There is perhaps no division in the NFL more up in the air right now than the AFC North. All four clubs have a winning record and, by extension, every team has a chance of taking the division title.
Back in the August, the Ravens were favored to win the division with +115 odds with the Browns (+140) in a close second. Since then, injuries have leveled the playing field. Now, the recently resurgent Steelers (+400) and the surprising Bengals (+2000) find themselves right in the thick of the race.
The preseason favorite Ravens were bit by the injury bug early and often, losing their three top returning running backs – J.K. Dobbins (ACL), Gus Edwards (ACL), and Justice Hill (Achilles) – before playing a single regular season game. They also lost their team leader in interceptions and starting cornerback, Marcus Peters (ACL), in the preseason and star offensive tackle, Ronnie Stanley (ankle), after only one game. The Ravens quickly adopted a next-man-up philosophy where possible and turned to the free agent market for some veterans to fill out their depleted running back room, settling on eight-year journeyman Latavius Murray and former Falcons star Devonta Freeman to tote the rock. The Ravens rattled off five straight wins after a season opening loss, but have struggled with consistent success over the last few weeks with troubling performances in losses to the Bengals and Dolphins and close three-point wins against the Vikings and Bears. Despite the up-and-down play, the Ravens occupy first place in the AFC North with a 7-3 record.
The Bengals are making a bid to be the latest team in the NFL to go from worst in the division one year to first in the division the very next year. A healthy Joe Burrow, with some NFL experience now under his belt, has benefitted greatly from the team’s first round pick out of LSU, wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase. Chase has teamed up with wide receivers Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins to create quite the three-headed monster. Boyd received important experience as a number one target in 2019 in the absence of A.J. Green and Higgins had an impressive rookie year in 2020 after coming one pick shy of the first round. They’ve also been assisted greatly by a defense that ranks eighth in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. The Bengals have shown a bit of a Jekyll-and-Hyde persona with dominant wins over the Steelers, Ravens, and Raiders (all +.500) and puzzling losses to struggling franchises in the Bears and Jets. They currently sit in 2nd in the AFC North with a 6-4 record.
The Steelers have run hot and cold, opening the year with a shocking road win over the Bills before losing three straight. They rebounded with four straight wins before tying the winless Lions and losing to the Chargers in which they trailed 27-10 late in the 3rd quarter. The story of the Steelers’ season has been one of a 39 year-old Ben Roethlisberger trying to find success with trio of young WRs – Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, and JuJu Smith-Schuster – and a rookie running back, Najee Harris. Johnson and Claypool have taken the reins as Roethlisberger’s top targets, while Smith-Schuster struggled to find footing in 2021 before landing on IR. Harris, has taken over as the Steelers’ bell-cow, taking 188 of the team’s 244 total carries. While Harris ranks top ten in rushing yards, the defense has struggled without stars Minkah Fitzpatrick and T.J. Watt in the lineup. The Steelers currently sit at 5-4-1, good for third in the AFC North.
Even though Nick Chubb has the third-most rushing yards in the NFL, the Browns have lacked much of their expected offensive firepower. Jarvis Landry has missed 4 games while his would-be partner, Odell Beckham Jr., is out of the picture. Kareem Hunt‘s calf injury hasn’t helped either, but the Browns have still managed to stay afloat at 6-5.
There’s lots of time left in the 18-week schedule for this order to change, especially since the Browns get to face the Ravens twice inside of the next three weeks. Meanwhile, every AFC North team has a stacked dance card — all of their remaining opponents are over the .500 mark. If you enjoy entertainment and chaos, this is the divisional race for you.
So how do you see the division shaping up? Vote in our latest poll and weigh in with your thoughts in the comments section.
November 18th, 2021 at 11:23am CST by Sam Robinson
The Bengals and Jessie Bates did not agree on an extension ahead of his contract year, and the veteran defender expressed frustration a deal did not commence. Bates previously hoped he would land a contract that kept him in Cincinnati long-term. With his future up in the air, the former second-round pick admitted he let his contract talks cloud his on-field performance to start the season.
“So caught on to proving the wrong people right and the main thing I should be focusing on is proving the right people right as far as my coaches, my teammates, my family and not worry about all of the other stuff,” Bates said, via Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com. “I know that’s going to work out; I know what type of player I am; that stuff’s going to work out regardless.”