There is one main thing separating the AFC North and the AFC West, the NFL's only divisions where every team is at least .500. In the AFC West, things appear to once again be trending in the Chiefs' direction. After a slow start, the five-time defending division champions have won three straight games to pull ahead of the field in the division race. Nothing similar is taking place in the AFC North, however, where each team has a legitimate chance at taking the crown over the season's final eight weeks.
In the AFC North standings, the Ravens, Steelers, Bengals and Browns have shuffled more than a blackjack dealer. The Bengals -- the division leader three weeks ago -- found themselves in last place entering Week 10. But the Browns' blowout loss in New England moved Cincinnati to third place in the standings. The Steelers, the defending division champion, had a chance to move into first place for the first time this season entering Sunday's game against the Lions. But Pittsburgh was unable to beat the winless Lions, settling for a tie, as the Ravens kept a half-game lead over Pittsburgh entering Week 11.
Most of the games between these division rivals will be played out over the next seven weeks. Cincinnati has one game remaining with each of their division foes, starting with a home game against the Steelers in Week 12. Cleveland has four remaining games against North opponents that includes two games against Baltimore. The Ravens also have four remaining games against divisional foes that includes two against the Steelers. Two of Pittsburgh's four remaining games against North opponents will take place during the final two weeks of the regular season. The North could very well be settled during the season's final week, when Pittsburgh heads to Baltimore and Cleveland hosts Cincinnati.
Here's a look at how each team can win the division, starting with the team that many picked to win the division entering the regular season.
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Cleveland Browns: Be true to who you are
The Browns' identity was on display during their dominant performance in Cincinnati in Week 9. Cleveland set the tone on Denzel Ward's pick-six on the game's first drive. One of the league's best teams with a lead, the Browns' offense leaned on Nick Chubb and timely completions from Baker Mayfield to roll to a 41-16 win. The win once again reinforced that Cleveland's "got the goods" despite some early-season struggles.
But as well as Cleveland played in Cincinnati, that's how badly they played in New England last Sunday. Losing Chubb (who was on the team's COVID-19 list) hurt, as the Browns were without two of their best offensive players in Chubb and fellow running back Kareem Hunt. With Cleveland's running game minimized, the Patriots' defense focused on pressuring Mayfield, who left the game early after taking a nasty shot by Matt Judon. With their offense unable to win possession downs, the Browns' defense was overwhelmed by Mac Jones and the Patriots' revamped offense.
As Sunday exposed, the Browns have some obvious weaknesses that have been magnified by injuries. But the Browns still have one of the league's best defensive players in Myles Garrett, who leads a stout defensive line when healthy. Cleveland's secondary has the potential of being one of the league's best. The Browns' offense is led by one of the NFL's top offensive lines. With Mayfield not close to 100%, the Browns will have to stay true to their identity of leaning on the run to set up the pass. Cleveland will also have to lean more on their defense to carry the day if Mayfield and the offense are stuck in neutral.
Cincinnati Bengals: Win possession downs
After yielding just 17 points in a Week 7 win in Baltimore, the Bengals' defense allowed Mike White to throw for over 400 yards in a Week 8 loss to the Jets. The following week, the Bengals' defense gave up 34 points for a second straight game against Cleveland. And while some of the blame can be placed on the offense's shoulders for putting them in less than ideal spots, the buck stops with the Bengals' talented defense to make more plays in key situations.
Winning possession downs is an issue on both sides of the ball. The Bengals' defense is 17th in the league in third-down efficiency, while the offense is 20th in the NFL in that department. Cincinnati's secondary, led by safety Jessie Bates III, needs to make more timely stops obvious passing situations. On offense, the Bengals have to find a way to sustain more of their drives. One solution could be utilizing tight ends C.J. Uzomah and Drew Sample more in the middle of the field, which would further open things up for Cincinnati's talented receiving corps.
We'd be remiss not to mention Joe Burrow, who has built on the success he enjoyed prior to last year's season-ending injury. One area where Burrow can improve is his interceptions, as his 11 picks through nine games is tied for the league lead. Burrow at times will try to force the ball to a receiver, as was the case with rookie phenom Ja'Marr Chase during their most recent game. With a recent bye week to review the first half of his season, Bengals fans should expect even better play from their second-year quarterback during the season's second half.
Baltimore Ravens: Fix the pass defense
No team in the division (and perhaps in the NFL) has been hit harder by injuries than the Ravens, who despite those injuries are 6-3 and in position to make the playoffs for a fourth straight year. Baltimore is getting a herculean effort from Lamar Jackson, whose 2021 season is rivaling his MVP season of 2019. Jackson has 639 yards rushing (more than 400 more than Baltimore's second-leading rusher) and a six yards per carry average. He also has 14 touchdown passes while leading the NFL's 10th ranked passing attack. If Jackson stays healthy, the Ravens will almost surely be back in the playoffs.
How far the Ravens go in the playoffs will largely come down to their defense, especially Baltimore's secondary. The unit is dead last in the NFL in passing yards allowed. With the trade deadline passed, the Ravens will likely have to continue to lean on their current group to resolve the issue. More success from Jackson and company on third down would cut down on the time their secondary is on the field, as the Ravens' offense is currently 28th in the NFL in third-down efficiency.
Baltimore's secondary, a unit that includes several new starters in Anthony Averett and Brandon Stephens, will likely get better with more experience. In the meantime, the Ravens' defense needs to continue to lean on their established veterans that include Marlon Humphrey, Calais Campbell and Justin Houston. The Ravens will also need continue to get solid play from several of their younger defenders, a group that includes rookie Odafe Oweh, Patrick Queen and Justin Madubuike.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Improved offensive line play
Led by Cam Heyward, T.J. Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick, the Steelers boast the division's best defense. The unit has had its hiccups, but it carried the day during Pittsburgh's Week 1 win in Buffalo and during its Week 8 win in Cleveland. The defense is good enough to lead Pittsburgh to the playoffs, but they're going to need some help from an offense that is last in the division in points scored.
The Steelers' rebuilt offensive line is largely responsible for the offense's lack of consistent production. Rookie center Kendrick Green had two high snaps on Sunday that included one in overtime. Rookie left tackle Dan Moore Jr. has allowed several blindside sacks of Pittsburgh's quarterbacks. The unit as a whole has struggled to consistently open up holes for Najee Harris, who is averaging a pedestrian 3.7 yards per carry through nine games. Guard Kevin Dotson, arguably the Steelers' best offensive lineman, is expected to miss some time with an ankle injury.
The Steelers' line has hope. The unit is young and will likely continue to show signs of growth with more experience. Pittsburgh has decent depth on the line with backups J.C. Hassenauer, Joe Haeg and B.J. Finney. Zach Banner, who was expected to be the Steelers' starting right tackle last season before tearing his ACL in Week 1, saw his first action of the season during Sunday's game against the Lions. The unit, at least for this season, will not evoke memories of Pittsburgh's line of recent seasons. But they could improve to a level that can help the Steelers capture a second straight division title.