As we near the quarter-way mark of the NFL season, the contenders and pretenders of the league are starting to show their true colors.
The undefeated Cincinnati Bengals have joined the ranks of the contenders after winning their first three games to start the season. Ahead of their Week 3 divisional showdown, Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh called the Bengals “the most talented team in the league,” according to ESPN.
Harbaugh isn’t alone in thinking this, either.
The Bengals’ youthful offense is brimming with talent. Quarterback Andy Dalton is off to a blazing start, tossing eight touchdowns to just one interception through the first three games of the season. Running backs Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard head up a dynamic one-two punch coming out of the backfield, and star wide receiver A.J. Green continues to dazzle. Against the Ravens, Green was virtually unguardable, as he hauled in 10 receptions for 227 receiving yards and two scores.
Defensively, the Bengals have great depth and boast one of the league’s top secondaries. With the winless Ravens reeling and the Pittsburgh Steelers hurting with the loss of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for roughly a month’s time due to a sprained MCL and bone bruise in his left knee, the AFC North crown is sitting on a platter for the Bengals’ taking.
About a four-hour drive north of Cincinnati lies its in-state rival, which nobody will mistake for one of the NFL’s most talented.
It’s been another rugged start for the Cleveland Browns, a common occurrence for the laughingstock of professional sports. They’ve dropped two of their first three games on their way to a 1-2 record. Cleveland’s lone win came over a Tennessee Titans squad that finished last season 2-14. If the Browns aren’t careful, they’ll end up with a similar record.
Nevertheless, it doesn’t take an expert to see that the Browns are on their way to another top-10 pick in the NFL draft. Cleveland’s defense is a mess and couldn’t stop a nosebleed if you handed it a whole box of Kleenex. The Browns are tied for the fifth-most yards allowed and cornerback Joe Haden, their defensive MVP, is looking like anything but his 2014 Pro Bowl self. In the Browns’ Week 3 27-20 drubbing at the hands of the Oakland Raiders, Haden was repeatedly burned and beaten badly in coverage by rookie wideout Amari Cooper.
If things seem dismal on defense for the Browns, they’re even worse offensively. After spending big bucks in the offseason on veteran receivers Brian Hartline and Dwayne Bowe, the two have been nothing short of colossal busts, combining for a grand total of 116 yards on seven receptions. Bowe has only played eight snaps all year long because of a troublesome hamstring injury, but, hey, kudos to coach Mike Pettine for coming out this week and saying he wouldn’t cut his key free agent acquisition. Maybe he should’ve instead opted to keep wideout Terrelle Pryor before the season began. At least Pryor was relatively healthy when he was cut and didn’t cost the team a ridiculous $12.5 million, including $9 million guaranteed.
Yet, the talk of the team remains centered around the Josh McCown vs. Johnny Manziel starting quarterback debate. The Browns’ issues on offense are bigger than who should start under center, but Pettine hasn’t handled the positional battle very well. His decision to stick with the 36-year-old journeyman McCown could stunt the growth of the second-year Manziel, who actually looked up to snuff in the Browns’ 28-14 victory over the Titans in Week 2.
In the wake of the Browns’ most recent loss to the Raiders, a TMZ report emerged on Tuesday stating that three anonymous offensive starters were angered by Pettine’s choice to start McCown over Manziel.
While members of the Browns have since denied the report, TMZ has stood firm, stating that nothing was fabricated. It just shows how poorly Pettine and his coaching staff are handling the quarterback situation, regardless if the report has any validity.
The Bengals, healthy and drama free, square off at home against the Kansas City Chiefs on Oct. 4 with a chance to gain a stranglehold on the AFC North. Traveling to the West Coast to face the San Diego Chargers are the Browns, who will look to avoid falling to 1-3 on the year.
Heading into the blustery fall season, it’s clear to see that polar opposites reside in Ohio. The Bengals and Browns may share the same state, but they’re trending in completely opposite directions.