The AFC North might not be the best division in football, but it’s certainly the tightest.
With three weeks left in the regular season, any team can win it or finish last. It’s the closest division race in 44 years at this point in the season, with one game separating the teams at the top (Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens at 8-6) from the bottom (the Cleveland Browns at 7-7). The defending division champion Pittsburgh Steelers are a half-game back at 7-6-1.
According to research by the Elias Sports Burueau, the last time a division was this crowded with three weeks remaining was the AFC Central in 1977, when the Oilers were in Houston, the Ravens were the Browns and Terry Bradshaw was quarterbacking the eventual division champion Steelers.
In the AFC North this season, no team has led the division by more than one game through the first 15 weeks, setting up a dramatic finish. Will the Bengals go from last to first in one year? Will the Ravens win their third division title in four years with a banged-up Lamar Jackson? Will the Steelers deliver a ninth AFC North crown to Ben Roethlisberger in what could be his final season? Or will the Browns capture their first division championship since 1989?
Ravens guard Kevin Zeitler, the resident expert of the AFC North, understands the stakes over the next 20-something days.
“I’d say every week from here on out is a playoff game,” said Zeitler, who has also blocked for the Bengals and Browns.
The winner of Sunday’s game between the Bengals and Ravens (1 p.m. ET, CBS) will take hold of the AFC North, but every team still has a shot at the title.
“I think Cincinnati wins it, and I’ve felt this way for the last two months now,” said Dan Orlovsky, an analyst at ESPN. “I don’t think Pittsburgh is explosive enough on offense or good enough on defense to minimize that. And I just don’t know how the Ravens are even where they are, given their injuries. I think eventually that all catches up to you. Cleveland is dealing with inconsistency and the injury at quarterback. I don’t believe in them, especially with Green Bay this weekend.”
— ESPN Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley
Here’s how Bengals reporter Ben Baby, Steelers reporter Brooke Pryor, Browns reporter Jake Trotter and Hensley break down the homestretch in the AFC North. Percentages provided by ESPN Football Power Index.
FPI chances to make playoffs: 50.5%
FPI chances to win division: 40.0%
Why the Bengals could win: There are two main reasons the Bengals could win the AFC North: their quarterback and their defense. Throughout the season, Cincinnati has shown it’s never out of a game if Joe Burrow is effective and protects the football. But the defense might be an even bigger reason. Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo’s unit has done a good job of either holding opposing offenses at bay until Cincinnati’s offense gets rolling, creating timely turnovers or a combination of both. That mix is what will allow Cincinnati to secure its first postseason bid since 2015.
Why the Bengals might fall short: All year, Cincinnati’s offense has been the biggest issue. On the surface, the numbers don’t seem all that bad. After Sunday’s games, the Bengals ranked 13th in yards per play and 12th in points per drive. But Cincinnati’s inability to sustain drives has been the issue, especially early in games. Following their win over Denver, the Bengals had the fifth-highest three-and-out rate in the NFL, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information. Of Cincinnati’s 42 touchdowns, 18 have come on plays of 20 yards or more, the highest total in the league. That’s not the most sustainable way to win games, much less clinch a postseason bid. — Ben Baby
FPI chances to make playoffs: 54.5%
FPI chances to win division: 35.0%
Why the Ravens could win: Quarterback Lamar Jackson. When he’s at his best (and that hasn’t been since Week 9), Jackson can carry a team like few others. When Baltimore jumped out to a 6-2 start, Jackson became the only player in NFL history to produce 2,000 passing yards and 600 rushing yards in his team’s first eight games. But there are questions about the health of Jackson, who is dealing with an injured right ankle. The Ravens have faith in backup Tyler Huntley, but he can’t change games like Jackson. The Ravens’ defense is another reason for optimism. Baltimore has held offenses under 20 points in five of its past six games.
Why the Ravens might fall short: Injuries finally catch up to the Ravens. Baltimore has certainly overachieved this season with a banged-up roster that has included the loss of seven starters. The Ravens’ end-of-season schedule is even more difficult when you consider the Bengals, Los Angeles Rams and Steelers are relatively healthy. They have a combined 23 players on injured reserve, which matches the number of Ravens who have been on injured reserve at some point this season. Baltimore continues to fight, losing its past three games by a total of four points. But you have to wonder how much this decimated team has left. — Jamison Hensley
FPI chances to make playoffs: 18.8%
FPI chances to win division: 11.2%
Why the Steelers could win: The Steelers are 7-6-1 despite an offense still rife with growing pains after 14 games and a defense ranked second-to-last against the rush. If they maintain momentum from wins against the Ravens and Tennessee Titans while the rest of the division struggles with COVID-19 outbreaks and injury, the Steelers could be the last ones standing thanks to the Defensive Player of the Year-caliber play by T.J. Watt and furious fourth-quarter comebacks. If the Steelers win the division after a 1-4 start and a three-game winless stretch in the middle of the season, Mike Tomlin deserves Coach of the Year consideration.
Why the Steelers might fall short: Not only does the Steelers’ rush defense rank near the bottom of the league, but the run game is abysmal. Despite drafting running back Najee Harris in the first round, the Steelers’ ground game is also second worst in the league with 1,184 yards and a 3.6 yards per carry average. Simply put, the Steelers aren’t winning in the trenches. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been good, not great, and he and the offense have a pesky habit of starting slow. The Steelers have been able to win close games with late surges, but relying on that isn’t a guaranteed way to win a tight division. — Brooke Pryor
FPI chances to make playoffs: 16.7%
FPI chances to win division: 13.8%
Why the Browns could win: The Browns have the second-easiest strength of schedule remaining of the four teams in the division. Cleveland also has divisional opponents (at Pittsburgh, Cincinnati) in two of their three remaining games, giving the Browns the opportunity to make up ground. The defense has hit its stride even with the COVID-19 issues, and quarterback Baker Mayfield is as healthy as he’s been all season. Cleveland’s powerful running game also travels, and running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt should be healthy for the stretch run.
Why the Browns might fall short: The Browns are in last place in the division with three games left. Winning in Green Bay on Christmas Day won’t be easy, especially on short rest, but Cleveland might have to do just that to win the division without major help. The offense has struggled even when it has been fully healthy, putting up more than 17 points only once since Oct. 10 (Myles Garrett had a defensive TD in Cleveland’s 24-22 win over Baltimore in Week 14). Following a heartbreaking loss to the Raiders, the Browns have no margin for error. — Jake Trotter