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AFC North Round Up: Bengals, Ravens and Steelers Constitute NFL's Best Division Through Week 9

Upon the conclusion of Monday night's matchup between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Chicago Bears, every NFL team will be at least halfway through their 2011 schedule. For a handful of teams -- the Pittsburgh Steelers iincluded -- one-eighth of the second half of the season has already been played. Unfortunately for the Steelers, their ninth game of the season was a home loss to the Baltimore Ravens, a hard-fought 23-20 defeat that was theirs for the taking provided they keep Joe Flacco and the Ravens offense from traversing 92-yards in under three minutes for a game-winning touchdown.

It was Baltimore's night though. Despite averaging just 4.6 yards per offensive snap, the Ravens kept the chains moving all night thanks to a masterful performance on third down. One untimely turnover by the Steelers offense, and an inability to maximize scoring inside the red zone (1 TD in 4 RZ trips) proved to be too much for Pittsburgh to overcome on a night when Joe Flacco was nearly perfect on 3rd down, no matter the distance.

The Steelers entered the weekend atop the AFC North and conference standings. Now it's Baltimore and Cincinnati who are looking down on the rest of the lot at 6-2, with no blemishes on their divisional slate. It's not quite reasonable to say Cincinnati would be the No. 1 seed if the playoffs started today, simply because they're actually 1/2 game behind the Ravens in the divisional standings having played one fewer game. But needless to say, at 5-1 in AFC play so far, the Bengals are in great shape to compete for a wild card even if they aren't able to capture the AFC North crown. The going is about to get a whole lot tougher for them though.

It's exciting to see the division playing this well. We'll see just how far the Patriots might fade -- I like the Jets to win that division I think, and I don't think the BIlls will be able to hold on down the stretch -- but it's a distinct possibility that both AFC Wild Cards will emerge from the North. If so, that would be the first time since the division's inception that three teams have made the playoffs.

Let's check out the standings and see how the division's quartet of teams fared in Week 9.

AFC North Standings (through Week 8)
Team Record Div. Record Conf. Record Streak Scoring Differential
Cincinnati Bengals 6-2 1-0 5-1 Won 5 + 55
Baltimore Ravens 6-2 2-0 4-2 Won 2 + 78
Pittsburgh Steelers 6-3 0-2 4-3 Lost 1 + 34
Cleveland Browns 3-4 0-1 2-4 Lost 2 - 51

Cincinnati Bengals

  • Record: 6-2
  • Week 9 Result: 24-17 W @ Tennessee Titans
  • How they did it: Cam Newton may be capturing the lion's share of the headlines for his undeniably impressive rookie year campaign in Carolina, but the redhead at the controls of the Bengals offense, TCU graduate Andy Dalton, should be considered the front-runner for Rookie of the Year Honors based on what he's doing in Cincinnati. Dalton led the Bengals to their fifth consecutive victory on Sunday, another come-from-behind win in which the Bengals played clean football down the stretch to erase a deficit and then hold on for the W. Dalton threw for 217 yards and 3 TDs, and the Bengals defense clamped down in the second half, allowing zero points in the final 30 minutes after allowing Tennessee to score 17 points in the first half for a 10 point cushion at half. Cincinnati is now 5-1 in AFC games. They're in tiebreaker nirvana were they tied with another team for a wild card berth at the end of the year. Of course, with a win next Sunday against the visiting Steelers, the Bengals may just be playing for a home playoff game, not a backdoor berth into the postseason. First things first though -- a home tilt against their big-brothers from Pittsburgh next Sunday afternoon. For now, a big tip of the cap to Marvin Lewis and the Bengals for their first five-game winning streak since 1988, which interestingly enough, was the last year they advanced to the Super Bowl.
  • Next Two Weeks: vs. Pittsburgh Steelers , @ Baltimore Ravens

Baltimore Ravens

  • Record: 6-2
  • Week 8 Result: 23-20 W at Pittsburgh Steelers
  • How they did it:: For the second time in as many weeks, the Baltimore Ravens win at the final gun. Of course, their 23-20 win over the Steelers at Heinz Field deserves significantly more kudos than does their Week 7 win against the Arizona Cardinals in which they needed to overcome a 21-point deficit in the second half to leave the desert with a much-needed win following their uninspired loss to Jacksonville on Monday Night Football the previous week. We've talked about what the Ravens did well to upend Pittsburgh on Sunday night -- namely convert 14-of-21 third downs to keep the chains moving all night despite their inability to muster much on 1st and 2nd downs. Impressive stuff for Joe Flacco and the Ravens, who swept the regular season series with the Steelers for the first time in the Flacco-John Harbaugh era. But don't feel too good about yourselves; a trap game in Seattle awaits if you're not mentally ready to play next Sunday,
  • Next Two Weeks: at Seattle Seahawks , vs. Cincinnati Bengals

Pittsburgh Steelers

  • Record: 6-3
  • Week 8 Result: 23-20 L vs. Baltimore Ravens
  • How they did it: The Steelers played well enough to win against the Ravens, particularly on offense. Ben Roethlisberger threw for 300-plus yards for the third game in a row, the first time that's ever been accomplished by a Steelers quarterback. His lone turnover -- an interception by Terrell Suggs in Ravens' territory on a drive that Pittsburgh was establishing momentum on -- turned out to be a huge difference maker. I blame the play call more than I do Big Ben; that said, he telegraphed where he was going from the moment the ball was snapped. Perhaps that pick convinces Bruce Arians (who I thought called a solid game by the way) to not call those bubble screens so often, if ever, in future weeks. The bottom line is the Steelers once again overcame adverse circumstances to play one hell of a competitive game. Even when multiple starters are out and the opposition has a picture perfect day throwing the ball on 3rd down, the Steelers manage to fight tooth and nail to the final whistle so far in 2011. That kind of resiliency and ability to compete regardless the situation will pay dividends at some point -- hopefully this year, but if not, at the latest in 2012. This team's legit. On last Thursday's podcast I said I was expecting a Steelers -- Jets rematch in the AFC Championship Game. After Sunday's action, that's still my story and I'm as confident as can be sticking to it.
  • Next Two Weeks: at Cincinnati Bengals , Bye Week

Cleveland Browns

  • Record: 3-5
  • Week 8 Result: 12-30 L at Houston Texans
  • How they did it:The Browns offense continues to regress in year number one of Pat Shurmur's West Coast offense. After countless player-organized workouts during the lockout, the Browns looked like they might be a sleeper team in the AFC after scoring 17, 27 and 17 points during their 2-1 start to the season. But it's been all downhill since then. The Browns have scored just 46 points in their past four games, and have gone just 1-3 since then with the lone W being a 6-3 clunker against the Seahawks. I try to never subscribe to what Mike Tomlin might call 'hocus pocus' theories, but wow, the Madden Curse lives on. Anyway, the Browns entered Week 9 with a top-five defense in terms of yards per game allowed. That will change after they allowed both Ben Tate and Arian Foster to eclipse the century mark in Houston's convincing win. The Texans outgained the Browns by a hefty margin of 380 to 172.
  • Next Two Weeks: vs. St. Louis Rams, vs. Jacksonville Jaguars