The AFC North shapes up as the best division on the conference, and the second-best in the entire NFL, with only the presence of the Cleveland Browns relegating the foursome behind the NFC West. It’s also going to be a little quieter, with Baltimore Ravens’ legend Ray Lewis now retired, off his team’s magical Super Bowl run to end the 2012 season.
By quieter doesn’t mean less competitive. Two years ago, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati all made the playoffs. Last year, Cincinnati joined Baltimore, with Pittsburgh just missing. These three teams again look extremely competitive and extremely balanced.
You can credibly argue for most any 1-2-3 order of finish. You can reasonably predict that all three will be playoff-bound. And you should certainly expect that all three will at least be in the hunt the last couple weeks of the regular season.
The betting odds in Las Vegas back this up, when you look at the prices on each team for winning the division. Pittsburgh comes in as the 9-5 favorite. Cincinnati is just a hair behind at 2-1, and Baltimore in hot pursuit at 11-5.
Clearly, the oddsmakers are not optimistic about the Ravens’ chances in the post-Lewis era. I still find this lack of respect for Baltimore a little surprising—the Steelers have plenty of question marks and the Bengals need to show they can get some more big plays. And the fact Joe Flacco now has the confidence of leading a successful Super Bowl run gives the Baltimore quarterback some extra cache. Or at least it should.
Being surprised by the lack of respect for Baltimore though, does not mean I’ll pick them. I think Las Vegas has accurately assessed the general landscape of this division, which is that the smallest of margin separates all three teams. NFL analysis of all four AFC North teams is at the link below, with a prediction on how they’ll fare against their Over/Under win number in Vegas.
As to how they’ll fare against each other…that’s a tougher call. The final NFL predictions here at TheSportsNotebook will come about a week before the September 5 opener when Baltimore goes to Denver. So it’s subject to change, but right now I’m leaning Cincinnati-Baltimore-Pittsburgh in that order, with all three clocking in at either 9-7 or 10-6.
The AFC North looks ready to make a run at the honor of being the NFL’s worst division this year, quite a turnabout from 2011 when they produced three playoff teams in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh & Baltimore, with the latter two each winning twelve games and the Ravens coming within a dropped ball of making it to the Super Bowl. But this year is different.
Baltimore is about as unimpressive as it’s possible to be for a team that’s 5-1. The softest part of their schedule is behind them, having already played four home games. They struggled to beat Cleveland and Kansas City. And the Ravens did not play well on Sunday in another narrow escape against Dallas. Baltimore’s 31-29 win wasn’t secure until a two-point conversion was stopped late in the fourth quarter, and the result was more about Dallas’ tendency to beat itself with penalties than it was with Raven excellence.
I suppose there’s something to be said for just not beating yourself and finding a way to win—it’s what a better Baltimore team couldn’t do a year ago and why they ultimately lost homefield advantage in the AFC playoffs and ultimately the conference championship game in New England. And even if the 2012 edition of the Ravens does dump some regular season games, the rest of the division looks worse with each passing week.
Pittsburgh’s running game continues to show zero signs of improvement, and given the current state of the rush game is anemic, that says a lot. But the Steelers could do nothing on the ground this past Thursday night at Tennessee, while Chris Johnson was able to grind out 91 yards for the Titans and eventually help set up a 26-23 win for Tennessee. Pittsburgh’s playmaking ability on defense is declining and the team is reduced to whatever Ben Roethlisberger can provide.
That’s enough to keep you in a lot of games and will keep the Steelers on the fringes of the playoff conversation—the far fringes—but this team is a long way from being what it used.
Cincinnati is 3-3 and could feasibly get back in the race, but they lost at Cleveland, a game which saw Andy Dalton throw three interceptions. Dalton hasn’t been the quietly efficient, if unspectacular quarterback, he was a year ago.
This year’s version of Dalton is up and down, capable of monster showings, and also of games like this where his mistakes are the only thing preventing his team from winning. Cincy could live with the shortcomings of last year’s Dalton. It can’t live with the mistakes that have marked 2012.
Then, as though things needed to get worse for the AFC North, we get word that Ray Lewis and Lardarius Webb are both out for the season in Baltimore. Lewis’ ability to be a major difference-maker is gone, but he was still a big piece of the Baltimore defense. Webb’s ability as a lockdown corner was the one bright spot on a defense that’s otherwise become mediocre.
Normally we might take the injuries from Baltimore as a sign to look for a new leader in the AFC North. But you can’t beat a declining team with nobody, and this division is a whole lot of nobodies right now.
A look around the rest of the league on a division-by-division basis, as we wrap up NFL Week 6…
AFC EAST: When Mario Williams decides to play football, the Buffalo Bills look pretty good. Williams had 1.5 sacks and two additional QB hits and the Bills defense did a solid job in pulling out a 19-16 win in Arizona.
Because this team looks so bad when it loses, it’s easy to overlook that they are 3-3—a record shared by the New England Patriots after they abandoned their newfound running game, threw it 58 times and predictably coughed up a 23-10 lead in Seattle, losing by one. With Miami and the New York Jets also winning, all four teams in this division are 3-3.
AFC SOUTH: Houston looked lousy in its Sunday night defeat to Green Bay, but for now I’m ready to give the Texans a pass. They were due to play a bad game and the Packers were a talented team that was desperate and had taken a media pounding all week long.
Indianapolis was also due for a bad game—they’re not good enough to play two good games in a row anyway, and after the emotion-driven win the previous week for Chuck Pagano the letdown was predictable.
AFC WEST: Is it possible for a 3-3 team to own its division more than Denver does right now? They did their usual digging of a 20-plus point deficit last night in San Diego, falling behind 24-0 at half. Then the Broncos promptly ripped off 35 consecutive points after intermission and won. They protected Peyton Manning, and San Diego could not do the same for Philip Rivers.
The Broncos are tied with the Chargers, still have a home game with them ahead, and have completed their games with New England, Atlanta and Houston.
NFC EAST: Trent Dilfer said it best on ESPN last night—when we talk about the best team in the NFL are we talking about who’s playing the best so far this season—in this case the record tells us the answer is Atlanta. But what if the answer is which team has the highest ceiling? How can the New York Giants not be in the heart of that conversation?
Since its mid-October, that’s the more appropriate way to look at it and we again saw how dangerous New York can be as the beat up San Francisco 26-3, in any every way imaginable.
NFC NORTH: Detroit got a survival win in Philadelphia to get to 2-3, but this was a case of Eagles’ turnovers trumping Lion penalties in a battle between two teams working to beat themselves. Minnesota showed it has problems when Christian Ponder is forced to throw frequently, as he tossed two interceptions in a 38-26 loss at Washington.
Now our eyes focus on Green Bay, as we see if they can take the complete game they played in Houston and sustain it for a winning streak, as the Packers still trail the idle Bears by a game and a half.
NFC SOUTH: Pounding Kansas City might not count for much among good teams, but does the fact Tampa Bay did the pounding on Sunday mean the Buccaneers are good enough to get in the playoff conversation? The 38-10 win was a complete beatdown, but before we get ahead of ourselves, Tampa still didn’t get any pressure on the quarterback.
Atlanta didn’t play well in its 23-20 win over Oakland, but with the Falcons undefeated, they’re not going to play well every week and it says something good that they survived.
NFC WEST: The division tightened this week, as Arizona showed us again how deficient they are offensively in the loss to Buffalo. The media love for San Francisco as a Super Bowl favorite—rather than just one 10-12 teams that have a decent shot—should end after their horrible showing against the Giants. Meanwhile, Seattle played its most complete game in rallying to beat New England. Neither team ran the ball well, but somehow Russell Wilson outgunned Tom Brady at the end.
Maybe I’m reading too much of Bill Simmons over Grantland.com, who picked the Seahawks to go the Super Bowl, but between a game like this and the whole Monday Night saga against Green Bay, do you at all get the feeling that there’s something magical going on in the Pacific Northwest? I do.