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AFC North is up for Grabs

AFC North 2017
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The Ravens managed to flip the script after their most complete performance of the season this past week. Frustrations seemed to hit an all-time high last week after back-to-back miserable games against the Jaguars and Steelers. The Ravens were left for dead and the season seemed to be spiraling out of control quickly.

Now we don’t know for sure if the victory over Oakland was a sign of things to come or a product of the circumstances. After all, the Ravens were facing a pretty poor defense and a backup quarterback. But one thing we do know is whoever comes out of the AFC North is anyone’s guess.

A week after beating up on the Ravens, the Steelers were dominated at home by the Jaguars. After their victory over the Ravens, many pundits thought they were trending back towards the offensive juggernaut many expected this season. Given Ben Roethlisberger and his ample arsenal of offensive weapons, the Steelers were widely viewed as one of the biggest threats to the Patriots in the AFC. However, one week later they were booed on their home field during the Roethlisberger meltdown (5 interceptions, 37.8 passer rating) and now some are questioning if the Steelers are trending in the wrong direction, including Roethlisberger himself.

During a postgame press conference, he told Aditi Kinkhabwala, “maybe I just don’t have it anymore.”

That type of pessimism is rare in the NFL. A week after the Ravens were on the brink of unraveling and the Steelers were viewed as a true threat in the AFC, those perceptions have nearly been flipped upside down.

The Bengals have been somewhat of an afterthought so far in the division, yet they’ve gained some momentum in the past two weeks. After starting 0-3 and fans clamoring for Andy Dalton to be benched, Cincinnati has embarrassed the lowly Browns and then had an impressive victory over the Bills who had just beaten the Falcons on the road.

Early on the Bengals looked destined to repeat a miserable 2016 campaign that saw them go 5-11, and chances are it will still be the Ravens and Steelers competing for the division in December. But after inching closer and closer to complete irrelevance, Cincinnati has managed to breathe some new life into their season and they’ve probably secured Marvin Lewis’ job, at least until the end of 2017.

AFC North 2017
Photo Credit: David Richard/Associated Press

Meanwhile we’ve seen more of the same from the Browns. After giving the Steelers all they could handle in week one, things seem to have progressively gotten worse each week for the Dawg Pound. Hue Jackson and GM Sashi Brown preached patience when they took over before the 2016 season. They began unloading big contracts, stockpiling draft picks and actually looked like they were making some smart decisions. Now sitting at 0-5, though, and 1-20 over the last two seasons, the fan base is again understandably growing impatient.

That pressure has caused Jackson to completely butcher his handling of rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer. After declaring him the starter before the season, Jackson has already benched him through five weeks despite the team’s 0-5 start and no chance of competing in 2017. There’s nothing wrong with Jackson playing second year quarterback Kevin Hogan over Kizer if he had started Hogan in week one. But in benching Kizer, Jackson has likely destroyed the rookie’s confidence, and consequently, it will make it that much more difficult to eventually establish him as a franchise quarterback. Don’t be surprised to see the Browns draft another quarterback early in the 2018 draft.

Long story short, the AFC North is a bit of a mess at the moment. Fans have been down on Joe Flacco, John Harbaugh, Marty Mornhinweg and Dean Pees, and for good reason.

Fortunately, though, no one in their division is much better.

And with an easy schedule over the next few weeks, they have a good opportunity to position themselves well for a chance to return to the playoffs.

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