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A Look Around the League - AFC North

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With all four teams over .500, this is the best top to bottom division so far this year. One of the larger surprises this season is on top in the North for now, but can they stay there?

Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

You could have made some long green in bars bets in late August wagering that all of the division’s team would be over .500 in Mid-November. You could have probably retired on your winnings by wagering that the Browns would sit atop the division on November 15. This is the best division in the NFL based on won-loss records and promises the most intrigue down the stretch, as any of the four teams in the AFC North can win this division and any of the four can miss the playoffs.

Cleveland

Yes, Cleveland leads this division going into week 11. A perennial dumpster fire since rejoining the league in 1999, first year coach Mike Pettine has his team on top of the AFC North with a 6-3 record. Every team in the AFC North does some things well and performs poorly in other things; the Browns are no exception. What the Browns do well is get turnovers – 17 of them so far. Free Safety Tashaun Gipson is playing out of his mind this season and already has 6 INT’s to lead the NFL. Because he plays in Cleveland, you probably did not know that.

QB Brian Hoyer has only completed 58% of his passes, but does not use backs for dump offs too often, so his yards per attempt is a healthy 8.0. Hoyer has also taken care of the ball; throwing only 4 INT’s this season. The Browns have a true running back by committee, with a pedestrian 3.5 YPC average. All this gives the Browns an average offense, and in terms of yards allowed a poor defense. It in the turnover battle though that the Browns are elite, with a +9 turnover differential and a defense that is 6th in the league for points allowed.

What to Watch For

Handling success. The Browns are in an unfamiliar position leading the division. Looking at their remaining schedule, the key stretch for them will be the November 30 through December 14 games. They travel to Buffalo and then host Indianapolis and Cincinnati to close out those 3 games. Before that, they have to beat the Texans and Vikings to make sure those games really do matter. They close out the season at Carolina and Baltimore. That season finale in Baltimore may be the most important game that Sunday, depending on how everything else plays out.

Fun Fact

The Browns will get Josh Gordon, their most talented WR, back in time for the last 6 games of the season. Gordon was originally suspended for the entire year, but the NFL and NFLPA renegotiated the suspension schedule for players failing the banned substances testing, which Gordon had done for the second time at the end of last season.

Bengals

After paying Andy Dalton elite QB money, he has rewarded them with the most inconsistent play of his career. In the course of two games, bad losses to the Colts and Browns, he passed for a combined 182 yards. In three other games, he has passed for over 300 yards in each of them, which were two wins and the tie against Carolina. This team has made the playoffs is 4 of the last 5 years, but not won a single playoff game in that run. The run maybe interrupted this year, if the Bengals do not start improving on both sides of the ball.

The team is 18th in both offensive yardage made and defensive yardage allowed. While they run the ball fairly effectively, they do not stop the run. Their passing game is anything but elite, but the team has one of the best, if not the best defensive secondary’s in the league. The point differential formula suggests that the Bengals are over-achieving, but it really feels and looks like they are under-achieving at 5-3-1.

What to Watch For

December. Both games against the Steelers, a home game against the Browns and a hosting the Broncos in the next to last game of the year await the Bengals after Thanksgiving. Prior to that stretch, they have 3 straight road games in New Orleans, Houston, and Tampa Bay. If the Bengals can win December, maybe they can win the division.

Fun Fact

Until last week’s loss to the Browns, all of the Bengals 2014 wins had happened against 2013 non-playoff teams and all of their losses had been against 2013 playoff teams.

Ravens

The Ravens may be one of the biggest riddles in the 2014 NFL. The point differential formula shows that they are underachieving, as their 6-4 record is one full win less than predicted by that formula. The eye test is somewhat disturbing too. In non-divisional games, if the Ravens play a team with a losing record, the Ravens win. If they play a team with a winning record, the Ravens lose. February 2013 seems like a lot longer ago than it really is.

It is hard to put your finger on why this team is not better as statistically they are mixed bag. They run and defend against the run well. They are the 3rd ranked scoring defense in the league, but do not play good pass defense. They are the 8th highest point scoring team in the league, but have an average passing offense. The 35 year old Steve Smith is outperforming 25 year old Torrey Smith. Joe Flacco may be getting paid like a top 10 QB, but is running the 14th best passing offense in the league. Still, they are in 3rd place in this division and certainly have a shot at taking it, if they can stop being such a puzzle and just play some decent football consistently.

What to Watch For

Ruining others dreams. The Ravens have their bye this week and then play the next 5 games outside of their division. The Saints, Dolphins, and Chargers are on tap before games against the Jaguars and Texans. They finish up at home against the Browns. NFC West and AFC East divisional races will be impacted on way or the other by how the Ravens play. They will also have a huge impact on the ultimate AFC Wild Card teams. And along with what is the tightest and most competitive top to bottom division in the NFL, they still have a real shot at the AFC North title.

Fun Fact

Rookie ILB CJ Mosley is leading the team in tackles and tied for the team lead in INT’s through the first 10 games. 10 year veteran ILB Daryl Smith is second on the team in tackles.

Pittsburgh Steelers

This has been a strange season in Pittsburgh. Strange that two of their losses have come at the hands of two of the worst teams in the league (Jets and Buccaneers). Strange that they have only two players on the IR, but going into October, they were so short on LB’s that they lured 36 year old James Harrison out of retirement to play (he now leads the team in sacks). Strange that they have an elite level passing offense and average rushing offense. It is strange that they are a good defensive team against the rush and an average passing defense team. Strange that they are 2-2 in the division and only have the two games against the Bengals left in the AFC North. Strange that they have a 6-4 record and are in last place in that division.

Tomlin seems to be keeping an even keel through the strange season, which may be a supreme accomplishment. After going through the first 6 games perfectly alternating wins and losses, the Steelers looked like they had figured it out by winning 3 straight, until last week’s pratfall against the Jets. Next up is a pretty bad Titan team which spells trouble for the 2014 Steelers. It was not really possible for Ben Roethlisberger to keep breaking records, but the Steelers cannot win when he plays as poorly as he did against the Jets. The Steelers could use their QB emulating the steadiness of his head coach.

What to Watch For

Taking care of business. It is likely that the Steelers will be favored in 5 of their last 6 games. This has not worked out too well in the 2014 losses. There are certainly teams with worse schedules out there fighting for a division title or Wild Card. If the Steelers can just find some consistency at a high level they can make it into the playoffs again.

Fun Fact

Since 2001, the Steelers have not made the playoffs with a scoring defense ranked any lower than #3 in the NFL. They are currently ranked 20th.