The AFC North is a tough division to figure out. The Baltimore Ravens lead the pack right now with an extremely streaky 6-5 record. Second place by virtue of a lost tiebreaker is the Pittsburgh Steelers, also at 6-5. Next comes the immensely disappointing Cincinnati Bengals at 3-7-1. Last, and very much least, are the still winless, 0-12 Cleveland Browns. No team looks elite and every time the Ravens or the Steelers look like the favorite, they either falter or the other team looks dominant. Let’s look at the state of the AFC North
State of the AFC North
Raise your hand if you have the 2016 Baltimore Ravens figured out. Okay now all of you put your hands down because that is impossible. After a pretty impressive three game winning streak to start the season, the Ravens found themselves at 3-4 heading into the Week Seven bye.
Since then, the Ravens are 3-1 with three division wins and a hard fought loss to the best team in the NFL, the Dallas Cowboys. The Ravens have been as enigmatic of a team as there is in the league thus far, nearly losing to the Cleveland Browns and actually losing to the New York Jets, but also beating the Buffalo Bills and Steelers, while putting up a good fight against the New York Giants, Oakland Raiders, and the Cowboys.
What is not tough to figure out is that this is one of the elite defenses in the league. Through 11 weeks, the Ravens rank second in total defense, first in rush defense, and sixth in pass defense. Unfortunately, as good as the defense has been, the offense has been equally as abysmal. With rankings of 22nd in total offense, 18th in pass offense, and 27th in rush offense, the Ravens clearly have a lot of work to do.
Luckily, the great equalizer so far for the Ravens has been the special teams. Punter Sam Koch is eighth in punt average and third in punts inside the 20. Baltimore ranks fifth in kickoff return average as well. But the biggest weapon for Baltimore this season has been the otherworldly performance by kicker Justin Tucker. In a year where kicking has been deservedly scrutinized, Tucker has been automatic. Legitimately automatic even, as he is 27 for 27 this year! Not to mention 15 for 15 on extra points. The Baltimore special teams truly has been special.
Looking forward, the Ravens have a tough upcoming schedule. The next five opponents have a combined 30-23-1 record with three of the five coming on the road. The Baltimore Ravens absolutely have some work to do and must play better to keep this up, but first place is first place so let’s see what happens.
The Steelers also have been all over the place, starting 4-1 before losing four in a row. Now they currently own a two-game winning streak. Technically tied for first place with the Ravens, Pittsburgh loses the tiebreaker by virtue of the head-to-head loss.
The Steelers have been the exact opposite of the Ravens. The Pittsburgh offense has been unbelievable, ranking 11th in total offense and seventh in pass offense. And that is with star running back Le’Veon Bell missing the first three games due to suspension and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger missing time with an injury. The defense however has been putrid. The Pittsburgh stop unit ranks 18th in total defense and 22nd in pass defense, and has not been able to stop anyone. Pittsburgh has an electric offense and an exposable defense.
The Steelers have a much more favorable schedule going forward. The next five opponents have a combined 23-31-1 record with three coming at home. An easier schedule should give the Steelers a slight advantage over the Ravens, but this one is going to come down to the wire.
What a difficult year for Cincinnati thus far. After four straight seasons making the playoffs, the Bengals have dealt with a myriad of injuries, inconsistent play, and a brutal schedule. All of these have led to this lost season in the Queen City.
The Bengals have yet to lose to a team that is below .500 at the current moment, but have only beaten one such team as well. Nine of the 11 opponents of the Bengals have been over .500 which is just a disastrous draw. Unfortunately for the Bengals, only one team left on the schedule is under that threshold (that is, unless the Philadelphia Eagles lose on Monday night to the Green Bay Packers).
Going forward, the Bengals should look to try out some of their younger players and look towards getting better for next year. Cincinnati should be looking at a high draft pick for the first time since drafting A.J. Green fourth overall. With a couple big needs like interior offensive line and pass rusher, the Bengals could really use this one down year to their advantage setting themselves up for future success.
What is there to be said about the 2016 Cleveland Browns? An 0-12 start to the season is not exactly what management and the fan-base had in mind when the season began. Now, the Browns were expected to struggle but this is just bad.
All the focus in Cleveland has to be on avoiding going winless and seeing what they have with quarterback Cody Kessler, assuming he even comes back after suffering a concussion last week. No team wants to go winless and go down in infamy, so the Browns have to keep working. The schedule is not exactly a joke going forward but a few winnable games are present. The two home games look to be the best bets at victories. The Bengals game is especially intriguing because the Browns will have an extra week to prepare after their bye.
Obviously the Browns have nothing to play for this year besides their pride. Cleveland needs to gear the next five weeks towards bettering their future. Head coach Hue Jackson has a lot of work to do.
The AFC North has not been its usual strong self this season. After sending at least two teams (including three on two occasions) to the playoffs every year since 2008 with the exception of 2013, only one will make it this year. And even that one team, whether it be the offensively-challenged Ravens or the defensively-inept Steelers, will not exactly be elite. Meanwhile the usually reliable and talented Bengals have faltered and disappointed and the Browns have been even worse than ever before.
The two blue-bloods are still battling it out for the division title just like seemingly every year in the past. The Christmas day rematch in Pittsburgh between the Ravens and Steelers could very well determine the division champion. Will the Ravens be able to keep the momentum that has seen them take six of the past seven games against their bitter-rivals? Or will the Steelers finally live up to all the early-season hype and finish strong? We might have to wait until Christmas to find out the answer to that. Let’s hope Santa gives the city of Baltimore the best Christmas present they could ask for, an AFC North title.