Through the years in the AFC North, there have been countless divisional races that have come right down to the wire. Who could forget the Ravens defeating the Cleveland Browns while the Steelers watched their playoff hopes come to a close in the final week of 2018? Or in 2014 where three of the four teams finished within one game of each other? With that said, we’ve never seen a race in this division as close as the one we’re seeing unfold right now. Any team can still finish at the top of the heap just as easily as they can finish in the cellar, and the pecking order in determining that can shift dramatically based on any one game. It’s madness I tell you…a multiverse of madness! (The Marvel puns stay, by the way).
Let’s quickly touch on how each team around the AFC North fared last week, while also discussing their path to the playoffs from here.
The COVID-19 ravaged Cleveland Browns entered Monday night’s game against the Raiders without a plethora of talent, most notably starting quarterback Baker Mayfield and his #1 target Jarvis Landry. With Case Keenum also on the reserve list, it was up to Nick Mullens to potentially put them in the driver’s seat of the division when the clock hit zero. Mullens certainly didn’t light up the scoreboard by any means, but as a third string quarterback who had no expectation of touching the field the week prior, he did everything possible to give his team a chance to win the ball game.
Despite the long odds, a late Derek Carr interception seemed to all but put the game away for the Browns. All they had to do was pick up one more first down to ice it, but some unusually conservative play calling led to the Raiders having one more chance. Now, to sit here and say that playing aggressively with Mullens in the backfield was 100% the right call would just be silly. They chose to rely on their superstar running back Nick Chubb to try and get the yardage, but the Raiders saw it coming the entire way.
Carr would rebound on the next drive, looking incredibly crisp as he led his team into field goal range for the game winning kick while also overcoming an offensive holding penalty in the process. The interception, followed by this game winning drive, was perhaps the best microcosm of the duality of Carr one could possibly imagine. Nonetheless, one pretty kick from Daniel Carlson later (well, two, actually, after a failed icing attempt by Cleveland), the Raiders walked away with the 16-14 victory.
The Browns had a chance to be atop the AFC North this week, but now instead find themselves at the bottom looking up. With a trip to Lambeau Field on the docket for Christmas day, things certainly don’t get any easier either. It’s going to take a lot of COVID returns on a short week, and a Herculean effort (to put it lightly) if they have any hope of making up ground this week. Then again, we’ve seen crazier things happen in the NFL, so the last thing one can do is write them off already.
Following a crushing defeat at the hands of the Minnesota Vikings, there was perhaps no team in more desperate need of a Week 15 victory than the Pittsburgh Steelers. With the AFC South-leading Tennessee Titans coming to town, that was going to be no easy feat. The Titans are potentially dealing with the most injuries of any team not in Baltimore, but nonetheless they’re a well-coached team that was going to give the Steelers every ounce that they could handle.
This game was low-scoring, defensive, and very reminiscent of an AFC Central game from back in 1996 between the former divisional foes. In a gridlocked 13-13 tie with just over nine minutes to go, a Ryan Tannehill interception would put Pittsburgh in prime position to kick the go-ahead field goal. On their next possession, Tannehill lost control of the snap and gave Pittsburgh yet another opportunity at three points while also grinding away precious time off the clock. When you give a Mike Tomlin-led football team two turnovers late in the 4th quarter, you’re likely not going to come out on top, and Sunday was no exception. When all was said and done, the Steelers would come away with their second biggest victory of the year, and their second crucial AFC victory in three weeks, by a score of 19-13.
While the Steelers’ path to a divisional crown still looks daunting, that path may have gotten a whole lot easier with the Kansas City Chiefs placing Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce (among others) on the COVID 19 reserve list in recent days. As of now it looks like Patrick Mahomes will be without his two biggest weapons for their encounter this week, which is music to the ears of a Steelers defense that has struggled far more than not as of late. A victory in Kansas City would put the Steelers in a much better position to have their divisional fate in their own hands, with games against the Browns and Ravens over the final two weeks.
Those two losses to the Bengals certainly don’t bode well for them though, which is why they’ll be in the unusual position of rooting for their most bitter foes this weekend.
The Bengals entered Denver on Sunday in the midst of an untimely two-game losing streak, which made this game crucial for keeping pace at the top of the AFC North. Like we saw in Cleveland, there weren’t many highlights to discuss from this one (as the final score of 15-10 would indicate), but Cincinnati showed a lot of grit in pulling out a tough road victory against a defense that had only allowed 14 points once in the last month.
This game felt extra important for the Bengals defense, who we praised a lot early in the season before the wheels began to shake a bit. After giving up 41 points to the Chargers and allowing the game-winning score in overtime to the 49ers in back-to-back weeks, a get right game was just what the doctor ordered. Granted, Teddy Bridgewater exited this game with an injury and it was the Drew Lock “show” (for lack of a better term) for a large portion of the day, but you can only beat the players in front of you. Denver had the ball late with a chance to move down the field, but the defense was just far too stifling. While they surely shouldn’t lull themselves into a false sense of confidence, it was a definite morale boost before this weekend.
Speaking of this weekend, the Bengals play our Baltimore Ravens in a game that very well may decide the division when week 18 concludes. The Ravens and Bengals currently sit tied at 8-6, with the Bengals owning the head-to-head tiebreaker that we all painfully remember. Should Cincinnati be victorious again this week, the crown is theirs to lose, and losing it would mean a major letdown in the process.
A victory will be no easy task though, no matter who ends up under center for the Ravens. Not only do they have the stinging memory of that home blowout earlier in the season on their minds, but they also have an experienced coach who’s been in this position before and knows what it takes to rip the division away from his rivals when it matters most. Zac Taylor and Joe Burrow will be tested this week in more ways than one, but should they still find a way to win regardless, it’s tough to make the argument that they’re not the team who deserves to represent the north in the playoffs (much to our chagrin).
Well, here we are. The road to the top of the division is clear for every team in the AFC North, even if some roads may be a little bumpier than others. This is genuinely still anyone’s title to take, and no matter how it shakes out it promises to be a finish for the ages. This is why we love football at the end of the day: some will experience the highest of highs, others will experience the lowest of lows, but no matter what it’s damn exciting to watch when the rubber truly meets the road. That excitement will only be amplified this weekend as we’re all enjoying our Christmas dinner and leftovers.
So to all of the fine Russell Street Report readers out there, enjoy the holidays, appreciate your loved ones, and get ready for some of the most intense action we’ve seen in the NFL all year long!