Divisions have produced four playoff teams previously. The 1994 NFC Central sent every team but the Buccaneers to the postseason, while the 1998 AFC East moved every team but the Colts — in Peyton Manning‘s rookie season — into that year’s playoff field. (The NFC Central also accomplished this in 1982, but eight teams made each conference’s field due to the strike-induced format change.) The NFL realigning its divisions, killing the five-team divisional setup, in 2002 made it impossible for four teams in one quartet to venture to the playoffs. The 2020 expansion to a 14-team postseason field, however, reopened that door.
Entering Week 10, the AFC’s seven-team “if the season ended today” field would consist of the division-leading Chiefs, Jaguars and Dolphins, along with the fourth North-division clubs. No other division features more than two teams with winning records; the AFC North carries four. This is shaping up to be one of the most interesting divisional stretch runs in modern NFL history.
The Ravens lead the way at 7-2 and hold a runaway DVOA lead on the rest of the NFL. Baltimore’s defense leads the league in points allowed and paces the NFL in sacks — by four — with 35. The Ravens’ summer additions of Jadeveon Clowney and Kyle Van Noy have paid dividends. Clowney’s 11 QB hits trail only Justin Madubuike‘s 14, while Van Noy now has at least five sacks in six of the past seven seasons. The veteran linebacker has managed to get there despite being signed in late September. Van Noy, 32, is on a one-year, $1.6MM deal; Clowney, 30, signed for one year and $2.5MM. The team’s $20MM-per-year Roquan Smith extension is paying off early; Pro Football Focus ranks the ex-Bears top-10 pick fourth among off-ball linebackers.
QBR slots Lamar Jackson 11th, and the Ravens remain a run-oriented team. Though, Jackson is operating efficiently in Todd Monken‘s offense. The team’s remaining schedule resides as the NFL’s second-toughest — in part because of the AFC North games remaining — though the squad with the hardest slate remaining may be the Ravens’ top competitor for this hotly contested crown.
Joe Burrow‘s return to full strength has reinvigorated the Bengals, who made the fourth-year passer the NFL’s highest-paid player. After the Ravens and Chargers incrementally moved the AAV bar following the Eagles’ Jalen Hurts extension, the Bengals slid it to $55MM for Burrow. The superstar passer is back in form, leading Cincinnati to four straight wins. The Bengals (5-3) have now downed the 49ers and Bills on the road, but Tankathon slots their remaining schedule as by far the most difficult. Trips to Kansas City and Jacksonville remain, but the two-time reigning AFC North champs are surging at midseason, aiming to turn another 0-2 start into a playoff home game.
Moving forward without Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell, the Bengals have not seen their safety setup match Bates’ Falcons work. Then again, the team was not exactly expecting that, given Bates’ talent and $16MM-per-year price tag. Cincinnati keeping its linebacker tandem (Logan Wilson–Germaine Pratt) together has provided considerable help, though the team continues to run into injury trouble on offense. The Bengals faced the Ravens during Burrow’s early-season health issue, losing at home and raising the stakes for the sides’ Thursday-night tilt in Week 11.
The most notable improvement by an AFC North unit comes in Cleveland, where the Jim Schwartz DC hire is looking like one of the best assistant additions in recent memory. The Browns have gone from a miscommunication-plagued defense to one that is producing dominant efforts. The Browns held the Cardinals to 57 total yards, the team’s fewest since 1955, and has seen Myles Garrett (9.5 sacks) become a Defensive Player of the Year frontrunner (and surefire candidate for a market-setting second extension). Offseason adds Za’Darius Smith and Ogbonnia Okoronkwo have boosted the Browns as well, and Cleveland’s elite pass defense led to the 5-3 mark amid the Deshaun Watson shoulder saga.
The highly paid quarterback returned in Week 9 but has still not closely resembled his Houston version, with the off-field issues that produced a historic hiatus still impacting the former Pro Bowler’s trajectory. As the Browns’ defense leads the NFL in DVOA, its offense ranks 28th. Watson’s rotator cuff issue will be a key divisional subplot, and the team seeing both tackles join Nick Chubb on IR will make matters tougher. But Cleveland’s defense is providing a strong safety net thus far.
Also 5-3, the Steelers rank 14th in DVOA. Punching-bag OC Matt Canada continues to draw heat, with Pittsburgh’s defense also carrying an inconsistent offense. The Steelers have notched home wins over the Browns and Ravens — even as their streak without 400 total yards has reached 56 games. Kenny Pickett sits 27th in QBR, but the team has been without Pat Freiermuth and Diontae Johnson for chunks of the season. That has not stopped calls for Canada’s ouster, as the 2022 first-round QB’s work down the stretch will help determine how the Steelers see the Pitt product in the long term.
T.J. Watt has stayed healthy this season, and the Watt-Alex Highsmith duo remains one of the NFL’s best. The now-well-paid pair, with Highsmith signed to a $17MM-AAV extension, has combined for 14 sacks and 31 QB hits. PFF does rate 33-year-old Patrick Peterson and holdover Levi Wallace outside the top 90 among cornerbacks, with Joey Porter Jr. sitting 25th despite not starting for the season’s first six games. Cole Holcomb‘s season-ending injury, and Minkah Fitzpatrick‘s hamstring trouble stand to be issues to monitor for this defense, however.
Who will end up winning this captivating race? The Bengals and Steelers still have four divisional games left, the Browns and Ravens three. How many playoff teams will this division produce? Vote in PFR’s latest poll and weigh in with your thoughts in the comments section.