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An Unexpected Clash for AFC North Lead

Jackson evades Cincinnati defenders
Shawn Hubbard/Baltimore Ravens
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We’re officially a third of the way through the NFL regular season, and Week 6 brought with it yet another shakeup in the AFC North. A massive victory against the Los Angeles Chargers courtesy of the Baltimore Ravens highlighted what was a mostly successful weekend overall, save for a disheartening loss in more ways than just the final score for one ball club.

Nonetheless, this division remains one of the toughest and most competitive in football. One where there’s not a single cupcake team that you can look at and chalk up a win before even stepping on the field. With the #1 seed Baltimore Ravens perched confidently at the top overlooking the rest, let’s yet again check the pulse around the rest of the AFC North.

Cleveland Browns

The difference a mere two weeks, and a few key injuries, can make on an NFL team is almost infinite, and few teams are more aware of that fact than the Cleveland Browns. Coming into this game, quarterback Baker Mayfield‘s left shoulder injury had been well documented since he suffered it back in Week 2. In the time since then, they’ve also lost both of their highly talented starting tackles Jack Conklin and Jedrick Wills, and superstar running back Nick Chubb. As of now these injuries aren’t expected to be season-enders, but coming into Sunday’s tilt with the Arizona Cardinals they were nothing short of banged up. That’s also exactly how they played.

Right from their opening drive of the game, Arizona came out guns blazing with a Kyler Murray to Christian Kirk 21-yard touchdown pass. From there, they never looked back. Cleveland would punt on their opening drive of the game, before being turned over on downs at the Arizona 13-yard line on their next possession. Yet again, a questionable call to go for it early in the ball game by Kevin Stefansky led to his team having to dig themselves out of a hole. They’d been able to do that for the most part up until the past two games, but anyone who’s read this piece every week knows that this is starting to become a trend for the young head coach (one that’s beginning to cost his team severely).

The two following offensive possessions for Cleveland would result in a fumble and an interception, to which Arizona would respond with two field goals and push their lead to 20-0 before the Browns even knew what hit them. Mayfield’s injured shoulder was clearly bothering him, but to his credit he managed to throw two touchdowns to Donovan Peoples-Jones at the end of the half (including a Hail Mary) to make the score more respectable.

Ultimately though, this game was never really close. Cleveland wouldn’t score another point in the game, and Arizona kept piling on to end things in a 37-14 beat down. Mayfield was roughed up even further in this game, and the Browns would also lose their former Pro Bowl running back Kareem Hunt in the 4th quarter. Early reports indicate he’ll miss up to six weeks, which leaves the team without both of their star backs for at least the immediate future.

Unfortunately for the Browns there isn’t much time to lick their wounds, as a Thursday night matchup with the Denver Broncos is quickly approaching. With four other AFC teams who are vying for wild card positions on the docket in the next month, Cleveland could find this season slipping away from them quickly if they can’t get healthy.

Shocking, considering at 3-1 a few short weeks ago they were looking like the potential divisional favorite.

Pittsburgh Steelers

You can never, and The Rock means ever, count out a Mike Tomlin-led football team. We’ve said it a million times, and now sitting at 3-3 heading into their bye the Steelers once again find themselves alive in the AFC. Following a gritty home win against the Seattle Seahawks in prime time, they’re feeling monumentally better than they did two weeks ago about their chances, a stark contrast to the first team we discussed.

After a quiet first quarter on Sunday night, the Steelers would finally get going offensively and put a pair of touchdowns on the board to go into the halftime locker room up 14-0. First, it was a creative play call that led to running back Najee Harris coming open for a five-yard receiving score. Harris is already one of the best dual threat backs in all of football, and stopping him is becoming a headache for opposing defenses more and more by the week. An Eric Ebron one-yard rushing touchdown would follow inside two minutes left in the 2nd. Hey, I guess he can’t drop it if you literally hand him the ball, right?

Despite a flat thirty minutes offensively, Seattle would put on a gutsy performance in the second half of this game on the back of an old friend in running back Alex Collins. Collins fedinish the day with 101 rushing yards and a touchdown, one that seemed to light a fire under the Seahawks in the beginning of the third quarter.

Once again the Steelers’ inability to play four quarters of football almost cost them, and a Ben Roethlisberger pass that bounced off the face mask of Jamal Adams in overtime almost did the same. Sometimes though, it’s better to be lucky than good. Speaking of Adams, it’s not a stretch to say that the draft capital Seattle gave up to acquire him, and the massive hit he accounts for on the cap, is one of the largest reasons they currently find themselves 2-4. Even before the Russell Wilson injury, they had all the looks of a middle-of-the-pack team. Something they haven’t been used to in the PNW for a long time.

A backup quarterback can only get you so far, and Seattle learned that lesson the hard way. A fumble by Geno Smith on a quarterback scramble in the extra period would ultimately signal the end of their chances in this one. A kneel down and a Chris Boswell field goal later, and the Steelers once again firmly have life in a highly muddled middle of the AFC.

It certainly hasn’t been a night and day turnaround for the Steelers, but they’ve managed to pull out tough wins two weeks in a row and now get to kick their feet up on the bye.

An opportune respite to say the least, with a massive matchup against the Cleveland Browns on the horizon upon their return.

Cincinnati Bengals

Well, it didn’t take a 66-yard field goal, but the Bengals went into the Motor City on Sunday and pulled out a well-earned victory against the Detroit Lions. This game was a route from the beginning, with Detroit not scoring a single point until a 4th quarter field goal made the game 27-3. The final score would go on to be 34-11, and after a tough loss against the Packers the week prior it had to feel good for Joe Burrow and company to get right back on track.

Burrow was the star of the show. He suffered a throat contusion against Green Bay that required a brief hospital visit, but it’s more than apparent that he wasn’t suffering any lingering effects in the aftermath. He threw for 271 yards and three touchdowns on Sunday, while spreading the wealth around to seven different receivers (of whom five had at least three catches).

The defense did more than their share of the load bearing on the day as well, holding Detroit to a mere 228 yards of total offense and making sure they didn’t have a response to any of Cincinnati’s meaningful scores. Currently sitting at 8th overall in yards allowed, this group that was much maligned after a dreadful 2020 is quickly becoming one of the most promising in football, with the perfect combination of young playmakers and stalwart veterans. Like we’ve said every week, with an offense like the one the Bengals are currently sporting, all you have to be is good enough. Luckily for them, they’ve been good enough and then some.

Currently sitting at 4-2 and in second place in the division, the Bengals now face their toughest challenge of the season. We’ll truly see the cut of Burrow’s jib when “For Whom The Bell Tolls” is blaring over the loudspeakers in M&T Bank Stadium at 1:00 on Sunday. Justin Herbert was out of sorts from just about the first snap against the Ravens defense last week, and they’d love nothing more than to put on a repeat performance in a crucial divisional tilt.

The Bengals have the chance to go into Week 8 atop the AFC North at 5-2, but it’ll take a herculean effort.

Wrap Up

It’s officially the time of year where identities are confirmed, and the framework of every team’s season quickly takes shape. All eyes will be on Baltimore this weekend, where a Ravens victory would put them firmly in the driver’s seat of the division and have the other three squads jockeying for position with the rest of the wild card contenders. A Bengals win (which feels dirty to say), and everything explodes not just in the division, but the entire conference.

All of that, on top of Cleveland fighting to overcome their plethora of injuries and keep their season alive, combines to make what will likely be the most formative week we’ve seen thus far in the AFC North. Get your popcorn ready, it’s about to get good! 

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