These days, seeing that your team’s NFL schedule features Baltimore, Cincinnati, Cleveland and Pittsburgh doesn’t inspire the fear it used to. The AFC North is not the powerhouse division it was just a few seasons ago, and gone are the days of 2011 and 2014 when the division filled both wild card spots and half of the AFC playoff picture.
That said, this year’s AFC North is, finally, going to be fun to watch. There probably won’t be a wild card team coming out of it, which leaves three teams to fight for the division assuming that the Browns don’t have a chance. But for the first time in nearly five years, it looks like a fair fight.
The problem in the division in the last few years has been that the second and third place teams were good, but not good enough to crack the AFC playoffs. What makes this year interesting is not that the Ravens and Bengals have gotten substantially better — their improvement has been incremental at best. Rather, the Steelers are showing signs of vulnerability and the Browns finally, mercifully, didn’t lose. The regression towards the mean is real in this division.
Last year, the Steelers’ march to the division crown saw only three regular season losses. Meanwhile, the Browns’ march to the first overall draft pick didn’t see a single win. In Week 1, those two teams played to a tie. Then both teams lost in Week 2. Finally, some parity.
In the middle of the division, the 9-7 Ravens missed the playoffs in a weak AFC field last year only because of a loss in the final minute of the season to the 7-9 Bengals. In Thursday’s 34-23 Bengals’ win, those two teams showed that they’re both still ready for a fight.
Granted, two weeks is a small sample size, and we could still see Pittsburgh resume dominance and the Browns fail to win. Going only off the Ravens 47-3 drubbing of the Bills, you wouldn’t have expected them to lose in Cincinnati four days later. But regardless of sample size, this is a competitive division.
Pittsburgh is probably still the team expected to not only outplay their early performance but to waltz to a division title. However, the longer Le’Veon Bell sits out, the more easily wins will come for Steelers’ opposition.
James Conner is not going to put up 135 rushing yards for the Steelers every week. NFL defenses are just too smart for that. Compounding the problem, Ben Roethlisberger’s age — 36 — is finally starting to show, as three interceptions against the Browns suggest. Pittsburgh’s reign at the top of the North may finally be coming to an end. And don’t count on the Browns to continue the ineptitude they’ve shown the last two years. A scrappy fourth quarter comeback against Pittsburgh showed they aren’t going as quietly this year. If Baker Mayfield can translate his college success and take over for stopgap Tyrod Taylor, the division might be moving toward four competitive teams for the first time in a long time. But whether the Browns find real success or not, this division is finally intriguing again.
So this year, if you get tired of watching the Patriots beat up on the three mediocre teams they share the East with, keep an eye on the North for entertaining football. It’s anyone’s division at this point, and it may stay that way for a long time.
Patrick Nugent ’21 can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and op-eds to email@example.com.