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Thursday Night Preview: Who Will Take First Place in the AFC North?

What a wild Week 1. In one of the odder anomalies of the season, all four AFC North teams remain undefeated, thanks to a tie between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns, and a pair of wins from tonight's opponents, the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals.

As expected, the Ravens took care of business on their home turf, pummeling the Buffalo Bills, while Cincinnati got off to a winning start by taking a road victory over the Andrew Luck-led Indianapolis Colts.

Per our team rankings (based on our nERD metric), the Ravens seem to have the edge, ranking 5th, while the home Bengals are a bit further back at 22nd.

Who will come out on top on this matchup? Let's dig in and find out.

Quarterback Breakdown

Both quarterbacks are veteran rivals well adapted to this series, and both had 2017 seasons they would just as soon forget.

Among the 35 quarterbacks who recorded at least 200 drop backs in 2017 (35), these were two of the worst quarterbacks in the league by many measures. In peeking at Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per drop back, Andy Dalton was marginally better at -0.02 per drop back, ranking 24th, where Joe Flacco came in 28th (-0.06). In terms of Passing Success Rate -- the percentage of drop backs which result in a positive NEP -- both signal-callers struggled yet again, with Dalton at 26th (41.87%) and Flacco at 28th (41.49%). Not good, Bob.

Perhaps Week 1 was a sign of improvement for both field generals, as they led their teams to impressive wins, and Dalton improved to 16th in Passing NEP per drop back (0.03) while Flacco flew up the board to 7th (0.37). It will be interesting to see if they can build upon that first week success and continue their climb upward.

One thing to watch will be if both can improve on their Average Intended Air Yards (IAY; the average Air Yards a passer throws on all attempts), as both ranked in the bottom of the league last week, with Flacco posting a 6.3 IAY and Dalton recording a mark of 6.0 IAY.

With no real advantage for either team at the quarterback position, how do the running games stack up?

Running Back Play

Let's start with the clearer running back situation of the two teams, which resides with the Bengals.

One of the preseason favorites to break out in 2018, Joe Mixon was an absolute boss in Week 1. The sophomore back toted the rock 17 times for 95 yards and a score, and he added 5 receptions for 54 receiving yards. Among running backs with five carries or more (55), Mixon ranked eighth in Rushing NEP per attempt (0.26), and he ranked 10th in Rushing Success Rate (58.26%).

If we shorten our sample to runners with only 10 carries, Mixon flies up the board to second-best in both Rushing NEP per attempt and Rushing Success Rate. Dude was a monster.

The Baltimore situation is a bit murkier. Alex Collins led off the game as the starter, but an early fumble and a blowout win significantly ate into his playing time, as he finished with only seven carries and -0.58 Rushing NEP per attempt, which was the worst mark in Week 1.

Kenneth Dixon led the Ravens in carries, rushing for 44 yards on 13 carries and a score. However, he was far less efficient, ranking 30th in Rushing NEP per attempt (-0.07) and 19th in Rushing Success Rate (46.15%). He was also placed on Injured Reserve last night, so Collins or Javorius Allen, who had nine touches and a score in Week 1, could be in the mix for work.

It looks like Cincinnati has a decided edge in the running game in this confusing running situation, and Baltimore may face a stiff test on defense. Are they up to the challenge?

Defensive Matchup

These defenses went in very different directions last year, and Baltimore is hoping to replicate some of last year's success.

Last season, the Ravens' defense was solid against both the pass and run, checking in 3rd overall and ranking 3rd in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play and 13th in Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per play. It is important to note that the Ravens defense will play the first four games this year without Jimmy Smith, who is suspended via the league's Personal Conduct Policy.

The Bengals, meanwhile, weren't quite as solid, ranking 17th against the pass and 23rd against the run, according to our models. To make matters worse, Vontaze Burfict is suspended for the first four games of the year for PED use and will miss this contest.

Neither team were particularly adept at harassing the quarterback. In looking at Football Outsiders' Adjusted Sack Rate, the Bengals were slightly better, checking in 13th (6.8%), while the Bengals were further back at 19th (6.3%). If there is one big takeaway from Week 1, it's that Baltimore sacked Buffalo quarterbacks six times, so a strong defensive unit may be even stronger.

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