AFC North is league’s best overall since 1935
CINCINNATI (AP) With a 6-4 record, the Baltimore Ravens would be at or near the top of every division except one: their own. In the AFC North, it translates into last place.
It’s the only division where being good isn’t good enough.
”I’ve never been in a race this tight, this late in the season,” Ravens tight end Owen Daniels said. ”It’s pretty crazy.”
And historic, too.
Every team in the North is at least two games over .500 this week: Cleveland (6-3), Cincinnati (5-3-1), Pittsburgh (6-4) and Baltimore (6-4). That hasn’t happened in any division since 1935, when the Western Division had Detroit, Green Bay, the Chicago Bears and the Chicago Cardinals all two games above the break-even mark.
The AFC North is topping itself after being the league’s most successful division over the last six years.
”It’s always been competitive, but this year you are really seeing the youth and talent that has been on these teams stepping up and growing into those roles,” Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. ”It’s going to be a heck of a challenge to win this division. It’s like the SEC, there’s not really a front-runner. Winning the division – who knows how much it is going to cost you?”
Or how many are going to make it. The division sent three teams to the playoffs in 2011 and could do so again.
Part of it is the scheduling format. The North was matched against the AFC South and NFC South, which have only one winning team (Indianapolis) among them and a combined 24-49-1 record. In games outside of the division, AFC North teams have gone 15-6-1.
As it currently stands, the Browns would make the playoffs as the division champion. Kansas City (6-3) would get the first wild card. The Bengals, Steelers and Ravens are next in line.
The Browns have been the biggest surprise, alone in first place in November for the first time since 1994, when Bill Belichick was the head coach and Art Modell hadn’t moved his team to Baltimore. Cleveland is trying to extend the league’s history of at least one surprise team in the playoffs.
Since the current format was adopted in 1990, at least four teams have qualified for the postseason that didn’t make it the previous year. The Browns have set themselves up to be one of this year’s newcomers.
”The meaningful games come at the end of November and December,” quarterback Brian Hoyer said. ”That’s something this organization hasn’t had in a long time.”
Things to watch in the NFL’s toughest division down the stretch:
LIVING UP TO ITS REPUTATION: It’s had a dozen teams reach the playoffs in the last six years, two more than any other division. Only Cincinnati made the playoffs last season, ending a streak of five straight years with at least two teams in the postseason. During that six-year span, North teams have reached the Super Bowl three times and won two titles.
CAN THE BROWNS HANG ON: A doormat during that six-year stretch, the Browns have a chance to start adding to the division’s legacy. The biggest question is whether they can hold up under the strain of games where everything’s on the line. The Browns have made only one playoff appearance since they returned as a franchise in 1999, losing to Pittsburgh in the opening round in 2002.
Biggest games left: home vs. Bengals, finish season in Baltimore.
WHAT TO MAKE OF THE BENGALS: A 24-3 loss to the Browns on Thursday night knocked the defending division champions out of first place and raised a lot of doubts about whether they’re capable of a fourth straight playoff appearance. Andy Dalton threw three interceptions and finished with a passer rating of 2.0. Their defense has dropped from third overall last season to 30th. And there’s no quick fix for any of it. Five of their last seven games are on the road.
Biggest games left: at Cleveland, host Denver on Monday night, at Pittsburgh to finish season.
STEELERS HAVE IT IN THEIR HANDS: Pittsburgh’s schedule is in some ways the most favorable of the four teams, including a home game against the Chiefs and two against the Bengals in the last four weeks. One concern: They’re 2-3 away from home and 8-10 in their last 18 games against teams with losing records.
”All the teams have gotten better,” guard Ramon Foster said. ”They’ve raised their players in a way you’re supposed to develop your talent, from Cleveland all the way up, and I think it’s going to be this way for years to come.”
Biggest games left: host Chiefs, in Cincinnati to end season.
RAVENS DON’T HAVE TOO FAR TO LOOK UP: Baltimore could just as easily be in first place right now. The Ravens lost both of their games to the Bengals in the closing minutes. They’re 2-3 in the division with only one game left, hosting Cleveland in the final week. It wouldn’t take much for them to jump from worst to first and reach the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years.
Biggest games left: at Texans, host Browns to end season.
AP Sports Writers Will Graves in Pittsburgh, David Ginsburg in Owings Mills, Md., and Tom Withers in Cleveland contributed to this report.
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