The AFC North has been highly competitive both within the division and while facing outside opponents outside. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
With competitive divisional matchups and solid performances against non-divisional opponents, the AFC North is the the NFL’s best division. There’s a talented team atop each division, but its the strength across all four teams that separates the AFC North from the rest.
Currently, the Cincinnati Bengals are the AFC North’s divisional leader, but by only the slightest of margins. After starting the year 3-0, the Bengals were amongst the leaders of every power ranking out there. Since, the Bengals have looked more vulnerable. In Week Five, they were beaten badly on the road by the Patriots. Although many people would’ve respected the loss had it been closer, losing in New England is hardly a rarity. There’s no doubt the Bengals should’ve played better, but any team facing an extremely motivated Patriot team, after being torn apart by the media following a blowout loss of their own, in New England faces the possibly of being dominated. The discussion often seems to center around “degrees of bad” when discussing this loss. In the end, a loss is a loss and a “degrees of bad” discussion only produces futile conclusions.
Following this loss, the Bengals did something other than win a game at home for the first time since 2012, they tied the Panthers. Despite all the negative feelings around this game, for example ESPN dropped the Bengals six spots in their power rankings, the fact remains they didn’t lose, so it’s unfair to treat the game like a loss.
The Bengals have looked vulnerable lately as they go through some injury woes, but regardless, this is still a top 10 team in the NFL.
The Ravens have been impressive despite going through several off-field distractions this year. After dropping their opening game at home against the Bengals, the Ravens then won three straight games. They convincingly beat the Steelers at home, then beat the Browns on a last second field goal on the road, and then faced the Panthers at home and won convincingly once more.
The Ravens currently stand at 4-2 with losses to only the Bengals and Colts. These are hardly losses to be ashamed of. They possess the league’s second best point differential at +67, so they win big and are never out of a game. The Ravens are arguably a top 10 NFL team and are a likely playoff team come January.
The most interesting team in the AFC North might be the overlooked Cleveland Browns. Despite missing arguably the league’s best receiver in Josh Gordon and with tight end Jordan Cameron having missed some time, this team quietly stands at 3-2. But what makes the Browns most interesting is their two losses. With just a change of play or two, the Browns could easily stand at 5-0. Their two losses came on time-expiring field goals against the Ravens and at Pittsburgh, so it’s easy to see how formidable this team is despite its moderate record.
This is a talented team that knows how to win with timely defense, an ability to come back in games, and with a strong running offense. When Josh Gordon comes back, teams will need to start concerning themselves with the Browns, an odd notion for many fans who currently overlook this team based on their history. They are undoubtedly the most underrated team in the NFL.
The AFC North’s last place team is the Pittsburgh Steelers. They may be in last place, but at 3-3 the Steelers offer much promise going forward. They are the league’s most competitive “last place team” with a point differential of just -15 (the league average is -55.5), which is better than any team’s point differential in the entire NFC South; a point that will be touched on later.
More importantly, despite dealing with a rash of injuries, the Steelers’ defense isn’t nearly as bad as many think. They currently the league’s 12th best defense (based on yards allowed) and rank 10th and 14th against the pass and run respectively.
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As for their offense, if this team can learn to finish drives in the endzone, their season will only get better. They possess the league’s sixth best offense, but have only managed 20.7 points per game (23rd in the league). It’s definitely hurt their standing thus far, but as this team gets healthier, there’s no telling where they could end up. In the meantime, the Steelers are the Steelers and can never be disregarded (look at how they finished last season). The opposition will continue to bring its best weekly against this legendary organization.
The greatest competition to the AFC North is the AFC and NFC West divisions. With respect to the AFC West, they likely have the best two teams in this comparison with the San Diego Chargers and the Denver Broncos, but the margin isn’t wide. But it’s the bottom of the division that really separates the two.
The Chiefs are a hard-nosed team, like the Browns, and are capable of winning on a weekly basis; they’ve proven as much thus far. An opening season loss to the Titans set this team back, but they’ve recovered nicely since. It’s the floundering Raiders that really drags this division down for this discussion. They’ve already fired their coach, are winless, and have the league’s fourth worst point differential. Their season seems to be going no where in 2014.
The NFC West is the most formidable competition, but the story remains the same. The reigning champion Seahawks may have been beaten at home this past week, but this won’t become a regular occurrence. They have two losses on the season, but they’re against the Cowboys and Chargers, so little concern there.
The Cardinals have battled through injuries of their own and sit in first place out west. They don’t allow teams to run and generally keep teams from scorning much, so despite not scoring at a high rate, they grind out wins. The story is similar for the 49ers who continue to possess a top tier defense.
Yet there’s the Rams. They’ve managed to play some tough football at times, but injuries have taken their toll on this team who’ve only managed a single win against the lowly Buccaneers.
As things stands now, the AFC North is arguably the NFL’s best division. With four talented teams, non-divisional opponents will have a difficult time finding their way through these games. Just ask the NFC South, one of the AFC North’s primary opponents. In these matchups, the NFC South has really struggled with a record of 1-5-1; it’s the primary reason for their poor standing thus far.
With this type of performance outside of the division and competitive in-division matchups, the battle for the AFC North crown should carry on all year. It’ll be the hardest fought battle in the NFL as it takes place in possibly the NFL’s best division.