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AFC North Spin cycle: Week Four

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By Mike Wilkening

While the Steelers resting on bye in Week Four, the Bengals and Ravens pulled further ahead in the AFC North. Baltimore and Cincinnati each moved to 3-1 with victories, with the Ravens holding off the Browns and the Bengals handling the Jaguars. At 1-2, Pittsburgh is 1½ games back as it prepares for a pivotal game against 3-1 Philadelphia on Sunday. Meanwhile, it's more of the same for the Browns, who are winless through four games. Here's our analysis of how the AFC North clubs fared in Week Four: 

RAVENS

What we learned: WR Anquan Boldin still has the Browns’ number. Boldin, whose three TD catches vs. Cleveland in 2010 short-circuited the underdog Browns’ upset attempt, had another big game against this divisional foe, leading the Ravens in targets (12), catches (nine) and receiving yards (131) in a 23-16 Baltimore win on Thursday night. Boldin’s turn as QB Joe Flacco’s go-to guy highlights the depth of the Ravens’ pass-catching corps. Boldin, WR Torrey Smith, TE Dennis Pitta and RB Ray Rice are all capable of giving defenses fits in different ways. What’s more, WR Jacoby Jones and TE Ed Dickson also must be respected, too. Flacco, in another solid performance, threw for 356 yards and a touchdown vs. Cleveland, though he was intercepted in the endzone. The Ravens’ defense did just enough to win, but Browns QB Brandon Weeden threw for more than 300 yards and was sacked only once despite attempting more than 50 passes. With one quarter of the season in the books, the Ravens’ defense, at best, is well off-form. At worst, it’s undergoing significant regression.

What’s in store next: The Ravens visit the Chiefs, who are off to a rough start. These teams last met in January 2011, with the Ravens rolling to victory in the wild-card round of the playoffs. Containing playmaking RB Jamaal Charles, who broke a 41-yard TD run against a stronger Ravens defense in that playoff game, will be key for Baltimore. The Chiefs, who are now two games out of the AFC West lead, have delivered some surprising performances when counted out in the past two seasons, so the Ravens must be on guard.

What the heck? When Browns QB Brandon Weeden’s fourth-down pass intended for TE Jordan Cameron fell incomplete with two seconds left, the Ravens appeared to have secured victory. However, OLB Paul Kruger was flagged for unnecessary roughness for striking Browns OLT Joe Thomas, who helped draw the penalty with some savvy-veteran acting. The penalty gave the Browns one more snap from the Baltimore 18. The Ravens would hold and secure victory, but Kruger put his team at some risk with a foolish penalty.

BENGALS

What we learned: Give the Bengals’ defense a lot of credit. They were missing four cornerbacks, including starters Leon Hall and Nate Clements, but still came up with their strongest performance of the season, holding host Jacksonville to just 212 yards in a 27-10 win. Once again, the defensive line was outstanding, with Pro Bowl DT Geno Atkins notching a pair of sacks and DT Domata Peko and DE Carlos Dunlap also taking down Jaguars QB Blaine Gabbert. For the second week in a row, the Bengals recorded six sacks. The Bengals’ offense also merits a tip of the cap, too. QB Andy Dalton was again sharp, completing 20-of-31 passes for 244 yards and two TDs. WR A.J. Green, meanwhile, continues to play like a surefire Pro Bowler. He hauled in six passes for 117 yards and a score. The special teams also had a strong day, with a second-quarter fake punt leading to Cincinnati’s first score. Overall, this was a total team win for Cincinnati, which has now captured three in a row and sits atop the AFC North with Baltimore at 3-1.

What’s in store next: The Bengals have a potentially tricky game against the visiting Dolphins, who gave the unbeaten Cardinals all they could handle in an OT loss at Arizona on Sunday. While the Dolphins have won only once, they have been quite competitive, and they have enough talent on both sides of the ball to give the Bengals some trouble. Rookie QB Ryan Tannehill threw for 431 yards in Sunday’s loss at Arizona, with WR Brian Hartline hauling in 12 passes for a team-record 253 yards in a sparking performance. What’s more, Dolphins OLB Cameron Wake notched 4½ sacks against the Cardinals. The Bengals can’t afford to overlook Miami.

What the heck? What’s going on with sure-handed RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis? Green-Ellis, who had never fumbled in a regular-season game before losing one in the Week Three win at Washington, fumbled two more times at Jacksonville, including once near the Jaguars’ goal line. Part of Green-Ellis’ appeal is his dependability, so these last two games are a little surprising. Nevertheless, he still has a long track record of stability, so he has earned the benefit of the doubt for the time being.

BROWNS

What we learned: The Browns showed some promise in a 23-16 loss at Baltimore. QB Brandon Weeden’s awful NFL debut has been followed by three games where he has flashed a good deal of potential. Weeden has a strong arm and the courage to stand in the pocket. That’s a good foundation to build upon. He has plenty of room to improve — a third-quarter interception was returned for a touchdown — but it looks like he has the talent to do so. Weeden’s pass-catching corps remains a work in progress. WR Greg Little had a potential fourth-quarter TD catch in his hands but could not hang on. Drops remain a worry with him. While running room has been somewhat scarce for RB Trent Richardson the past two games, he still churned out 104 combined yards at Baltimore, and he scored a touchdown for his third consecutive game. It’s easy to see why he was such a highly regarded prospect. He quickly has proven he belongs. The Browns’ defense surrendered 438 yards to the Ravens, but Cleveland limited Baltimore to just five third-down conversions in 15 tries. Moreover, Baltimore scored only two offensive touchdowns. The Browns’ defense usually gives Cleveland a chance to hang around in games.  

What’s in store next: The Browns have the tall order of facing the defending Super Bowl-champion Giants on the road. The good news? Cleveland hasn’t often looked overmatched this season. The bad news? The Giants are coming off a loss, and they have the pass rush and passing game to give the Browns real trouble. Cleveland will have to play a sound game to compete.

What the heck? Little struggled with drops as a rookie, and his problems have continued. Browns head coach Pat Shurmur said the club is trying to help Little improve his pass catching. “There’s a lot that you don’t see that we work on,” Shurmur said. “Everything from philosophically how you approach catching the football to putting in the practice practicing it. There’s a lot. We go through it all the time. I’ve seen it before where young players work through this and become legitimate catchers in this league.”

STEELERS

On bye.

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