Week 9 NFL insider notes: Steelers own AFC North as Ravens look broken, James Conner an MVP dark horse

I’m going to go out on a limb here — the Pittsburgh Steelers are going to win the AFC North. Again.

Their systematic pummeling of the Ravens on Sunday in Baltimore, in a game that wasn’t nearly as close as the 23-16 score might indicate, was their latest statement of intent that they are not, in fact, the team that stumbled through a September that included an uninspired loss to the Ravens at home. But they have become a far more balanced team on both sides of the ball, one that has the most talent in this division, and they are going to be hosting at least one playoff game.

There are a few truisms in the AFC North. The Steelers own the Bengals. And the Bengals, more years than not, own the Ravens. And everyone owns the Browns. It’s playing out that way again this season, and will likely continue to do so for years to come. And by evening their season series with Baltimore, and with a win over the Bengals already in their pocket, and a 1-0-1 mark against the Browns — well, the math is already adding up. At 5-2-1, the Steelers have pulled in front; the Ravens (4-5) and Browns (2-5-1) won’t catch them, and if you believe the Bengals (5-3) are going to be able to beat Pittsburgh in a big spot, well, you haven’t paid much attention to the AFC North.

The dirty little secret all along was that there was no way the Ravens, 7-25 against playoff teams from 2013-17 and 1-5 against teams that would be in the playoffs right now, were going to sweep the Steelers. Pittsburgh has better talent at virtually every position group. Joe Flacco’s decline and inability to function against decent opposition is well documented, and Baltimore has not a single true explosive game-breaker on either side of the ball. This is who they have been since their last Super Bowl win, and massive changes are coming to Baltimore.

But, again, they were not going to beat Pittsburgh — at home, or on Mars — without either starting tackle Sunday. What will actually decide their season — and possibly kick start that massive overhaul beginning with getting first-round pick Lamar Jackson ready to start — is the Week 11 game against the Bengals, the team that killed their playoff hopes on a fourth-and-forever play in Week 17 a year ago and the team that so often has impact Baltimore’s season for the worst.

If the Ravens lose that game — which would mean a 4-6 record and untenable 1-4 divisional record — they may as well start prepping for the 2019 draft. That game is everything, one that could be the epitaph on the Flacco/John Harbaugh era should they lose it. It would effectively kill their wild-card tiebreaker possibilities. It would be a fourth straight loss after a 4-2 start. That game is everything.

Baltimore heads to the bye licking its wounds. As I have been chronicling, they cannot defend screens, check-downs, wheel routes, seam routes that requires linebackers or safeties to defend the pass. They can’t do it. Even with a receiving group as talented as Pittsburgh’s you don’t need to take a bunch of deep shots and risk sacks and interceptions. Just throw 60-75 percent of your passes to your backs and tight ends and bleed Baltimore slowly.

The Steelers dominated third down (10 for 16) and time of possession (36:29-23:31) and the Ravens’ offense was again tepid and uninspired as the Steelers ran 20 more plays than they did. Opposing time of possession during Baltimore’s losing streak: 36:29, 34:01, 33:31; its offense remains among the least productive in the NFL, and its aging defense is on the field far too long. Opposing QBs on passes to RBs and TEs vs. Baltimore the past three weeks: 31 for 40 (78 percent) for 305 yards and four TDs for a rating of 131.77. You think Joe Mixon might see 15 targets in Week 11? Yeah, me too.

Two teams from this division will get the postseason. But not three. The Steelers are going. The Browns are not. The AFC North is the same as it always was.

Conner looks like an MVP dark horse

How about James Conner as a MVP candidate? He was not seeing enough of the ball as the Steelers stumbled through September. But he averaged 25 touches during the three-game winning streak they brought into Baltimore on Sunday, carrying the offense in a season in which the Steelers have not had the deep ball going like in years past. All he did in Baltimore was run 24 times for 107 yards against a stingy rush defense and also tie for the team high with seven receptions, including his first career TD catch.

He joined Le’Veon Bell as just the second Steeler ever to top 1,000 scrimmage years in his first eight games of the season. He now has 10 total touchdowns on the season already. I get it, he’s not going to get past guys like Todd Gurley and Patrick Mahomes, but he should be among the half dozen or so players to merit true consideration if he keeps up this pace.

Make no mistake: The Steelers are running this offense through him. He is the most consistent piece leading them out of their early woes. He is giving them everything Bell could, and even looked like him on some of his more patient runs on Sunday.

Redskins’ run over?

For the first time this season the Skins got totally beat up on both sides of the line of scrimmage. It could prove crippling.

The injuries to their offensive line are a potential season-wrecker. Trent Williams should be back soon, but if Morgan Moses and Brandon Scherff are out indefinitely, it changes the entire composition of this football team. Because without the ability to beat you up at the line of scrimmage, this offense cannot function. Alex Smith can’t play from behind and this passing game won’t expand on the fly. The Eagles have to be coming out of the bye thinking there is a power move to be made in the NFC East.

More from Week 9

  • Thank goodness the Browns got the memo that Duke Johnson can be a special back in the passing game. They featured him for the first time in years, and he carried their offense for a while. Duke in the screen game should be a staple while trying to develop Baker Mayfield. He was perpetually under-utilized during Hue Jackson’s reign.
  • Deshaun Watson is all the way back from knee surgery. I mean all the way back. He was goading defenders and exploding into small holes with the ball in his hands and using stutter steps to set defenders up. It takes a good half-season to usually fully trust that knee again. He is feeling it, in the best way possible. Great to see.
  • Nathan Peterman cannot start another game for the Bills. It just cannot happen. It’s like he is pre-programmed to throw pick-sixes. The ball bounces off the receivers’ hands and to the other team 2-3 times a game. It just does. Go back to his first few passes against the Chargers a year ago. So brutal.
  • You might not see a better throw all season than the amazing ball Mahomes threw to Travis Kelce to go up 27-15 in Cleveland. Three Browns were all over the tight end and Mahomes whipped a ball off Kelce’s shoulder to a spot where he, and only he, could either high-point it for a score, or it would fall out of play safely. Uncanny stuff. He is my MVP so far.
  • No shame in the Rams getting worked. That depleted secondary against the Saints in New Orleans was always a bad matchup. We’ll see if Dante Fowler gives them an outside pass rush down the stretch. If not, I think they may have difficulty getting through that NFC gauntlet in January.
  • I can’t help but wonder if the Lions are about to fall into a tailspin. Weird team to get a handle on, but I believe they are going to have troubling not having their two-game losing streak expand with the Bears, Panthers, Bears and Rams ahead the next four weeks. Matt Patricia best mind his posture.
  • The Chargers are going to be the AFC wild-card team that no one wants to face.

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