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AFC North Teams Bunched Up for Stretch Run

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We’re officially 11 weeks through the NFL schedule, and as we get ready to enjoy this holiday weekend it’s crazy to think how close we are to the end of the regular season. It feels like just yesterday we were all preparing our doomsday shelters following the Ravens’ Week 1 loss in Las Vegas. Nonetheless, it was an important week in the AFC North, one where all three of the other teams (even the one that lost) are feeling a little better than they were following the stinker that was Week 10.

Some are feeling much better than others of course, so let’s get right into a holiday edition of our swing around the division.

Cleveland Browns

First, let’s touch on the team who probably has the most questions about their football team of any other in the AFC North, despite coming out victorious. The Browns entered Sunday’s contest with the Detroit Lions looking to get the taste of a New England beatdown out of their mouths. On paper, it seemed as if they had the perfect opponent on the schedule to accomplish that feat. The only problem was that nobody told Dan Campbell and company.

Cleveland came out completely flat offensively. After a quick punt on their opening possession, quarterback Baker Mayfield would throw an errant pass to Jarvis Landry on the next drive that resulted in an interception, and gave Detroit excellent field position. The boo birds began to rain down on Mayfield, and they didn’t stop for the majority of the afternoon.

Last week in this article I mentioned that perhaps Mayfield was being given a little too much flak, that the statistics he’s put up despite the combination of injuries he’s faced has still been impressive at times. Boy, did he ever make me eat my words. Mayfield finished the day completing barely over 50% of his passes for 176 yards, with one touchdown and two interceptions. I still do think that he is better than the stat line he put up on Sunday, but the consistency issues are starting to become a little too much for the Browns to be comfortable with. He’s just lucky that the team ultimately pulled out an ugly 13-10 victory, otherwise there might have been a different quarterback at the helm when they travel to Baltimore on Sunday night.

It seems that the Browns’ only way of sustaining success going forward will be to win games like this. Nick Chubb was a force on the ground, rushing for 130 yards on the day and playing a key role in the field position game. The defense did exactly what they were supposed to do against a subpar offense, holding them to a mere 10 points on a day where points weren’t being put on the board by their offense. A win is a win, but Mayfield’s reaction towards reporters earlier this week will tell you all about how Cleveland feels after this one. They’ll need to be much better on the offensive side of the ball if they have any hope of coming out with a victory in Baltimore.

Pittsburgh Steelers

On the flip side of things, the Steelers went into SoFi Stadium on Sunday night for a big in-conference game with the Chargers. They’d ultimately be on the wrong end of a 41-37 Los Angeles victory, but considering the comeback effort they put forward in the second half (despite being down their best players on defense) they probably feel better than Cleveland does this week.

The Chargers took advantage of the fact that T.J. Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick were both sidelined for this contest, and managed to score on their first five possessions of the game. After taking a 17-10 lead into the locker room, a touchdown on their first drive of the second half and a field goal on the next had them sitting pretty in the driver’s seat. Austin Ekeler and Justin Herbert simply couldn’t be stopped, but the Steelers wouldn’t just lay down and die.

After their first defensive stand of the evening, the Steelers would again make a massive special teams play in the form of a blocked punt, putting them in prime position for a Najee Harris one-yard touchdown. The special teams for Pittsburgh has bailed them out of more than one jam this year, and they almost did the same again in this game.

The two teams went on to trade touchdowns for the rest of the game, but on Pittsburgh’s last drive with a chance to come out victorious, Ben Roethlisberger was sacked twice. The Chargers defense has struggled all throughout the season, but one thing they can do with relative ease is rush the passer. Any time you have one final drive to put up points in a passing situation against this unit, you’re likely in trouble.

Nonetheless, the Steelers managed to go point for point with one of the best offenses in football. They also showed a lot of heart without their key leaders and were within a few plays of pulling off a Lamar Jackson-esque comeback (which, by the way, feels so good to say after the narrative of the last three years).

Up next is a divisional tilt against the Cincinnati Bengals, one where they’ll be eager to avenge the 24-10 loss they suffered at the hands of Joe Burrow and company back in week 3.

Cincinnati Bengals

Speaking of the Bengals, they came off their bye this week on the heels of a blowout loss to the Browns looking to right the ship. With the way the Las Vegas Raiders have been playing as of late, a trip to Sin City was apparently just what the doctor ordered.

This game was close all throughout the first half as the defenses reigned supreme. The second touchdown from either team didn’t even come until well into the 4th quarter when the Raiders closed the gap to three. This is why it’s so jarring when you look at the final score and see that the Bengals ultimately won this game in blowout fashion, 32-13.

The name of the game on offense for the Bengals was ground and pound until the cows come home. Joe Burrow would only throw for 148 yards on the day, but did so at an efficient 68% completion rate while letting running back Joe Mixon steal the show. A whopping 30 carries for Mixon resulted in 123 yards and two touchdowns, as he literally carried the Bengals towards a much needed convincing victory.

The defense also had a major rebound for Cincinnati as they stifled Derek Carr and the Raiders offense all afternoon, save for their one touchdown drive. The majority of the throws on that possession were big plays to Darren Waller, which you almost come to expect a few of when playing Las Vegas, so all-in-all they’ll live with the one shaky drive on a day where so many other things went right.

Up next for Cincinnati, as we mentioned before, is a home match-up with a very angry Steelers team. Their loss to the Bengals earlier this year was a perfect encapsulation of the troubles they faced as a team during their 1-3 skid, and they’d love nothing more than to prove to their divisional foe (and the rest of the world) that it was nothing more than a fluke.

Burrow and company will need to bring their A game and then some if they want to prove they’re serious contenders in the AFC North.

Wrap-Up

A few ugly wins, a pretty loss, and a blowout in Las Vegas, and we’re still nowhere near figuring out how this divisional race is going to finish. We’ll assuredly get a much better picture of that after this week though, as it’s officially time for some AFC North inter-divisional football. This is where the men are separated from the boys, and to say it will be interesting to see which teams step up to the challenge is the understatement of the century.

Get that seat on the couch nice and comfortable, heat up some Thanksgiving leftovers, and enjoy what promises to be the most important weekend in the AFC North so far this year!

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