AFC North: Slipping From Divisional Powerhouse Status

After nine weeks of the NFL season, the AFC North has been one of the biggest surprises. But not for a good reason.

On Sunday, the Baltimore Ravens defeated the Steelers, 21-14. This was music to the ears of Bengals’ fans. Through eight games, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Cincinnati all have four losses.

The division may be up for grabs, but it’s in an unusual position. The AFC North is the only division in football without a winning team. It also holds the NFL’s worst overall record at 11-21-1. It is tied with the NFC West for fewest wins, but that can change Monday night with a Seattle victory.

Sure, the lopsided record may be credited to the Browns. Yesterday, they fell to 0-9 for just the third time in franchise history with a 25-point loss to Dallas. However, the Bengals, Steelers, and Ravens are all .500 or lower (thanks to a tie). This is the same division that has sent five teams to the playoffs in the last two seasons.

Prior to the 2015 season, USA Today crunched the numbers from the last decade from all eight divisions, finding the AFC North to have the most wins (334) in the league. So how did it get like this?

Nov 6, 2016; Baltimore, MD, USA; Baltimore Ravens running back Javorius Allen (37) high fives wide receiver Chris Moore (10) after scoring a touchdown on a blocked punt in the fourth quarter against the Pittsburgh Steelers at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Baltimore Ravens (4-4)

The Ravens are coming off a 5-11 campaign a year ago. Largely caused by over 20 players on the IR by season’s end, including starting quarterback Joe Flacco. Baltimore was forced to use four different starters over the 16-game slate.

The Ravens lost nine games last season by eight points or less. But in the first three weeks of 2016, they found a way to pull out close games over a 3-0 start. However, Baltimore reverted back to last season’s form over a four-game losing streak.

But the Ravens bounced back on Sunday, opening up a 21-0 lead over the Steelers before holding on by a touchdown in the game’s final minutes.

Joe Flacco, like he usually is in the regular season, has been average. He has thrown more interceptions than touchdowns, and has an overall passer rating of just 76 (29th among starters). On top of that, Baltimore owns the AFC’s worst rushing offense, with leading runner Terrance West averaging just 55.6 yards per game.

Baltimore’s defense is holding opponents to just 19.1 points per game, which has been the key to a .500 first-half. With every one of its games being decided by one possession, the Ravens could be 2-6 or 6-2. But so far, they’ve been just good enough to own the top spot in the North, a division they haven’t won since 2012.

Next game: Thurs, Nov 10 vs. Cleveland (0-9)

Nov 6, 2016; Baltimore, MD, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) throws a pass in the second quarter against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Pittsburgh Steelers (4-4)

The Steelers were finally ready to dominate again. Ben Roethlisberger was healthy, Antonio Brown is one of the league’s top wide outs, and Le’Veon Bell would finally be back after an injury and suspension.

Pittsburgh has always been susceptible to lose the games they should win. The Steelers got off to a 2-0 start by defeating back-to-back reigning division champions (Washington & Cincinnati), but laid an egg in a 31-point loss to a rookie quarterback in Philadelphia. Despite that collapse, Bell returned and the Steelers won two straight (Kansas City & New York) by a combined score of 74-27.

A 4-1 Steelers went to Miami in what, on paper, seemed like a blowout win. But Jay Ajayi ran for 200 yards and a clinching 62-yard touchdown trot in the final minute and the Dolphins stunned the Black & Gold, 30-15. Roethlisberger was hurt in the defeat, leading to a Landry Jones-led loss to New England seven days later.

The Steelers’ current three-game losing skid dropped them to 4-4. After many predicting Pittsburgh to win the conference, Roethlisberger’s play and a lengthy injury report is concerning.

Pittsburgh does have the NFL’s weakest remaining schedule, though.

Next Game:  Sun, Nov. 13th vs. Dallas (7-1)

Oct 30, 2016; London, United Kingdom; Cincinnati Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert (85) celebrates with teammates after his 15 yard reception for touchdown during the third quarter against the Washington Redskins at Wembley Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Steve Flynn-USA TODAY Sports

Cincinnati  Bengals (3-4-1)

Well, if you’ve been reading anything on this website, you know the issues with the Bengals. The defense is yielding points at an alarming rate and lacks a consistent pass rush. The offense’s high yardage has not resulted in many points. In fact, the Bengals are in the top 10 for offensive yards. Although red zone success is on the rise, as of late, the Bengals need more to win.

The Bengals are on pace to score 334 points this season, 85 fewer points than last year’s 12-4 team.

The team is hoping its fortunes turn soon. Since Tyler Eifert has returned, the Bengals have scored 58 points in the last two games. But the worries have to be on the defense. Former Bengal, Wallace Gilberry, was signed during the team’s bye week to add a familiar face and a veteran presence.

Can the Bengals take there new life and run with it, only being a half game out of first place?

Next Game: Mon, Nov. 14th @ New York Giants (5-3)

Nov 6, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns wide receiver Terrelle Pryor (11) leaps into the stands to celebrate his touchdown reception with fans against the Dallas Cowboys during the second quarter at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Scott R. Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

Cleveland Browns (0-9)

There’s not much to say here. The Browns have a 1.5-game lead on the 49ers for the first overall pick in the upcoming draft. Under the direction of Hue Jackson, Cleveland has been forced to use four different quarterbacks, and remains the only winless club in the NFL, despite being competitive in most match ups.

Although Who Dey Nation would smile at the Browns being just the second 0-16 team in NFL history, they should be hoping for a few upsets down the road. The Browns have one more crack at Baltimore and two against Pittsburgh, along with one remaining game against the Bengals in Cleveland.

Next Game: Thurs, Nov. 10th @ Baltimore (4-4)

Could an eight or nine-win team win what has been the NFL’s most competitive division over the last decade? Possible. No team has ever won the AFC North without winning double-digit games. Not since when it was the AFC Central did a team win the division with single-digit victories, that club being the 9-7 Bengals in 1990.

Not since the ’85 Browns has a team won the North/Central without a winning record. Could this be the year that a losing record or even a .500 records wins the division?

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