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AFC North breakdown: Assessing the Ravens’ competition in another heated race for the throne

The Ravens waited seven weeks for their first taste of AFC North action and it arrived as a swift kick in the teeth from the up-and-coming Cincinnati Bengals. A rugged division has turned downright hostile with Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase working beside a formidable defense to lift the North’s former doormat. There are no losing teams in the division, no pushovers left.

With the battle for the North underway and much work left to be done for all the contenders, we’ve reached an opportune time to size up the competition.

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Pittsburgh Steelers (3-3)

Signature win: It looks like a misprint now, but the Steelers opened their season by beating the Bills, the league’s No. 1 team according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA, in Buffalo. They scored off a blocked punt and kept the Bills out of the end zone for the entire second half.

Forgettable performance: In a result that seemed stunning at the time, the Steelers lost to the Bengals by two touchdowns at Heinz Field. Ben Roethlisberger threw two interceptions and took four sacks, inspiring more than one obituary for his decorated career.

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Honor roll: Outside linebacker T.J. Watt and defensive tackle Cameron Heyward are still among the league’s best players at their respective positions. Watt is a perennial candidate for Defensive Player of the Year because of his pass-rush production. Running back Najee Harris is not going to win Offensive Rookie of the Year honors, but he does have 632 total yards and four touchdowns in six games.

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger looks on from the sidelines during a game against the Seattle Seahawks on Oct. 17 in Pittsburgh.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger looks on from the sidelines during a game against the Seattle Seahawks on Oct. 17 in Pittsburgh. (Justin Berl/AP)

Pivotal game ahead: The Steelers are coming off their bye week and have a chance to right their season with games ahead against the Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions. First, they must deal with a trip to Cleveland this Sunday. The Browns don’t know when quarterback Baker Mayfield will return from a shoulder injury, so this game could be an opportunity for Pittsburgh’s defense to assert itself. If the Steelers lose to a wounded opponent, however, they’d fall to 0-2 in the division with a difficult late-season schedule still looming.

Why they could win the division: The Steelers are a long shot, no matter which playoff odds you care to consult, but if they beat the Browns, they could get to 6-3 heading into a Week 11 meeting with the Los Angeles Chargers. Roethlisberger has played poorly by almost any measure, but his past two games were his best of the season. The Steelers’ defensive front still makes like difficult for any opposing quarterback, and coach Mike Tomlin always finds a way to keep his team competitive.

Why they won’t: The three teams ahead of them in the AFC North have played better, simple as that. With Roethlisberger seemingly on his last legs, the Steelers don’t gain yards in chunks, and they’re not as overwhelming on defense as they were a few seasons ago. They might not be favored in any of their last eight games, so they won’t be in great position to make up ground if the Bengals and Ravens keep winning.

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Predicted record: 7-10

Cleveland Browns (4-3)

Signature win: The Browns were perhaps more impressive in losses to the Kansas City Chiefs and Chargers than in any of their victories. Their Week 4 win in Minnesota, in which they ran for 184 yards and shut down a dangerous Vikings offense, showcased their strengths more than any other.

Forgettable performance: They fell behind 20-0 at home against the Arizona Cardinals and never fought back as Mayfield threw an interception, took five sacks and aggravated a shoulder injury.

Honor roll: The NFL doesn’t give a lot of trophies to offensive linemen, but the Browns have four Pro Bowl candidates out of five starters. Defensive end Myles Garrett is a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year with 9 ½ sacks and 18 quarterback hits through seven games.

Browns defensive end Myles Garrett lines up for a play against the Denver Broncos on Oct. 21 in Cleveland.
Browns defensive end Myles Garrett lines up for a play against the Denver Broncos on Oct. 21 in Cleveland. (Kirk Irwin/AP)

Pivotal game ahead: The Browns will host the Steelers and then travel to Cincinnati in Week 9. If they can’t get their offense going against those daunting AFC North defenses, they could fall to 4-5 with another spate of difficult games looming in December and January. If they win both and nurse Mayfield back to active status, they’ll be in great position.

Why they could win the division: The Browns have the best offensive line, best running back (Nick Chubb is averaging 104.6 yards per game and 5.8 yards per carry) and best defensive player in the AFC North. Even with injuries dragging them down, they have exceptional front-line talent. They’re quietly very good on special teams as well, so they will be a difficult out for any opponent.

Why they won’t: The Browns might be better positioned to win without their starting quarterback than any serious playoff contender, but Mayfield’s uncertain status is still a problem. Without him, they had to scrape by the toothless Denver Broncos at home. On the other side of the ball, the Browns have given up 39 points a game to the three best offenses they’ve played, so their talent does not always translate to results. They won’t face any “easy” games after a Week 11 matchup with the Detroit Lions.

Predicted record: 10-7

Baltimore Ravens (5-2)

Signature win: The Ravens shed an albatross with their comeback against the Chiefs and thrilled “Monday Night Football” viewers with an even larger rally against the Indianapolis Colts, but they looked most like a Super Bowl contender in their 34-6 beatdown of the Chargers.

Forgettable performance: They hit their nadir one week later as tackling woes and a stagnant running game came back to bite them in that 41-17 home loss to the Bengals. Was the blowout an anomaly or a sign the Ravens really have not sorted out what ails them?

Honor roll: Justin Tucker reminded us he’s the best kicker alive with his NFL-record 66-yard game-winner against the Detroit Lions. Mark Andrews is the NFL’s highest-graded tight end, according to Pro Football Focus. There are more nuanced ways to capture his impact, but Lamar Jackson ranks seventh in the league in passing yards and sixth in rushing yards, so he’s carrying the offense and belongs in the discussion for Most Valuable Player.

Pivotal game: The Ravens will have good chances to build more of a cushion coming out of their bye week with games against the Minnesota Vikings, the woeful Miami Dolphins and the Chicago Bears. Their home game against the Browns the Sunday night after Thanksgiving could tell us a lot about the ease of their road to the playoffs. If they go undefeated in November to get to 9-2, their brutal late-season schedule won’t inspire quite as much anxiety.

Why they could win the division: They have the best player in Jackson and a coach who excels at keeping them on track in John Harbaugh. Jackson is finally throwing to receivers who can flip a game with one big catch. They have the best special teams in the league. Their defense seems to be getting healthier, too.

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Why they won’t: They’re still a wounded team with no tackle depth, a group of running backs that doesn’t scare anyone and a defense that has allowed three quarterbacks to throw for more than 400 yards. The Ravens can’t fall back on power football the way they did down the stretch last season, and they better play well in November because they’ll face the Green Bay Packers, the Bengals and the Los Angeles Rams in Weeks 15, 16 and 17.

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Predicted record: 12-5

Cincinnati Bengals (5-2)

Signature win: No need to look far for this one. The Bengals fell twice to the Ravens by a combined score of 65-6 in 2020. Last Sunday, they beat their nemesis by 24 at M&T Bank Stadium, a landmark win for a new era under quarterback Joe Burrow.

Forgettable performance: They lost to the Bears in Week 2 as Burrow threw three interceptions and took five sacks.

Honor roll: Chase is a strong favorite to win Offensive Rookie of the Year honors coming off his 201-yard torching of Pro Bowl cornerback Marlon Humphrey. Burrow (68.9% completions, 8 yards per attempt) could be headed for his first Pro Bowl. Zac Taylor will be a candidate for NFL Coach of the Year if the Bengals continue their turnaround from a 4-11-1 season.

Pivotal game ahead: The Bengals won’t have to wait long for their next divisional showdown. They’ll host the Browns on Nov. 7, and if they win, they’ll have a head-to-head tiebreaker advantage over all their divisional foes.

Ravens cornerback Anthony Averett fails to stop a pass to Bengals wide receiver Tyler Boyd for a first down during the first quarter Sunday.
Ravens cornerback Anthony Averett fails to stop a pass to Bengals wide receiver Tyler Boyd for a first down during the first quarter Sunday. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

Why they could win the division: They discovered a new level of self-belief by standing up to the Ravens, even embarrassing them late in the game. Burrow to Chase is the new connection to fear in the AFC, and Cincinnati’s defense has quietly played better than its offense. The Bengals have avoided the injuries that have harpooned the Ravens and Browns, and their remaining schedule is the easiest in the division.

Why they won’t: Burrow still throws interceptions at key moments, and the right side of his offensive line is not reliable. For all their young star power, the Bengals did not light it up on offense over the first five weeks. Were they rounding into form against the Ravens or playing over their heads? They have not had to deal with a major injury to an essential player or roll with the ups and downs faced by most contenders. They have put themselves in a wonderful position. Now, we’ll see if they can hold it.

Predicted record: 11-6

Week 9

VIKINGS@RAVENS

Nov. 7, 1 p.m.

TV: Chs. 45, 5 Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM

Line: Ravens by 6

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