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The AFC North Refuses to Make Any Sense

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but just when you think things may finally be starting to become clear in the AFC North, weeks like this past one come along and muddy the waters once again. Following last week’s games, it appeared as if the two teams at the top were finally going to hit the gas and create some separation, but two rough losses (one in the division) later, and we’re sitting here with a jumbled mess that could play out any which way. We knew heading into the season that this race would be a dog fight, but with the entire division now separated by a mere two games and another inter-divisional clash on the slate for this weekend, we may be looking at a true photo finish over the last five weeks.

Just when we think we have the answers, the question gets changed all together, but let’s do our best to break it down anyway for this week’s spin around the AFC North.

Cleveland Browns

We’ll start quickly with the only team that wasn’t in action this week. The last time the Cleveland Browns took the field was an absolute mess of a display, en route to a 16-10 loss to our Baltimore Ravens. Offensively they’ve had multiple issues in dire need of addressing, most notably the struggles of their injured quarterback and how to proceed with him going forward. With a full week of rest finally under their belts, along with the fortune of playing the exact same team they saw last, this week is likely the biggest of the season for Cleveland.

If Baker Mayfield is still showing clear signs of being limited due to his injury, and the offense struggles as a result, coach Kevin Stefansky may have no choice but to make a move in an attempt to spark his team. With the Ravens having just lost the heart and soul of their defense for the entire season, they likely won’t have a better opportunity to make a statement over the last month of the year than this.

We’ll see if the Browns can turn this thing around following the bye, or if this is just the home stretch of another disappointing season in Cleveland.

Pittsburgh Steelers

I apologize in advance for subjecting you all to more of last Sunday’s game, but we’ll just call it a necessary evil. The Steelers entered the game with rumors swirling about something we already figured to be true, that this season would be Ben Roethlisberger‘s last wearing black and gold. Knowing that this would likely be his last encounter with the Baltimore Ravens at Heinz Field added an extra layer of emotion to this one, and down the stretch it certainly seemed to fuel his play when the team needed him most.

We won’t go blow-for-blow on a recap given that so many of my talented co-writers at Russell Street Report have already dissected this game head to toe, but let’s touch quickly on what this performance could mean for the Steelers down the stretch. The Steelers offense was once again stagnant in the early part of this game, fresh off a similarly disappointing display in Cincinnati the week before in which they were blown out of the building. Despite those early struggles though, they admittedly showed a lot of heart in the 4th quarter with their backs against the wall. Sure, their first touchdown was a result of miscommunication between Anthony Averett and the rest of the defense, but Roethlisberger still put together three consecutive drives that resulted in points against a Ravens defense that had been playing their best football of the year heading into Sunday. Only time will tell if this performance was the catalyst for bigger things, or the last punch of a dying era.

The defense on the other hand, had an impressive rebound from their back-to-back miserable performances in which they surrendered 41 points in consecutive weeks. T.J. Watt‘s presence on that side of the ball was the ultimate difference maker, from his early pressure on Lamar Jackson that forced an interception, to his 2.5 sacks and getting in the way of Jackson’s throwing lane on the two-point conversion. At this point, anyone would be hard pressed to not have Watt as the clear favorite for defensive player of the year.

There’s no time to rest for Pittsburgh though, as a Thursday night road matchup against the Minnesota Vikings is fast approaching. The Vikings are coming off one of the more embarrassing losses in their franchise history, but will assuredly be out to make a statement as they continue to fight for an NFC wild card berth.

Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals headed into Sunday with an opportunity to all but stamp their place in one of the three AFC wild card positions when the Los Angeles Chargers came to town. At 8-4, with three victories in a row over teams competing for those same spots, they would’ve had a nice little security net as they continued to fight for the division crown down the stretch. Unfortunately for them, Justin Herbert and company had a little something different in mind.

The Chargers came out clicking in all facets, and quickly jumped out to a 24-0 lead with just over 10 minutes to play in the first half following a Jalen Guyton 44-yard touchdown. Cincinnati wouldn’t go out without a fight though, and responded with a touchdown of their own before turning over the Los Angeles offense and putting another score on the board. Out of the halftime locker room they quickly added another field goal, fumble recovery, and a touchdown, and with that we had ourselves a 24-22 game with a whole lot of time left. It seemed as if the Bengals emptied the tank in their comeback effort though, and a few short drives later a Joe Mixon fumble was scooped by Tevaughn Campbell and returned to the house, ultimately sealing their fate for the afternoon. When all was said and done, the Chargers were victorious by a score of 41-22.

After two straight weeks of domination by Mixon, a matchup with the Chargers seemed like the perfect prescription for yet another earth shaking performance from the emerging star. He would only finish the day with 54 yards on the ground via 19 carries though, as Los Angeles came in with a clear mission to stop the run. The early deficit assuredly contributed to Mixon’s lack of success as well, but a game-sealing fumble for the other team is still the last thing you want to see if you’re a Bengals fan. Moments like that can either motivate a player, or stop the momentum they were building flat.

Joe Burrow also threw two interceptions in the game, but one was right off the hands of Ja’Marr Chase on a play that should’ve been a long touchdown. The other was late in the 4th quarter with his team down 16 points. He also battled through a pinky injury that he sustained early in the game, one that was clearly causing him a lot of pain and hampering his ability to throw the ball. Despite throwing for 300 yards, it was still a day Burrow would like to forget, and we’ll see going forward if that pinky injury continues to nag him. Especially during those ice cold days, where every single hit feels like a car wreck.

Next up for the Bengals is another team fighting for a playoff spot in the San Francisco 49ers. Despite a tough loss on the road in Seattle last week, they’re playing their best football of the year and have won three of their last four games in convincing fashion. With Deebo Samuel likely returning this week, Cincinnati will have their hands full and then some as they look to hold their place in the standings.

Wrap-Up

At this point, there’s no use in trying to actually predict how this division is going to play out. Each week at least one team seemingly goes from looking like they’re on top of the world, to crashing and burning while raising questions about their legitimacy (and vice versa). All we can do now is sit back and watch the fireworks, as these four teams who’ve now all had their bye race towards the finish line with five weeks to go. It’s still the Ravens’ division to win as it stands now, so let’s just hope we can say the same next time as we take a look around the AFC North.

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