The AFC North is a division typically known for its tough defence and old-school style of football. For a brief period of time in 2008 and 2015, the division was widely considered to be the best in football. There was only one year in this time frame where just one team made the playoffs from the North and two years in which both wildcard spots were occupied by teams within the division. Now in 2018, the division has been primarily ruled by the Steelers. But since it’s inaugural season, the division has never been won by the same team three years in a row.
Through two games this season, the AFC North is once again proving to be a division full of intrigue, competitiveness, and unpredictability. It might not be the powerhouse it was for so long but is looking to come down to the wire early in 2018.
Who Will Own the AFC North in 2018?
Cleveland Browns (0-1-1)
Coming off a winless season in 2017 and a 1-32-1 record since the beginning of the 2016 season, the Browns are looking to finally establish themselves as a quality team after being at the bottom for so long. Through two games, the Browns have actually looked like a solid football team. They’ve had chances to win both their contests and could be 2-0 if not for a couple kicking mishaps by Zane Gonzalez. Their losses have come in heartbreaking fashion but both their new-look offence and defence have looked far better than in 2017 than the year prior.
In matchups against the Saints and the Steelers, the Browns have only surrendered 42 points to two of the top-three offences from 2017. This is a large improvement on last season where Cleveland was giving up an average of 25.6 points per game — ranking second last in the entire league. Larry Ogunjobi and Myles Garrett look like a pass-rushing duo that could grow to be one of the leagues best, while both the secondary and the rest of the front seven have given the Browns a +6 turnover margin through two weeks.
X-Factor: Tyrod Taylor
In the Browns week two game in New Orleans, Taylor perhaps the nicest throw of his career, connecting with Antonio Callaway on a 47-yard bomb to give Cleveland a chance to take the lead with just 1:16 left in the game. The clutch play by a not-so-clutch player was a breath of fresh air for the Brown’s but Taylor’s game has been shaky so far in 2018. He nearly gave away the game multiple times against the Steelers but showed more consistency against the Saints. Taylor has used his legs well so far this season, collecting 103 rush yards in his first two games, but needs to do more through the air. The Browns have a good offensive line and if Taylor finds himself in more situations like he’s had in the first two games, he needs to go out and definitively win games for the Browns.
If not, Cleveland will look to Baker Mayfield to try and perform in the clutch.
Cincinnati Bengals (2-0)
In the Bengals 34-23 win over the Ravens during week 2, A.J. Green looked uncoverable and the offence looked unstoppable in the first half. Then when the second half came around, Green and the Bengals looked like their old selves and were only able to muster another six points. Three of these points came on a fumble recovery forced at the Baltimore 25 yard-line. Geno Atkins was a man possessed against the Ravens and was one of the biggest reasons the Bengals pass rush was so frequently able to collapse the pocket around Raven’s quarterback Joe Flacco. They were also assisted by a secondary in which William Jackson kept Michael Crabtree on lock almost all night but let John Brown outmatch Dre Kirkpatrick multiple times.
Cincinnati is a team that could finish anywhere from first in the division to last. They’ve started hot but neither of their wins has been a full game effort. The Bengals have stars at a couple of key positions but clear deficiencies at others. Green and former Pro-Bowl tight end Tyler Eifert look like they are going to be Andy Dalton‘s most reliable targets going forward. The other receiver spot is completely up in the air with Tyler Boyd taking the lead after a big second game against Baltimore. Cincinnati’s 2017 first round pick John Ross has become invisible despite playing 82 snaps and has only hauled in two balls on six targets.
X-Factor: Joe Mixon/Giovani Bernard
The Bengals finished 2017 with the second-worst rushing attack in the entire NFL behind a terrible offensive line and inconsistent running play. They’ve already changed that in 2018, running for over 100 yards twice in their opening two games. Mixon will be sidelined until at least week five with a knee injury and Bernard needs to pick up the slack in his absence. Both backs have been used through the air combining for 10 receptions in their first two games and have picked up an average of 4.4 yards rush. This is a huge improvement on the 3.6 they averaged in 2017. Unless a receiver can emerge as the third weapon in the Bengals offence, they are going to need one or both of their RBs to help them grind out games.
Cincinnati relied far too heavily on the Dalton-Green connection in 2017 but their running backs are the ones giving them the ability to close games.
Baltimore Ravens (1-1)
After an incredibly brutal beatdown of the Bills Week 1 at MT&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore came out flat against the Bengals, quickly handing them the game in the first and early second quarters. Each of the Ravens units was simply outplayed but somewhat came back together at the end of the game. Despite the loss, Baltimore’s offence has been clicking. If there is one thing that is different about this Ravens team, it is that they are finally fun to watch. The Ravens have played a steady smash-mouth style of football for so long but are now finally airing out the football with the rest of the NFL. Over the first two games of the season, they are averaging 305.5 yards through the air and have 10 plays of over 20 yards.
On the other side of the ball, the defence has remained much the same since the end of the 2017 season but the loss of cornerback Jimmy Smith notably hurt the Ravens in Cincinnati. Green was able to play with both Tavon Young and Marlon Humphrey in coverage and it resulted in three early scores. Baltimore never recovered. Smith was one of the top five corners in the NFL before his injury in 2017 and the youth is going to have to step up against some of the big receivers the Ravens will see from Week 3 to 6. With C.J. Mosley getting hurt Week 2, the Ravens are going to find leadership from other positions if they hope to grab a couple wins before Smith’s suspension ends Week 5.
X-Factor: The Offensive Line
Everyone struggled in the loss to Cincinnati but the most glaring problem was the O-line. Flacco was constantly under pressure and was the victim of four sacks and two hits that led to two crucial turnovers. In Buffalo, Flacco was kept clean and showed the danger that his new group of receivers can possess. Without a good season from the O-line, Flacco will struggle and the running game will continue to be ineffective. The ground game is currently ranked 3rd last in the NFL with a 3.3 yards per carry average.
If RT James Hurst and C Matt Skura cannot establish themselves as regular starters at their respective positions, the Ravens will need to find solutions in-house or it could be a long year for Flacco and the offence.
Pittsburgh Steelers (0-1-1)
The turmoil that has been surrounding the Steelers for around a year now is finally starting to rise to the top. The offensive line has called out Le’Veon Bell over his holdout, Antonio Brown is ominously tweeting, and Bud Dupree is angrily DMing fans. If the Steelers were winning maybe this wouldn’t be too concerning but they’ve started their season without a win in their first two games for the first time since 2013 — the last season in which they missed the playoffs. The offence in Pittsburgh has been in a bit of a groove, with Bell’s replacement James Conner balling out in his first two NFL starts, but the defence is performing below expectations.
The positive for Pittsburgh is that they are still showing they can be dominant on offence. Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t looked perfect by any means but has at least led the Steelers to 2nd in the league in total offence. He threw three picks in their Week 1 matchup in Cleveland but put his team in a position to win the game until Chris Boswell missed a 42-yard field goal with just two minutes left in the game. His receiving core has looked good as well. JuJu Smith-Schuster and Jesse James have both had great back-to-back weeks and look to be the perfect supporting cast for Brown.
X-Factor: The Secondary
The Steelers defence had a decent showing against the Browns giving up a modest 327 yards but let Patrick Mahomes run over them by dropping 449 yards of total offence and a crazy 8.3 yards per play. The Secondary has been the worst part of the defence and appeared completely outmatched against almost all of Kansas City’s receivers. Artie Burns was turned around multiple times by both Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins while Pittsburgh failed to find someone to match up with Travis Kelce in coverage. Pittsburgh’s defensive backfield was never supposed to be a strength but the KC offence made it look like an exploitable weakness in during their game.
Joe Haden should be returning from a hamstring injury soon and the Steelers will be hoping he lights a fire in their secondary that can at least keep them steady.
End of Season Prediction – Winner: Baltimore Ravens
If not for the locker room drama in Pittsburgh, the Steelers would be the choice for AFC North champion. Instead, Baltimore seems like the more logical choice despite their showing against the Bengals weeks 2. Cincinnati could top the division but they are just too spotty throughout their depth chart and it is hard to see Dalton playing at the level he has played at over his first two weeks for a full season.
The Ravens offence was what derailed them in 2017 and looks to already be far better in 2018. Crabtree and Brown look like perfect compliments to each other and with Hayden Hurst eventually making his Ravens debut, Baltimore could possess a very good offence complimented by the best defence in the division. All Flacco needs is to be able to set his feet.
The AFC North is up in the air. Each team has fairly challenging schedules and it will most likely be impossible for one team to pull away early in the year. There is a good chance that two playoff teams emerge from the division and a real possibility of a third squeaking in as well. With all the jockeying of positioning about to happen, each divisional game is going to mean a ton. There are circumstances in which I could foresee any of the four teams winning the division. 2018 is going to be another dogfight for positioning in the North.
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