Well, we're nearly 1/3 of the way through the season, and while it's still too early to think/talk about the playoffs, it's not too early to size up where we stand compared to our brethren in the AFC North.
1. Pittsburgh (4-1)
2. Baltimore (3-2)
This is a tough Ravens team to figure out. They're 1-2 on the road, with their lone victory coming against a hapless San Francisco offense. It should be noted too, that they very nearly lost on Sunday. Back-to-back home wins against the Jets and Arizona is nothing to write home about either (they could have lost both). And then there's the embarassing loss to the Brownies in Week 4.
Steve McNair is completing 65.6 % of his passes, but they're having an extremely difficult time getting the ball down the field in the vertical passing game. Willie McGahee has racked up some decent yardage, and at 90 yards per game, he has been the only consistent member of the Ravens offense. McGahee doesn't strike fear into the hearts of most NFL fans, but he's doing a solid job considering he's running behind an inexperienced line. What about Todd Heap? Nothing special so far from the one-time Pro-Bowler. He sat out of last week's game against San Francisco with a leg injury, but appears to be ready to suit up again this coming week when the Ravens take on St. Louis.
For as mediocre as Baltimore has been, they're still 3-2, with St. Louis and Buffalo up next on their schedule prior to their BYE Week. 5-2 heading into a week 9 showdown with the Steelers at Heinz Field is a distinct possibility. Unless the Steelers lose their next two games at Denver and at Cincy, first place will be on the line. We'll really know what kind of team Baltimore has later in the season. After their BYE Week, the Ravens get Pittsburgh, Cincy, Cleveland, then SD, NE, and Indy. This is at least a 6-loss football team unless they improve dramatically over the course of the season.
3. Cleveland (2-3)
I won't waste too much of my time...or yours...writing about the Browns. Their season has been mixed with high highs and low lows. Wins over divisional rivals Baltimore and Cincinnati will make any Browns fan happy, but a loss to the Raiders, and two beatdowns at the hands of NE and Pittsburgh have to remind the Browns and their fanbase that this is still not a legitimate playoff contender in the stacked AFC. Jamal Lewis is down with an injury, so things may take a turn for the worse for the Browns offense. They can't really afford that though, because their defense is still porous as can be.
4. Cincinnati (1-3)
Character issues seem to finally have caught up to the Bengals. After coasting by on talent for the past two seasons, Marvin Lewis' team is facing big-time, prolonged adversity for the first time in awhile. The BYE Week may have come at the absolute perfect time for the dysfunctional Bengals. They had a week to regroup, and get a bit healthier before taking on Kansas City and the Jets in the next two weeks. If they're able to win both, they'll face Pittsburgh in Week 8 with an opportunity to get right back in the thick of things in the AFC North.
The problem for Cincinnati is their defense basically forces their offense to be clicking on all cylinders if they are to win. That's too much to ask of a team not named Indy and/or New England. They haven't given up fewer than 20 points all year, and their 32.3 PPG allowed is dead last in the NFL. Carson Palmer and his two WRs are still some of the best in the game, but a mere triumverant of talent does not make a winner in this league.
So, what can we conclude? Not much yet. It'd be easy to declare this an 'off-year' for this division, but the fact of the matter is we're just a few short weeks away from potentially having a tight race again. Still, there does seem to be a fall-off with the Ravens and Bengals from the last two years. Our contests with them won't be easy, especially when we travel to Baltimore and Cincinnati, but I just don't see them improving the way the Steelers have.