Category: NFL

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In a flawed AFC North, the team that can fix itself first will win the division

Sunday was a good day for the AFC North. The Cleveland Browns knocked off the previously undefeated San Francisco 49ers, the Cincinnati Bengals held on to down the Seattle Seahawks and the Baltimore Ravens hopped across the pond to kick their way past the Tennessee Titans. The Pittsburgh Steelers had a bye, which meant, for the first time this season, the division emerged from the weekend undefeated. All four teams are now separated by just one game in the standings, and the North is the only division in the NFL where no team is below .500.

Don’t let anything I wrote above fool you into thinking this is a powerhouse division, however. All of the teams in the North are capable of making the playoffs, but they’re all equally capable of not making them. Which is to say, each team is good enough to succeed yet flawed enough to fail. The team who wins the division will likely be the one who fixes its flaws first, or at least finds a way to mitigate them the best.

Baltimore presently holds first place with a 4-2 record. The Ravens have looked great at times this season, as in their 28-3 thrashing of Cleveland in Week 4. They have the division’s most dynamic quarterback in Lamar Jackson and a host of talent on defense. But they are prone to self-inflicted wounds, as they demonstrated in Week 5 in Pittsburgh when their receivers dropped three sure touchdown passes in a 17-10 defeat. And, while kicker Justin Tucker is the best in the business, the frequency with which the Ravens trot him onto the field is a problem. Baltimore led the NFL in red zone touchdown percentage over the first four weeks of the season but have scored just twice on 10 red zone possessions the past two weeks. On Sunday in London, Tucker kicked six field goals, three of which came in goal-to-go situations. The Ravens scored just six points on three similar possessions in a loss to Indianapolis in Week 3. It’s been feast or famine in that area for Baltimore, which will ultimately catch up to them in a big spot down the road.

Pittsburgh is in second place at 3-2 but if you took the pulse of the fan base you’d think they were in last. The offense has been dreadful and the defense was shredded in two ugly defeats to San Francisco and Houston. And yet, there are the Steelers, with a winning record and a fairly soft schedule the next two months. Excluding division games against Cleveland and Cincinnati, Pittsburgh’s next seven opponents include the Rams, Jacksonville, Tennessee, Green Bay, Arizona, New England and Indianapolis. Those teams have a collective record of 16-25. Winning five of those games isn’t out of the question. Then again, neither is losing five. It’s hard to say how Pittsburgh will fare because they are so bad on offense but they manage to find ways to win. Whether firing embattled offensive coordinator Matt Canada would fix anything seems a moot point, since Canada survived the bye week. The formula for Pittsburgh going forward, then, entails winning ugly and hoping no one else in the division gets hot.

Cleveland, which is also 3-2, earned the division’s biggest win on Sunday when they knocked off the 49ers. San Francisco played mostly without stars Christian McCaffrey and Deebo Samuel. But the Browns were missing quarterback Deshaun Watson. Their defense compensated by harassing Brock Purdy into one of his worst performances as a pro. That’s the ticket for the Browns. Minus Nick Chubb, who is out for the year with a leg injury, Cleveland will have to dominate teams on defense and win close games. They’ve done that in their three wins, yielding just 23 total points. In their two losses, they’ve surrendered 54. Cleveland had given up the least number of yards in the league entering Week 6, so there’s a good chance the defense will hold up. Whether Watson and the offense can pull enough weight of their own will likely determine how far the Browns can go.

Cincinnati is the division’s biggest enigma. The Bengals have rebounded from a 1-3 start to win their last two. But the offense, which is loaded with talent, is yet to get going. In Sunday’s 17-13 win over Seattle, Cincy gained just 214 total yards. Joe Burrow averaged just 5.3 yards per pass and was sacked three times. The Bengals have not been able to push the ball down the field this season and are averaging just 16.6 points per game. Cincinnati’s reliance on spread formations has invited opposing defenses to blitz Burrow, leading to more sacks than in previous seasons. The Bengals haven’t been able to run the ball, either, averaging around 70 yards per contest. As with Pittsburgh and Cleveland, the defense is ahead of the offense. Whether the offense can catch up, and to what degree, is the key to the remainder of their season.

How does it play out, then? The schedule may provide some clues. Pittsburgh and Cleveland have fairly easy games outside the division, while Baltimore and Cincinnati have much tougher slates. The Ravens must play three division games, plus contests against Detroit, at the Chargers, at San Francisco and Miami. The Bengals have San Francisco, Buffalo and Kansas City as well as their division games. If the Steelers and Browns win the ones they should win against some of the league’s weaker teams, it will set up a fascinating race over the final few weeks. In all likelihood, the division games will determine the champion, and the North’s guaranteed playoff spot. That should make for some exciting football come December.

At the end of the day, the team who claims the crown will most likely be the one who fixes its flaws the fastest, or who disguises them the best. Can Baltimore rediscover its red zone prowess? Can Pittsburgh overcome its coordinator issues? Can Cleveland’s defense carry it for the rest of the season? Can the Bengals find the spark to reignite their offense? We’ll find out soon enough.

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