AFC North proving to be the best division in the NFL
By PAT RALPH
College Contributor Network
As the NFL season begins to move deeper into the month of November, 18 teams have winning records and others are still well in the playoff hunt. Needless to say, there's a lot of football left to be decided this season. There's nowhere that better sums up this phenomena more than the AFC North, where every team is over .500 and positioned to make the playoffs.
Coming into the 2014 season, many believed the AFC North would be a three-team race. The Cincinnati Bengals, last year's division champions, were considered the favorites to repeat due to their strong defense and star power on offense with quarterback Andy Dalton, wide receiver A.J. Green, and tailback Giovanni Bernard. With a revamped offense, both the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers were expected by many to return to the playoffs as well after missing it last season.
However, what has made the AFC North the most intriguing divisional race has been the emergence this season of the Cleveland Browns. If the season was to conclude today, the Browns would be the division champions and host a first-round playoff game.
Contrary to what is happening on the field, the Browns were expected by very few to even contend this season. Many believed that popular rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel would quickly take over as the starter once the wheels began to fall off, but quarterback Brian Hoyer has shown he is capable of leading the Browns to a divisional title and trip to the playoffs.
Despite all four teams having winning records right now, only the Bengals (5-3-1) would join the playoffs alongside the Browns. Yes, despite sitting pretty at 6-4, both the Steelers and Ravens are on the outside looking in as of now. But with seven weeks of football to go, there's a lot of business to still be handled in the difficult AFC North.
An important key to determining which team will come out on top in the division could be who is able to win on the road late in the season. While all four teams have played strongly in their home stadiums, they have been average at best when away from their friendly confines. In order to win a championship, a team needs to prove it can win on the road. The team that is able to do so should be the one who claims the AFC North.
The Browns may be in first place right now, but they do not own the best division or conference record among the four. Rather, the Bengals (best divisional record at 2-1) and Steelers (best conference record at 5-3) have the inside track if the AFC North comes down to tiebreakers. The Browns and Steelers split their twin bill this season, each winning at home. The Browns picked up a huge road win this past weekend against Cincinnati, with a Week 15 clash against the Bengals in Cleveland coming up soon. Put together that and a season finale win in Baltimore (a game which could definitely determine the AFC North title) and the Browns could very well be division champions.
The Bengals' record looks odd because of that disappointing tie at home to the Carolina Panthers, but their division-best divisional record is the best card they hold at this moment. Otherwise, the Bengals face a tough schedule with only two home games remaining. They have yet to play the Steelers this season, so those are two unbelievably crucial games coming up in the next few weeks.
Their other remaining home game is against the Denver Broncos, who look like arguably the best team in the AFC and maybe even the entire league. As was mentioned previously, the Bengals must still travel north to Cleveland, as well as to the New Orleans Superdome to take on the Saints in arguably the loudest dome in all of sports.
The Steelers were playing their best football of the season until this past Sunday came and handed the lowly New York Jets their second win of 2014. Despite the loss, the Steelers should be okay this coming weekend when they travel to Tennessee to take on the mediocre Titans on Monday Night. The Steelers possess the best record against other AFC opponents of the four AFC North teams, while they have split both double-dips with the Browns and Ravens this season.
Along with two matchups remaining against the Bengals, Pittsburgh must also play host to potential playoff teams New Orleans and the Kansas City Chiefs. In addition, the Steelers must travel to the always-loud Georgia Dome to take on the Atlanta Falcons. While Pittsburgh still has its bye week coming up, the Steelers' schedule will not be a breeze.
Finally, the Ravens are on a bye this week after picking up a win at home this past weekend against Tennessee. When the Ravens return from the bye, Baltimore's schedule will not be a dandy. Along with hosting Cleveland on the final day of the regular season, the Ravens still must travel to New Orleans for a showdown on Monday Night and then to South Beach to play against a solid Miami Dolphins team. Not to mention, the San Diego Chargers have yet to come into town as well.
What doesn't help Baltimore is that almost all of its divisional games are over and all potential tiebreakers stack against the Ravens. Not surprisingly, things will not be easy for the Ravens down the stretch.
The AFC North will continue to be a fun and wild division to watch as the season progresses. Due to a rather manageable schedule for the rest of the way, it's very possible that the Browns come out on top of the AFC North. Maybe it will be the Bengals or Steelers who grab the division crown. Heck, maybe even the Ravens can finish strong and snag the top spot away from the other three.
No matter what happens, it is always important to remember this when talking about sports: Expect the unexpected.
Pat Ralph is a junior at Villanova University. He has a passion for Philadelphia sports, especially the Phillies and Eagles, as well as Villanova Basketball and the New York Knicks. Follow him on Twitter: @Pat_Ralph