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Better without Beckham

AFC North
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As each week passes, it becomes more and more clear that the best division in the AFC resides in the north. Sure, the AFC West may also currently hold four teams over .500, but when you break down each squad individually you’d be hard pressed to take any of them over even Cincinnati, who currently sits in last place in the north. Despite this, each team has also shown a plethora of weaknesses throughout the season so far that have been exploited by opposing teams, leading to head-scratching losses. All in all, it appears as if the next two months will be even more exciting than the last, as this divisional race begins to reach a boiling point.

The Ravens still find themselves atop the heap after an impressive come from behind win against the Vikings on Sunday, but make no mistake about it, it’s still anyone’s crown to grab.

With that said, let’s check in and see how each team outside of Charm City fared last week, as we take yet another spin around the AFC North.

Cleveland Browns/Cincinnati Bengals

The Cleveland Browns walked into Cincinnati on Sunday finally free from the ties that have bound them since trading for Odell Beckham Jr. in 2019. “Free Odell” was a popular phrase thrown around social media all of last week, but in looking at the Browns record “with vs. without Odell” (combined with their performance on Sunday) you have to question who was really holding down whom in the end. It was clear that Cleveland was ready to put this entire mess behind them and start their push towards the playoffs, and they took a massive first step in that direction against the Bengals.

Early on it appeared as if the Bengals would be the ones moving the ball with ease all afternoon. Joe Burrow and company drove right down the field on their opening possession before coming up on 3rd-and-goal from the three. The second-year signal caller took the snap and looked to fire out right to his old friend Ja’Marr Chase, but cornerback Denzel Ward jumped the route and intercepted the pass. Chase also fell down on his route, which allowed Ward to return the pick 99 yards for a tone-setting Browns touchdown. From there, Cleveland didn’t look back.

Led by an efficient two-touchdown game from quarterback Baker Mayfield, and a monster day from superstar running back Nick Chubb, the Browns would hang 41 points on the home team. Chubb finished the day with 137 yards and two touchdowns in his own right, and averaged a whopping 9.8 yards per carry in the process. Without the pressure of targeting their “star” wide receiver 10 times, the Browns offense was able to freely play their style of football and gouge the Bengals defensive front all day long.

For the Bengals, that convincing win at M&T Bank Stadium may as well be an eternity ago. In the two weeks since they blew out the Ravens on their home turf, they’ve lost a heartbreaker to the New York Jets and have been dominated by a divisional opponent at home. Burrow had what was likely his worst performance of the year on Sunday, but not every day at the office can be a winner, right? Running back Joe Mixon finished with two touchdowns on the afternoon (one of which was in garbage time), which is at least a small win they can look to roll into next week.

After all the praise we’ve given them in this column throughout the season, the Bengals defense has looked downright awful in these last two losses. Even keeping in mind the early deficit they faced on Sunday thanks to the offense, they still allowed Cleveland to come out and score on their first three possessions. This forced the offense to become one-dimensional early, and allowed the Cleveland pass rush to pin their ears back and sack Burrow five times. If they have any hopes of taking the divisional crown, that’s an issue they’ll have to fix, pronto.

Luckily for the Bengals, this week they get to enjoy a much needed bye as the rest of the AFC North dukes it out to hold their spot. With so much to address on the defensive side of the ball, and coming off two straight losses, it legitimately couldn’t come at a better time.

For the Browns, things get a little tougher this week as Mayfield and coach Kevin Stefansky lead the team into New England. The Patriots, and quarterback Mac Jones, have seemed to improve more with every passing week, and they’ll look to keep their three-game win streak alive by any means necessary.

Pittsburgh Steelers

We could probably pen three articles about the Pittsburgh Steelers’ match-up with the Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football before even getting to the teams themselves. It’s impossible to address this game without mentioning the downright atrocious display of officiating that took place from the first to last whistle. We’ll spare you the breakdown of each individual call, but any game in which a referee intentionally hip checking a player was the second or third most egregious move by an official, is probably a game that needs to be reviewed by the league office… Wait, this just in, I’m being told the league office has in fact reviewed it and aren’t taking any action whatsoever.

If only you could all see the massive look of shock currently on my face…

Anyway, let’s get to the game itself. Pittsburgh scored on two of their first three possessions, and had a stranglehold on this match-up for the entire first half. Running back Najee Harris rumbled in for an easy touchdown on their opening drive, and Ben Roethlisberger found tight end Pat Freiermuth for a four-yard score in the beginning of the second quarter. In a performance that was the antithesis of the Ravens on Sunday though, it was the second half where they began to falter.

Bears rookie quarterback Justin Fields looked much more poised after some readjustments in the halftime locker room, and would bring his team within seven points before a Pittsburgh field goal extended the lead back to 10. With another punt looming for Chicago, it appeared as if the Steelers were ready to retake firm control. That is, until Ray-Ray McCloud fumbled the punt and DeAndre Houston-Carson returned it to the house, bringing the game back within three.

Fields led yet another drive downfield to tie the game in the fourth quarter, but ultimately the Steelers and the referees were too much to overcome in the end. A Chris Boswell field goal in the waning seconds gave the Steelers a 29-27 victory, in objectively ugly fashion. One last mention for the referees though, who called Bears defensive end Robert Quinn for lining up in the neutral zone numerous times late to bail out Pittsburgh, but somehow missed T.J. Watt doing the exact same thing on the game-ending missed FG where the Bears attempted to win the game at the buzzer. Interesting how that works, right?

Nonetheless, Pittsburgh squeaks by again and currently find themselves at 5-3, second in the division. After an abysmal start to the season, they’ve quickly become just as big a threat to the Ravens at the top as anyone else. We’ll see how Ben Roethlisberger holds up as the weather continues to get colder, but as of now it appears as if he can at least still do enough to keep them competitive on a weekly basis. Combine that with a defense that is normally amongst the top in football, and dynamic weapons all around their aging quarterback, and you have a Steelers team who promises to be a tough out no matter the opponent. Luckily for them, a match-up with the Detroit Lions this week should have them in prime position to continue their winning ways.

Wrap-Up

That’s another week in the books, and another opportunity to say, “Who knows how this thing is going to shake out?”

With five divisional games still on the slate for the Ravens, and four for the rest of the teams, the head-to-head results are likely what will decide who stands tall when the dust settles. Until those match-ups arrive though, the name of the game across the division will be taking care of business against (what could be perceived as) lesser outside opponents in the meantime.

We’ll see how these squads fare in doing just that next time, for our weekly jump around the AFC North.

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