The AFC North might suddenly be the most compelling division in football. It is home to the league’s only undefeated team, the reigning MVP, the No. 1 pick from the 2020 NFL Draft, and a team fighting for a playoff spot after suffering a winless season in the not-too-distant past.
The North is also home of some of the most heated rivalries in football. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens have long been two of the most physical and successful franchises in the league. The Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns are in-state rivals. The Browns and Steelers certainly have no love lost after Browns star Myles Garrett smashed Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph in the head with his helmet during a game last season. Virtually every intra-division matchup is a rivalry game, and with three of the four teams having realistic playoff aspirations, this year’s race for the division title should be entertaining. Here’s a look at where each team stands approximately halfway through the season.
Steelers (8-0): Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger nearly retired in the offseason after missing most of last season with injury. Instead, he came back committed, healthy, and ready to lead the Steelers back to the playoffs. The Steelers are the last remaining undefeated team in the league. They’ve also answered two of their biggest questions in the last two consecutive weeks. The Steelers had won four of their first five games against teams with losing records. The last two weeks prior to playing the Cowboys, though, they picked up wins over the AFC South-leading Tennessee Titans and division rival Baltimore.
Pittsburgh has clearly solidified itself as the best team in the league. Roethlisberger is completing nearly 70 percent of his passes with 15 touchdowns and four interceptions, and he’s spreading the ball around – a staple of the Steelers offenses he led during his prime. Four different players have 20 or more receptions and five different players have caught touchdown passes. The team’s running game is strong behind James Conner, and the defense, as always, is among the best in the league.
Ravens (6-2): With the Steelers struggling last season, the Ravens cruised to a division title on the strength of Lamar Jackson’s ascension into one of the league’s biggest stars and the MVP. Baltimore is still good – their +85-point differential is actually slightly better than Pittsburgh’s. But the intra-division competition has also improved.
The key for Baltimore is balance – literal balance. They’ve rushed (1,361 yards) and passed (1,415 yards) almost identical numbers. Jackson is at the center of both attacks – he once again is leading the team in both passing yards and rushing yards. However, his accuracy in the passing game has fallen off a bit. He’s completing just 63 percent of his passes this season compared to 66 percent last year. He’s thrown for 12 touchdowns and just four interceptions, but he is off the pace he was on last year that saw him throw 36 touchdown passes.
Four different ball carriers have rushed for two touchdowns and they lead the league in rushing. Their ground game will keep them in control of regular season games all season. The test for Jackson will be in the playoffs – when defenses are better and take away some of his running options. Can he consistently beat teams through the air?
A season-ending injury to stalwart, All-Pro, left tackle Ronnie Stanley will hurt Baltimore’s line. How Stanley’s replacement, Orlando Brown Jr., fills that tremendous void remains to be seen.
Browns (5-3): The Cleveland Browns have improved this year, but are still searching for consistency out of quarterback and former No. 1 pick Baker Mayfield. And now, Mayfield will have to find it without his best weapon. Star receiver Odell Beckham Jr tore his ACL and is out for the season. In Cleveland’s first game without Beckham, the Browns managed only six points in a loss to the Las Vegas Raiders. Mayfield was just 12-for-25 passing and averaged just 4.9 yards per pass.
The team still has weapons. Running back Kareem Hunt has rushed for 529 yards (fifth in the league) and is averaging 4.6 yards per carry. The Browns as a team are second in the league (behind Baltimore) in rushing.
Their problem, though, is that if they’re playing from behind, the ground game isn’t as big a weapon, and Mayfield hasn’t shown an ability to lead them back into games with his passing. Cleveland has lost two of their last three after starting the season 4-1, and with Mayfield’s struggles, Beckham’s injury, and a competitive division, their odds of making the playoffs have fallen. However, the Browns can make a push given their favorable schedule coming out of the bye week with Houston and Philadelphia at home and then the sputtering Jacksonville Jaguars on the road. The jury is still out on the Browns.
Bengals (2-5-1): The Bengals entered the season with low expectations, but for the first time in a long time, hope is here. No. 1 pick Joe Burrow has only built on that with an impressive rookie performance.
Burrow is completing 67 percent of his passes with 11 touchdowns and five interceptions. The Bengals have to do a better job protecting him – he’s been sacked 28 times. But pressure aside, they have to be happy with where he’s at in his development so far. Tyler Boyd has built on his breakout season a year ago (he had 90 catches) with 54 catches through eight games. The running game has struggled – Joe Mixon is averaging just 3.6 yards per carry, but the offense has shown plenty of promise if they can address their line deficiencies in the offseason.
The team won’t compete for a playoff spot, but if Burrow can continue his strong rookie season, he’ll quickly join Jackson – and surpass Mayfield – as star quarterbacks from the AFC North. Throw in a solid defense that can hopefully be constructed in the offseason, and Cincinnati may finally break out as a respectable team.