It’s not much, but after a wild week of inter-divisional play in the AFC North, it feels as if we may finally be starting to see some separation in terms of the contenders and the pretenders. While the Ravens certainly have plenty of areas in which they need to improve, it’s clear that their issues are nowhere near those of the bottom two teams in the division. Those teams now face a massive uphill climb for the rest of the season, but there’s one more out there who’s hot on the tails of the purple birds and playing perhaps their best football of the season right now.
With numerous head-to-head meetings still left on the schedule nothing is written in stone, but let’s take a look at how things finally appear to be taking shape in the AFC North.
The flock has dissected Sunday night’s game against the Browns from the Ravens’ perspective up, down, left, and right at this point. Now, it’s time to dig into things from the orange side of the spectrum, and honestly it’s not looking great as a whole.
Defensively, the Browns are still one of the best units in all of football. Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney had Lamar Jackson uncomfortable all evening, and the secondary took advantage of every opportunity the Ravens gave them to the tune of four interceptions. This side of the ball was never the one in question though; that falls on an offense which came into Sunday’s game looking anemic and did nothing to change that perception.
Not to sound repetitive, but two weeks ago I made mention of the fact that Baker Mayfield was receiving too much hate for not being productive through his nagging injuries. At this point however, it’s clear that whatever is currently ailing him is costing his football team dearly. There was simply zero threat in the passing game all night long, which allowed the Ravens to focus even more on stopping the superstar tandem of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt out of the backfield.
Think about this: teams whose quarterback threw four interceptions in a game had lost 54 straight games coming into Sunday. It’s a statistical improbability that borders on an impossibility, yet the Browns offense snapped that streak while only scoring three points off those interceptions (despite having great field position as a result of most of them).
It’s tough to keep making the injury excuse for the Browns when you see teams like the Ravens lose integral pieces on an almost weekly basis and still have success. Even without their MVP two weeks ago, on the road against a gritty Chicago team they still found a way to pull out a victory. Now, every team is not the Ravens of course, but Cleveland in particular has had no qualms in talking about how they’re the new faces of the AFC North. Unfortunately for them, stability and culture isn’t built overnight, or on potential alone.
As they enter their bye week with another match-up against Baltimore on the horizon, it’s going to take an offensive turnaround that’s nothing short of miraculous for them to compete for the division. Their wild card hopes are still very much alive in a muddled pack throughout the middle of the AFC, but even those will slip away fast if they can’t right the ship immediately.
Pittsburgh Steelers/Cincinnati Bengals
Well, I’ll be the first to admit, I did not see this one coming whatsoever. What can you say? After the Bengals dealt the Steelers a stunning loss at home in Week 3, smart money would’ve said that this game would be the most important one on the Steelers’ schedule up to this point. At the very least, it would be the game they came into the most prepared for, right? In the words of Lee Corso, “Not so fast my friend!”
The Bengals took the opening possession of the game right down the field like a hot knife through butter, intercepted Ben Roethlisberger on the ensuing drive, and continued the beat down all afternoon long in a 41-10 route. Cincinnati has been playing their best football over the last two weeks, and it’s largely a result of the shift in their offensive game plan.
Earlier in the season, Joe Burrow was the focal point of the offense as he and Ja’Marr Chase were taking the league by storm. While this approach was certainly leading to points, it was also very reliant on big plays downfield, which is tough to sustain long term (especially when the weather gets colder and games become more of a grind). What we’ve seen over the last two weeks though is a shift to being a run-first football team, with Joe Mixon having by far his largest two carry totals of the year since Week 1 (30 and 28 respectively). He’s responded by rushing for 288 yards and four touchdowns in that span, and has shown that he’s got true bell cow potential in the process. Now sporting one of the most complete all around offenses in the NFL, it appears that whether it’s as the division winner or a wild card, the Bengals are primed to make some noise in January. Up next for Cincinnati is a home game against the Los Angeles Chargers, which could have massive wild card implications should the Bengals fall short of winning the AFC North.
Cincinnati is clearly the biggest threat to the Ravens in the AFC North, but the team they play this weekend is heading in the other direction, and fast. Over the past month, Pittsburgh has barely beaten the Bears at home thanks to horrible officiating (by less points than the Ravens did on the road with a backup QB), tied the Lions at home, lost to the Chargers in LA, and then got steamrolled by a division rival. Wide receiver Chase Claypool is complaining about a lack of music in practice, former players like Ryan Clark are coming out and saying nobody fears them, and there’s no real sign of things turning around when you look at their schedule.
Even the vaunted Steelers defense that’s come to define their reputation in years past has given up 41 points in two consecutive games. Now to be fair, stars like T.J. Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick have missed some time, but with Watt now on the COVID list just after returning from an injury, where is that spark going to come from? How are they going to contain a very ticked off Lamar Jackson who’s looking to wash away the taste of his worst game ever?
Like the Browns, their wild card hopes are still alive thanks to the string of average-to-bad teams they beat in October, but their window is closing fast. With opponents like the Ravens (twice), the Titans, and Kansas City still on the docket, it’s tough to imagine the Steelers playing postseason football come January as it stands now. With a completely somber end to the Ben Roethlisberger era potentially on the horizon, one has to wonder if both he and the team are questioning whether he should’ve come back in 2021 at all.
Like I said, anything can happen, ESPECIALLY in the AFC North. As we look at things now though, it appears as if the race towards the division crown will be between two horses, with the other two duking it out with the rest of the conference hoping to sneak into a wild card spot. We’re officially in December, and like Dr. Strange said, “We’re in the endgame now.” This is when games mean the most, and there’s simply zero room for error. We’ll see if things hold serve as they stand now during next week’s spin around the AFC North!