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Shutdown Corner

Steelers bad, Ravens good? Ravens bad, Steelers good? Making sense of what’s happening in the AFC North

Shutdown Corner

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I know it's a bad idea to draw any definitive conclusions about the NFL season based on the results of the first two weeks, but I do have a tendency towards overly quick conclusion-drawing. It's a constant struggle to fight that.

That said, it would have been nice if we could have, through the first two weeks of the season, gleaned some kind of information about what was going to happen at the top of the AFC North.

Come on, Ravens and Steelers. Work with me a little bit. Sure, we know some things -- for example, that the Bengals or Browns won't be winning the division. We've known that for years, and that's OK. That's not what they're here for right now.

At the top, though? Baltimore and Pittsburgh? What do we know? These first two weeks have been like episodes of "Lost." I'm pretty sure I saw Nikki and Paolo on the Pittsburgh sidelines Sunday.

In Week 1, Pittsburgh looked awful and Baltimore trucked them, and the narrative was, "Baltimore looks really, really good and the Pittsburgh defense is old and slow and done." Fast-forward seven days, when they both have games against teams that should be doormats. Pittsburgh wiped their feet on their doormat, and Baltimore tripped over theirs.

And now, the narrative is -- well, there isn't one, since no one knows what the hell to believe. So who's who and what's what?

My preseason prediction was that the division would be Pittsburgh's and that Baltimore would slip out of the playoffs. After the manhandling of Pittsburgh in Week 1, I switched up the Absurdly Premature Playoff Picture to give the division to Baltimore, and a wild card to Pittsburgh.

Now I'm back where I started.

What's difficult is figuring out what's real. There are big questions to which there aren't clear answers. Here are those questions, and my best shot at answering them.

1. Is the Steelers offensive line that bad? Did it improve in Week 2, or were the improved results a simple byproduct of playing the Northwestern Seattle Institute for Truck Driving and Refrigeration Repair?

2. Is the Steelers defense old and slow? Were its Week 2 results also simply a result of playing Seattle?

3. Did Baltimore have an emotional letdown against the Titans (please, no need to feel embarrassed for me, John Harbaugh), explaining their weak performance? Are the Ravens a good team that had a bad week?

4. Is Baltimore's offensive line good? Did it just have a good week against an old Steelers defense (see question two)? Had it really gelled so quickly, or was that an illusion?

5. Ditto for Joe Flacco: Did he benefit from facing a Steelers defense that didn't touch him, or is he still the guy who played Tennessee -- 15 of 32 for 197 yards, one TD and two interceptions?

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Here's where I'm leaning on these:

• Offensively, Pittsburgh is not great right now, but six weeks from now, it will be. As we saw Sunday, Ben Roethlisberger, even when his protection isn't great, can still do bafflingly athletic things with his tremendous set of wide receivers. Offensive line cohesiveness grows as the season goes on. It'll get better, and the Pittsburgh offense, at some point later in the season, can get back to its dominant selves. And yes, it will still be a passing offense.

• Pittsburgh, on defense, will be OK. I don't think it'll be great this year, because while it can still kill you with scheme, it is losing a lot of individual battles. James Harrison doesn't seem like the same player. No one on the defensive line is scaring anybody. The corners are suspect, but Troy Polamalu is still a superstar. It's going to struggle, but it'll have its moments. I see some shootouts in Pittsburgh's future.

• Baltimore did have a letdown against Tennessee, with a few caveats. I think it'll be solid. But the offensive line was not magically healed before Week 1, and it's going to struggle through some inconsistencies. Bryant McKinnie was not good Sunday. The Ravens hosses are going to struggle for a few more weeks, and Joe Flacco's not yet good enough to overcome it.

• I think the Titans also caught them off-guard a little bit, allowing Matt Hasselbeck to throw the ball 42 times, and the Baltimore corners aren't without some issues, either. They don't have anyone who can handle Kenny Britt, that's for sure. Dominique Foxworth doesn't look like he's completely recovered from his ACL injury. Ed Reed (and Troy Polamalu, for that matter) can only cover up so many problems.

They're both works in progress, perhaps with more work to do than anyone thought they had. They both have roster problems that can result in bad matchups for them, like the Steelers trying to block Terrell Suggs, or the Ravens trying to cover Kenny Britt.

They've both got work to do. Fortunately, participating in the AFC North allows them time to get that work done. And before the home stretch, they're probably going to get there. But for the next few weeks, both teams are going to keep feeding us maddeningly inconsistent performances.

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