missed two field-goal attempts and two extra points.
They’ll head to Week 3 with a new kicker, a brewing quarterback controversy between starter Tyrod Taylor and No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield and a sound grip on their title as the sport’s most hapless entity.
Not to mention they just traded troubled wide receiver Josh Gordon to the Patriots after six years of tantalizing highs and far more frequent lows.
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Cleveland hardly lacks talent. Defensive end Myles Garrett has played like a franchise centerpiece since the Browns drafted him No. 1 overall in 2017. And cornerback Denzel Ward has been outstanding in his first two games after some analysts dinged the Browns for taking him No. 4 overall in this year’s draft.
If Mayfield eventually lives up to his end of the bargain, it’s possible to imagine the Browns as a legitimate AFC North contender. It’s also possible to imagine them offering stern resistance when the Ravens travel to Cleveland on Oct. 7.
For now, however, Hue Jackson remains stuck on one victory (against 32 defeats and a tie) as he enters Week 3 of his third season as Browns coach. It’s astounding every time you say it.
“I feel good about our team,” Jackson, the eternal optimist, said in a conference call Monday. “There is a good football team in that room. We just have not won yet.”
As for the Ravens, they also have much to sort out after a defeat in which their offensive and defensive lines were outplayed and their defensive leader, C.J. Mosley, exited with a bone bruise.
Their 47-3 opening week rout of the Buffalo Bills already feels long ago.
They’ll host the 2-0 Broncos this Sunday and play on the road four times over the ensuing five weeks. By the end of that stretch — which includes four playoff qualifiers from 2017 — Harbaugh should know whether he has a good football team.