Baltimore Ravens

With heavyweights struggling, AFC North showing signs of weakness

As the Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers enjoyed their bye week and rested up for Sunday's matchup at M&T Bank Stadium, their two other division foes did little to quiet the questions about what has become of the once-formidable AFC North.

The Cincinnati Bengals blew a 10-point third-quarter lead and settled for a tie with the Washington Redskins in London. The Cleveland Browns squandered a 13-point halftime advantage and were beaten at home by the New York Jets to fall to 0-8.


Through eight weeks, the AFC North, which has been one of the NFL's top divisions, has the same number of winning teams (Pittsburgh) as it does winless ones (Cleveland). The cumulative record of the four teams is 10-19-1, their .333 winning percentage the lowest of any division in the league. Against nondivision foes, AFC North teams are a league-worst 7-16-1.

The struggles of the division are one of the reasons the Ravens returned to work Monday feeling optimistic about their second-half chances despite a four-game losing streak. At 3-4, they are only one game back of the division-leading Steelers (4-3). The disappointing Bengals are in second with a 3-4-1 mark, while the Browns are the league's lone winless team.


Starting Sunday against the Steelers, the Ravens will play the three other AFC North teams, along with a Nov. 20 matchup against the Dallas Cowboys, in a 22-day span. The four-game stretch will go a long way toward determining whether the Ravens can mount a playoff run.

"We have nine games left. We're basically one down in our division, playing the team that's ahead of us right now," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Monday. "Our goal is certainly going to be to win the division. That's in front of us. That's up to us. We're going to play those teams. No matter what really our record would be or what it could be right now, we have to beat the teams in our division to make anything of it anyway, so that's what we're looking to do."

Harbaugh said he hasn't "analyzed" the struggles of other AFC North teams, and that his attention is on fixing what has ailed his own team.

"It really doesn't matter to me right now," Harbaugh said. "Our focus is on becoming the best team we can be, playing the best football we can play and winning these close games."

Since 2008, Harbaugh's first year in Baltimore, the AFC North has sent two teams to the postseason in seven of the past eight years. In 2011 and 2014, the Ravens, Steelers and Bengals all qualified for the playoffs. During that eight-season span, the AFC West, in 2013, was the only other division to produce three postseason participants in the same year.

Overall, the Ravens, Steelers and Bengals have combined for 17 playoff berths and two Super Bowl titles over the past eight seasons. Many pundits believed the trend of at least two AFC North teams making the playoffs would continue this year.

The Steelers, who have made the playoffs in six of coach Mike Tomlin's nine seasons, boasted of maybe the top skill position talent in the AFC. For all the talk of their postseason troubles, the Bengals have been to the playoffs five straight years and six of the past seven. The Ravens finished 5-11 last season, but few expected a team that advanced to the postseason in six of Harbaugh's first eight seasons to be down for long.

But each team has been a disappointment to varying degrees, and the Browns, well, they have remained the Browns despite all the optimism that came with new coach Hue Jackson's arrival.


One segment on NFL Network last week even debated whether the AFC North or the AFC South, which recently has been known as the doormat division, is the worst division in football.

"In the NFL, that's how it always is. People are like, 'This team is no good,' and, 'That team is no good.' But every week, you see somebody beating somebody they quote-unquote shouldn't or games that are close that should be blowouts. That's the way it is," Ravens center Jeremy Zuttah said last week. "Every team's got talent, and any team can win on any given Sunday. That's how it is."

The Steelers won four of their first five games and averaged 34 points a game in those four victories. They've since lost back-to-back games, standout quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is dealing with a knee injury, and Pittsburgh's defense is ranked 27th in the league in yards allowed per game.

Despite the Andy Dalton-to-A.J. Green connection — the star receiver has 896 of the Bengals' 2,349 receiving yards so far — Cincinnati has been overmatched in games against the Steelers, Cowboys, New England Patriots and Denver Broncos. Marvin Lewis' team has been hurt by the season-opening three-game suspension of standout linebacker Vontaze Burfict as well as injuries to Burfict and Pro Bowl tight end Tyler Eifert. The team also is feeling the sting of the offseason losses of Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu and Reggie Nelson, and the departure of Jackson, their former offensive coordinator, to the Browns.

The Ravens, meanwhile, started the season with three narrow victories before going went winless in October. Their offense has been a mess, costing play-caller Marc Trestman his job as offensive coordinator, their defense suddenly is giving up too many big plays, and injuries have been unrelenting for the second straight year.

Still, CBS NFL analyst Solomon Wilcots said it's far too early to label the division a disappointment.


"Just because things look a certain way, by the end of the year, I believe if you have a quarterback — and you can play defense — it sort of flushes out," said Wilcots, who played five of his six NFL seasons with either the Bengals or Steelers. ""It really does. That's what I rely on. I really do believe it's still a formidable division with potentially three playoff teams."

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Wilcots said what makes a division is quality quarterback play, and when he looks at the AFC North, he sees two quarterbacks in Flacco and Roethlisberger who have led their team to the Super Bowl, and another in Dalton who led the Bengals to 50 regular-season wins over his first five NFL seasons. But none of the three teams' offenses are whole.

The Steelers are 0-2 in games Roethlisberger has missed or been unable to finish, and it's not certain that he'll play Sunday. Dalton has played well, but the Bengals haven't been able to consistently establish a ground game or a rhythm under offensive coordinator Ken Zampese.

Then there's the Ravens and Flacco, who is enduring one of the most disappointing seasons of his career. From running the ball to protecting the quarterback to making plays downfield, the Ravens haven't done anything consistently well on offense.

"Baltimore could be in a little trouble," Wilcots said. "I'm concerned about Baltimore's defense. I'm concerned they can't run the ball. They can be in trouble, but to me, they're still the Ravens. Their record may not be as pretty, but they'll give you a bloody nose along the way. I still think Cincinnati is a playoff team, and I see Pittsburgh as a playoff team, provided they are healthy."


Baltimore Sun reporter Edward Lee contributed to this article.