The Baltimore Ravens are 6-2 — and appear to be completely vulnerable.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are 5-3, graying and flawed but winners of three straight after being left for dead.
The state of Ohio has two AFC North teams, too.
All four except the Browns are now at the midway point of their respective 2012 seasons, and after this weekend all will have played nine games. The Ravens have overcome a bunch of injuries and some uncharacteristically bad defense to stay atop the division by a game. The Steelers are looking to make it four straight with a Monday-nighter vs. the Chiefs ahead of their first game with Baltimore.
The Bengals haven’t won since September. Among their four-straight losses heading into this Sunday’s game with the Giants is one to the Browns, who stand 2-7 after letting the Ravens come back last week to post a win with the most misleading final score of the season, 25-15.
The Browns are rarely boring.
BIG GAMES AHEAD
The Steelers host the Ravens in a Sunday Night Football game on Nov. 18, then the same two teams play again in Baltimore two weeks later.
It’s not too early to say those games will decide the division. A first-round playoff bye and divisional-round home game could be at stake, too.
The Steelers have the easier schedule the rest of the way. Besides the Ravens, Pittsburgh’s only remaining opponent that currently has a winning record is the Chargers, who visit what could be a snowy Heinz Field on Dec. 9. In addition to two games with the Steelers, the Ravens still play at San Diego and play the Broncos and Giants at home.
We’ve seen little to indicate the Bengals can make this anything but a two-horse race, but if the 3-5 Bengals can beat the Giants this weekend, they go to Kansas City the following week then come home for Carson Palmer’s homecoming game against the limping Raiders. For the fourth straight Sunday, the Bengals face a must-win situation.
Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Steelers
A new offensive coordinator and injuries/circumstances at the other skill positions meant change, but Roethlisberger has handled it well. He’s thrown 16 touchdowns and just four interceptions, and after Joe Flacco created a lot of buss early in the season there’s now no doubt that the division’s best quarterback plays in Pittsburgh.
The Steelers are the NFL’s best team in third-down efficiency, and Roethlisberger’s 101.1 passer rating is in the top five.
Ravens running back Ray Rice has had a solid season and deserves mid-season MVP talk, but he’s been underused, if anything. After a fast start, the Ravens passing offense has gone flat. The Ravens are going to need Rice the rest of the way, and they appear to know it.
A.J. Green has a case for divisional mid-season MVP, too, but the Bengals just haven’t won enough games. Others deserving at least some consideration (but no first-place votes): Trent Richardson, Lamarr Woodley, Geno Atkins and Haloti Ngata.
Kickers Justin Tucker and Phil Dawson have been really good, too. The Browns were just really hoping to avoid another year of a special teams player being their team MVP.
Passing: Roethlisberger, with 2,203 yards and 16 touchdowns
Rushing: Rice, with 622 yards at 4.7 per carry.
Receiving: Green, with 51 catches for 735 yards and a league-best 8 touchdowns.
Sacks: Atkins, 7
Interceptions: Baltimore’s Cary Williams, 4
The Ravens have scored the most points (199); the Bengals have given up the most points (218). The Browns are the lowest-scoring team in the division despite having played one more game than the other three teams with 169 points, 20 behind the Bengals’ output.
The Steelers rank first in the division but just 13th in the league in total offense, averaging 367.2 yards per game. In one of those things that happens close to every year, the Steelers also rank first in the NFL in total defense. In one of those things that happens very rarely, the Ravens defense ranks 26h.
THREE QUESTIONS FOR EACH TEAM GOING FORWARD
Ravens – Will we see Terrell Suggs at close to top speed? Will Rice be the workhorse he needs to be? Can the secondary be healthy and productive enough to hold off the Steelers’ charge?
Steelers – Will the offensive line hold up? Will the running backs and Antonio Brown stay healthy? Can Troy Polamalu come back and make a lasting impact?
Bengals – Can Andy Dalton cut down on interceptions? Will there be any semblance of a running game? Can Dre Kirkpatrick get to full speed and pave the way to a big second season?
Browns – Is Brandon Weeden really going to be the guy? How much of a distraction will the ownership change and impending changes continue to be? Can these young players continue to quietly make a case for GM Tom Heckert?