The Steelers and Chiefs are in a league of their own in the AFC. OK, I guess I should technically call it a conference of their own, but you get the idea. They are the most balanced teams, perhaps, in the entire NFL; they have the ability to beat you with the run or the pass while also boasting an elite defense. And right now they are the only outfits who can say that. Throw in special teams units that are excelling with big returns and strong coverage, and at the midpoint of the season, the Steelers and Chiefs stand out from the rest of the pack.
Things could change between now and January, of course, but I don't know how you watch the first two months of this season and not see them as a notch above the Ravens, Titans and everyone else. They've earned the distinction. A year ago, the Steelers didn't have their Hall of Fame quarterback and the Chiefs defense wasn't quite this impactful. And a year ago, one could argue that the Ravens and Titans had two of the best set of bookend offensive tackles in the NFL, but that's no longer the case either.
The Titans, in particular, should be very concerned about the state of their defense. They faced the Bengals' backup offensive line, with guys starting who just came in off the street last week, and they were backing up guys who already were among the worst in the NFL. And yet somehow this was the week where Joe Burrow wasn't pummeled and beaten and tossed to the ground repeatedly (oh, and Joe Mixon didn't even play). The Titans are now 0-2 since losing left tackle Taylor Lewan for the season, and coupled with the loss of Jack Conklin in free agency, that's going to be a problem as the season goes on.
Yes, they rolled up over 400 yards on their suspect Bengals defense, but they couldn't score enough to stay in the game. They are getting precious little out of big offense pass-rush splashes Jadeveon Clowney and Vic Beasley, and it's hard to see that reversing anytime soon. Which makes it hard pressed to duplicate last year's playoff run in my eyes.
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The Ravens still cannot find a way to get past teams with top flight quarterbacks, as Ben Roethlisberger proved again Sunday, and Lamar Jackson isn't having anything close to the MVP season he compiled in 2019. Ain't even close. His turnovers cost them this game, he was confused again by zone looks in coverage and now he is not only without retired Hall of Fame guard Marshal Yanda, but also All Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley, to an ankle injury (Yanda's replacement, rookie Tyre Phillips, also left with an ankle injury).
Baltimore got back to its ground game Sunday with more vigor and is transitioning the offense to run more through speedy rookie back J.K. Dobbins (who is a demon running out of the pistol in three-receiver-or-more spread formations), and they gutted the Steelers time and again while rolling to 265 yards on the ground against a top defense that wasn't even allowing 70 yards per game coming in. Still, it wasn't enough. The Ravens will win a bunch of games, again, but the lack of a dependable passing game is a very real issue, and that must improve if they are going to advance in January
The Steelers were on the road, trailing 17-7, having watched the Ravens hold the ball over 20 minutes in the first half and running just 20 plays to Baltimore's 45. And they still found a way to win. They remain the last unbeaten team in football, and the greatest challenge to dethroning the Chiefs for the Lamar Hunt Trophy.
What do the Lions do now?
Troubling loss for the Lions, who are in a strange spot ahead of the trade deadline. They have beaten the dregs of the league and are around .500, but consistency always eludes them.
Kenny Golladay left Sunday's game early with a hip injury, but things have been tense between him and the organization for quite some time; he's been brooding over not getting a new deal, and that came to a head on Saturday when I'm told he was not at the facility when he should have been
Marvin Jones has been the center of trade talks, but Golladay would fetch much more if this is going to be an ongoing problem. The Lions have added some salary in season, but you have to wonder if they are still in buy mode and what ownership might be mulling from a payroll standpoint.
More insider notes
- Hats off to Tua Tagovailoa for getting the win, but it's hard to figure how the Rams can out-gain a team by like 300 yards and still lose. Miami has a chance to win that division.
- If the Broncos end up making major changes at the end of the season, which wouldn't exactly be shocking, you have to wonder about Drew Lock. He has not displayed much, and while it's under some difficult circumstances, that's the league. Ask Dwayne Haskins. I like what I saw from Lock more last year than this year.
- The Patriots should stick with Cam Newton (backbreaking fumble or not). Might as well get as good a look as possible. They did some things better on Sunday on the ground and moving the pocket around, but that offense has no weapons.
- Chiefs special teams coach Dave Toub had another stud call Sunday at a time when the Jets were hanging around and Kansas City's offense wasn't exactly firing. A fake punt pass for a first down pretty much turned that game in Kansas City's favor for good.
- Colts held the ball for 13:14 of the first quarter. They keep anything close to that kind of ball control approach with that defense and they could be a tough out in the playoffs.