Eisenberg: AFC North Is Tougher to Navigate This Year


In a nutshell, the Ravens went into Cincinnati unbeaten and feeling good about themselves and came out with a loss and items to scrutinize.

The offensive line. The pass rush. Getting the rushing game going. Dealing with C.J. Mosley's absence while he's injured. Those subjects will dominate the conversation until the Denver Broncos visit M&T Bank Stadium on Sept. 23.

But let's give credit for Thursday night's result where it's due: to the team that won.

You can't have it both ways, discount a win because of the caliber of the opponent (i.e., Buffalo) and NOT take into account the caliber of the opponent when you lose.

The Bengals are now 2-0 and looking pretty tough with their young, active defense, those playmakers on offense and an overhauled offensive line that held up Thursday night.

"They're a good ballclub over there. They made some plays," linebacker Terrell Suggs said.

"Their front seven is really good," quarterback Joe Flacco added.

The Bengals are bound to experience rough days, too; frankly, it's almost weird in today's NFL if your fortunes don't swing from week to week. But they certainly look improved from last season, when they fell out of playoff contention early and finished 7-9.

One defeat isn't going to sway me from the position that the Ravens also are improved in 2018 thanks to having a healthy quarterback and more offensive playmakers, among other things. They certainly displayed plenty of resolve in coming from far behind to make it a competitive game Thursday night.

But if anything, the evening made it clear that the AFC North is going to be a tougher landscape to navigate this year.

The Bengals are better. So are the Cleveland Browns, who're probably still destined for last place but certainly appear more formidable and less charitable than a year ago. The Pittsburgh Steelers are dealing with some issues right now, but don't be fooled, they're still the Steelers.

It's no disaster that the Ravens are treading water at 1-1 after a hurried opening stretch of two games in five days. But their most daunting immediate test is whether they'll be able to say the same thing after their next two road games, at Pittsburgh on Sept. 30 and at Cleveland on Oct. 7.

Winning one of those two divisional games would boost their chances of mounting a playoff push. Winning both would be huge

But as was the case Thursday night, the going won't be easy, not in the least.

It was clear when the schedule came out in April that the Ravens would be tested early in the season and a goal would be to find a way to stay on their feet. Now that the situation is upon them, yes, it's as significant as imagined, with a high degree-of-difficulty.

Beating the Broncos at home before they travel to Pittsburgh and Cleveland would help them stay on their feet through September and early October. They haven't defended their home turf quite as adeptly over the past few years (last season's loss to the Chicago Bears was especially damaging) and playoff-caliber teams tend to do that.

But if they're going to make a run at winning the division, always their first goal in a season, they'll also need to make some noise on the road at some point.

No doubt, Mosley's pending absence looms as even more hurtful for that reason. It's a setback at any point, but especially now.

The good news is the Ravens have extra time to recover and adjust after the short week. Rookie Kenny Young's performance against the Bengals was encouraging.

That and the other issues mentioned above will help determine how the Ravens fare as they wade into a new season. There are challenges but also plenty of positives, starting with an offense likely to be ranked in the league's top 10 through two games.

But to paraphrase what analyst Troy Aikman said late in Thursday night's broadcast: this game is over, but the AFC North is a tough division of physical teams that are going to beat each other up all season.

It's a spot-on assessment. Survival skills required.

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