The Ravens were the defending Super Bowl champions and hadn't missed the playoffs since 2007. The Cincinnati Bengals made the playoffs in consecutive seasons and were poised to take the next step. The Pittsburgh Steelers haven't had a losing season since 2003, so they wouldn't be mediocre for long. And the Cleveland Browns, well, they were still the Browns and in the midst of another rebuilding project.
When the regular season started eight weeks ago, plenty of pundits labeled the AFC North one of the top divisions in the NFL. However, as the season reaches its midpoint this weekend, three of the four teams in the division find themselves headed in the wrong direction.
A division that once was defined by power running games now features three offenses searching for identities. A division that has produced three Super Bowl winners in the last eight years currently lacks an elite team. And a division that has sent the most teams to the playoffs in the past five years may be hard pressed to get more than one team in the postseason this year.
Ben Roethlisberger, the veteran quarterback of the last-place Steelers (2-5), summed up the sense of urgency that AFC North teams face this weekend when he called Sunday's game against the New England Patriots a "must-win." On the same day, Ravens running back Ray Rice declared that his 3-4 team was starting a "new chapter" as it prepared to face the Browns (3-5) on Sunday.
"Every game is a must-win, if I'm being honest," Rice said. "The Bengals are playing good football; we'll leave them where they're at. Obviously, we've been down this road before, but it just happened a little bit later in the year. So, we've just got to channel our emotions as a team and not hit the panic button and go out there and just play football."
The Ravens got a bit of a reprieve this week as the Bengals (6-3) were beaten in overtime by the Miami Dolphins on Thursday night. That pulled the Ravens within two games of the first place Bengals with two games between the teams ahead, the first one scheduled for next Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium. It also was the latest confounding performance for an AFC North team.
Even the Bengals, the presumed class of the division, have losses to the Bears (4-3), Browns and Dolphins (4-4) on their resume.
"Cincinnati has probably exceeded my expectations," said NFL Network analyst and former Washington Redskins and Houston Texans general manager Charley Casserly. "Cleveland is about where I thought they'd be. Because of all their turnover, I really didn't have a feel for where the Ravens would be in the first half of the season. [As] for Pittsburgh, they are under where I thought they'd be but I'm not totally surprised where their problems are."
It's far too early to make any definitive conclusions about the state of the division and whether the balance of power in the conference has shifted. After all, few people considered the Ravens legitimate Super Bowl contenders as late as last December, when they dropped three consecutive games and fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron.
But enough football has been played to suggest that things are trending in the wrong direction. Since the 2008 season, John Harbaugh's first as the Ravens' head coach, the division has sent 11 teams to the postseason, two more than the NFC North, the next highest division. The AFC North also is the only division to send multiple teams to the playoffs in five straight seasons.
However, the Bengals are currently the only team in the division with a winning record, and the combined record of the AFC North is 14-17, which ranks fifth among the eight divisions.
"It's just one of those years where Pittsburgh isn't having the year that they usually have and we aren't having that kind of year," said former Ravens running back Jamal Lewis. "Cincinnati and Cleveland are more the buzz because they are usually the low men on the totem pole. That's the difference."
It wasn't too long ago when the AFC North was being referred to as the "black-and-blue" division, with punishing backs like the Steelers' Jerome Bettis and the Ravens' Lewis setting the tone for their respective offenses.
However, the four AFC North teams currently rank 17th (Bengals), 26th (Browns), 28th (Ravens) and 30th (Steelers) in rushing yards per game. The division's leading rusher is Cincinnati's BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who ranks 18th in the NFL with 424 yards and is on pace to finish with just 754 yards.
"It's definitely different," said Ravens nose tackle Haloti Ngata, who reminisced about a time when all the AFC North teams featured a power, downhill running game. "I just think teams are just adjusting to what the league is. It's basically a pass-happy league. A lot of teams are getting players that are dominant as pass catchers. They want to see those guys make plays."
Even that's not happening too often for AFC North teams. The quarterbacks in the division have combined to throw 44 touchdowns (16 by the Bengals' Andy Dalton) and 30 interceptions. None of the teams rank in the top 11 in the NFL In points per game.
All four teams have played relatively good defense, but none of the units have been dominant, like the Ravens and Steelers of the past. It was always a given that the Steelers would get to the quarterback and the Ravens would dominate against the run, but neither is the case this year.
"What happens in the second half of the season is always a little more indicative of the teams," said Browns coach Rob Chudzinski. "It's a tough division. It's physical, and you see those types of games when the teams are playing each other."
Not only is Chudzinski a first-year head coach, but the Browns also have a new owner and general manager, and they've had a revolving door at quarterback. Even before they traded top running back Trent Richardson to the Indianapolis Colts in mid-September, little was expected this year from a franchise that hasn't had a winning record since 2007 and hasn't made the playoffs since 2002.
The Steelers and Ravens also underwent significant turnover during the offseason, with long-time stalwarts like Mike Wallace, James Harrison and Casey Hampton leaving Pittsburgh, and the Ravens losing Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Anquan Boldin, among others. Still, both teams have sustained heavy roster turnover before and remained competitive.
"I think Pittsburgh is in trouble," Casserly said. "Their schedule is really tough the rest of the year. They have to win Sunday to get them some hope. Baltimore, I would be surprised if they didn't recover. With all the players they lost and all the changes they had, for them to be 9-7 would be a hell of an accomplishment for them. That's been lost in this whole thing. You can't lose that many players and not expect that to have an affect on their record."
Browns star cornerback Joe Haden alluded to that this week when he said that the Ravens, who have beaten Cleveland in 11 straight meetings, "aren't the Ravens of old." Though Haden acknowledged that the Ravens are still good, his comments qualified as trash talk ahead of a game between two teams with losing records.
To his credit, Harbaugh hasn't used the heavy roster turnover as an excuse. Even this week, when he cut underperforming veterans Michael Huff and Marcus Spears, Harbaugh reiterated that the Ravens have what it takes to go on a second-half run to the playoffs.
"We're not going to be perfect on Sunday, but we need to be our best right now and hope that will be good enough," Harbaugh said. "I really believe that we can be a great football team. We've just got to go get it done."