Two seasons ago, the division posted a 38-25-1 combined record—poor Cleveland finished in last place with a 7–9 record—and the Steelers, Bengals and Ravens all qualified for the playoffs. Last year, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati played on into January again after locking down 22 regular-season wins between them.
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In 2016, the outlook is less optimistic, with every team in the division at .500 or worse. It’s not out of the question that the North winds up with a wild-card spot, but it looks more likely that this is a one-bid division, possibly with its champ as the AFC’s four seed.
So what has gone wrong? The most obvious answers are also the simplest ones: Pittsburgh continues to have issues getting both Le’Veon Bell and Ben Roethlisberger on the field together, and its defense has holes; Baltimore watched its 2012 Super Bowl base age and hasn’t had enough young players step up because of injuries and inconsistent play; Cincinnati’s strategy of building from within at the cost of letting players walk in free agency has come at the cost of valuable pieces. And, also, Cleveland is still in the division.
The problems could run deeper, though, to the point where significant changes could be coming. Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin and Baltimore’s John Harbaugh should be safe from the dreaded hot seat, for now—the former made the playoffs each of the past two years, the latter is his franchise’s all-time winningest coach.
The same cannot be said for Cincinnati’s Marvin Lewis, whose job security has come in question repeatedly after early playoff exits, nor for any lower member of those staffs. Baltimore already has booted offensive coordinator Marc Trestman for Marty Mornhinweg.
No matter what’s to come, the present is unsightly in the AFC North. Which is why the Ravens, owners of an 0–4 October record, sit atop the division (via the head-to-head tiebreaker) thanks to their win over the Steelers last week. A visit from the winless Browns serves up a chance to build a mini-streak ahead of a Week 11 trip to Dallas.
But beware. Baltimore needed a frantic Week 2 rally to erase a 20–2 deficit at Cleveland, escaping with a win only after C.J. Mosley picked off a Josh McCown pass in the end zone with 13 seconds left.
“Every team in this league is dangerous any given week,” Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco said this week. “I think you can see that. You see a team beat somebody that hasn’t lost yet, and then the next week they go and they lose to somebody that you expected them to beat. It’s the same way. … The bottom line is, they’re an NFL team, and they’re very capable of winning games.”
Cody Kessler, not McCown, is expected to start Thursday, and he’ll have rookie receiver Corey Coleman, who posted 104 yards and two TDs during that first matchup with the Ravens. Baltimore’s pass defense has been stingy its past two outings, allowing 189 yards to the Jets and 241 (mostly late) to the Steelers. Because of how good the Ravens’ run defense is, though, Kessler will have to take his shots.
Veteran Ravens receiver Mike Wallace also scored two times back in Week 2, and he has been hot lately, with 14 catches for 244 yards over his last two games. Cleveland is allowing 13.1 yards per completion, so Wallace could be in line for a big night himself.
Otherwise, count on Flacco to lean on Dennis Pitta. The veteran caught nine balls for 102 yards in the earlier matchup with Cleveland, and the Browns have not figured out how to slow down opposing tight ends at all since.
It has been a dismal season for Flacco (six TDs, seven interceptions), so this is an opponent he should exploit if he is ever going to get going. Wallace and Pitta should put up some numbers, but Steve Smith also had his best game of the season on a per-catch basis in Cleveland (21.3 yards per reception)—it’s not a strong tackling defense. The Ravens will establish the run if they can, but this really is an opportunity for them to cook through the air.
One intriguing matchup on the other side of the ball: Coleman and Terrelle Pryor vs. cornerbacks Jimmy Smith and Tavon Young. The Browns’ young receivers are tough to keep down.
Key player: Jamie Collins, LB, Browns. Whether he’s used to pressure Flacco or cover Pitta, Collins will be central to Cleveland’s defensive chances—and he was a Patriot when the teams first met in Week 2. Collins played every snap in his Browns debut and, as is his usual M.O., shifted around quite a bit inside and outside. The times when he’s locked up one-on-one with Pitta will be critical.
Bold prediction: Kenneth Dixon scores his first career TD. The rookie running back is expected to play (questionable, chest). He has just 23 yards rushing on 15 carries this season, but he did see 11 touches last week, including a pair of catches. Cleveland’s D ranks 31st in yards rushing and 28th in rushing TDs allowed.