At the beginning of Week 7, the AFC North race looked rather calm. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns started the week at 3-3, with the Steelers on bye and the injury-ridden Browns on Thursday Night Football against the Denver Broncos. Meanwhile, the Baltimore Ravens and the Cincinnati Bengals faced off Sunday in Baltimore.
Breaking Down the AFC North Race Entering Week 8
A Highly Competitive Division
“Highly competitive” accurately describes the AFC North this season. It is the only division in football where three out of the four teams have winning records, and all four teams are at least .500. It is, without doubt, the most competitive division in football this year, and the race won’t be settling anytime soon. Some teams, like the Bills and the Packers, are near-locks to win their struggling divisions. But the AFC North just isn’t like that.
In fact, three teams from the AFC North made the playoffs last year (Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Cleveland). In the current playoff picture, the Bengals are slotted as the division leader. The Browns and Ravens would claim wild card spots. The Steelers (4th place in the division) hold 8th place in the playoff picture, which is one spot out. The fact that all four teams are in the top eight in the AFC shows how successful they’ve been this season. The next few weeks will reveal who the best teams really are.
Season Overview and Distant Future for Teams
Cincinnati Bengals (5-2, 1st place in division, 1st in AFC)
Before Week 7, many saw the Bengals as a team simply racking up early wins against below-average teams. It was believed that Cincinnati’s success would be short-lived, and that they wouldn’t be able to compete against some of the top-tier teams.
That all changed with their 41-17 blowout win over the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday. Second-year quarterback Joe Burrow and rookie wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase (both from LSU) have a nice streak going. They are connecting quite a bit on the field; in fact, Chase hauled in eight catches for 201 yards and a touchdown from Burrow on Sunday. He and Burrow’s connection has been a big part of the Bengals’ success this season, and they don’t show any signs of letting up.
JA'MARR CHASE CANNOT BE STOPPED. #RuleTheJungle
— NFL (@NFL) October 24, 2021
The first-place Bengals will have many more important games this year. But the matchups that will determine their outcome will be their four remaining divisional games and their two home matchups against the Kansas City Chiefs and the Los Angeles Chargers. All of their opponents are formidable and will prove to be true tests for the Bengals. If they can somehow crank out 3-4 wins from these six games, and take care of their other, and perhaps easier matchups (Jets, Broncos), they could very well find themselves in the playoffs. The Bengals have their Week 8 matchup against the New York Jets on Sunday, as they look to improve to 6-2.
Baltimore Ravens (5-2, 2nd place in division, 5th in AFC)
A lot of people would be quick to assume that the Ravens season is going downhill after their brutal and ugly loss to Cincinnati. But the Ravens and their explosive rushing game are just getting started. In the next three weeks, Baltimore plays the Minnesota Vikings, the Miami Dolphins, and the Chicago Bears. Combined, these teams have just seven wins and are actually much worse than they seem. If all goes right, the Ravens will be sitting at 8-2 within three weeks and would still be in a great place. Don’t count out the Ravens just yet; they could definitely crank out several more wins and could possibly overtake the Bengals in the standings.
Although the imminent future seems fairly laid-back for the Ravens, their final seven games are all against teams with a .500+ record. Their final stretch includes five divisional games (1 vs. CIN, 2 vs. CLE, 2 vs. PIT) and two big home games against the Los Angeles Rams and the Green Bay Packers. Both the Rams and the Packers are just one-loss teams, and those final games could prove beneficial or costly. This last stretch of seven games will either make-or-break the Ravens’ playoff hopes. If they come out of this stretch with a winning record, it would prove that they are not a team you’d want to play come January.
Cleveland Browns (4-3, 3rd place in division, 7th in AFC)
Out of all four teams in the AFC North, the Cleveland Browns have the hardest path to get back to the playoffs. They only have one near-lock for a win against the 0-7 Detroit Lions in Week 11. Other than that, the Browns have nine remaining games, all of which are against good teams.
The worst team that they play is the 3-4 New England Patriots, who are much better than their record suggests. When you add an injury-ridden team with a tough schedule, the yielded result usually isn’t good. But it’s up to the Browns to determine their own fate now.
With their first divisional game of the season taking place this Sunday against the Steelers, the Browns can get a good idea of how their division shapes up after the game. With a win, they should feel confident enough that they can sneak out a few wins here and there.
If they lose, however, they should start to worry. The Steelers are likely one of the lower-rated teams on their remaining schedule. And if they can’t beat them, it shows that they aren’t very capable of winning games against other lower-quality teams. Personally, I think that the Browns’ entire season will be decided by the way they play against Pittsburgh this weekend.
— Jake Trotter (@Jake_Trotter) October 27, 2021
Pittsburgh Steelers (3-3, 4th place in division, 8th in AFC)
The CLE vs. PIT game this weekend is just as important to the Steelers as it is to the Browns. Once again, I think the outcome of this game determines the rest of the season for Pittsburgh. The only games the Steelers are favored in are their games against the Bears, Lions, and Vikings. With a win against a divisional rival coming out of a bye, the Steelers could quickly turn their 3-3 season around.
A large part of the Steelers’ potential success will be if their offense plays well. Nobody is worried about their top-tier defense. The only things holding the Steelers back from success are poor play from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and their offensive line. If both units (QB and OL) can gel before it gets too late, the Steelers would restore their status as a top-tier offense. Usually, teams with a well-functioning offense and a good defense excel in competition. If the Steelers can just fix their minor issues, there will be nothing holding them back from being a high-caliber threat in the AFC.
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