AFC North show­ing signs of weak­ness

Cu­mu­la­tive record of the four divi­sion teams is 10-19-1, worst in the NFL

Baltimore Sun - - SPORTS - By Jeff Zre­biec

As the Ravens and Pitts­burgh Steel­ers en­joyed their bye week and rested up for Sun­day’s matchup at M&T Bank Sta­dium, their two other divi­sion foes did lit­tle to quiet the ques­tions about what has be­come of the once-for­mi­da­ble AFC North.

The Cincin­nati Ben­gals blew a 10point third-quar­ter lead and set­tled for a tie with the Wash­ing­ton Red­skins in Lon­don. The Cleve­land Browns squan­dered a 13-point half­time ad­van­tage and were beaten at home by the New York Jets to fall to 0-8.

Through eight weeks, the AFC North, which has been one of the NFL’s top di­vi­sions, has the same num­ber of win­ning teams (Pitts­burgh) as it does win­less ones (Cleve­land). The cu­mu­la­tive record of the four teams is 10-19-1, their .333 win­ning per­cent­age the low­est of any divi­sion in the league. Against non­di­vi­sion foes, AFC North teams are a league-worst 7-16-1.

The strug­gles of the divi­sion are one of the rea­sons the Ravens re­turned to work Mon­day feel­ing op­ti­mistic about their sec­ond-half chances de­spite a four-game los­ing streak. At 3-4, they are only one game be­hind the di­vi­sion­lead­ing Steel­ers (4-3). The dis­ap­point­ing Sun­day, 1 p.m. TV: Ch. 13 Ra­dio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM Line: Ravens by 2 IN­SIDE: Roeth­lis­berger inch­ing closer to play­ing Sun­day

Ben­gals are in sec­ond with a 3-4-1 mark, while the Browns are the league’s lone win­less team.

Start­ing Sun­day against the Steel­ers, the Ravens will play the three other AFC North teams, along with a matchup No. 20 against the Dal­las Cow­boys, in a 22-day span. The four-game stretch will go a long way to­ward de­ter­min­ing whether the Ravens can mount a play­off run.

“We have nine games left. We’re ba­si­cally one down in our divi­sion, play­ing the team that’s ahead of us right now,” Ravens coach John Har­baugh said Mon­day. “Our goal is cer­tainly go­ing to be to win the divi­sion. That’s in front of us. That’s up to us. We’re go­ing to play those teams. No mat­ter what re­ally our record would be or what it could be right now, we­have to beat the teams in our divi­sion to make any­thing of it any­way, so that’s what we’re look­ing to do.”

Har­baugh said he hasn’t “an­a­lyzed” the strug­gles of other AFC North teams, and that his at­ten­tion is on fix­ing what has ailed his team.

“It re­ally doesn’t mat­ter to me right now,” Har­baugh said. “Our fo­cus is on be­com­ing the best team we can be, play­ing the best foot­ball we can play and win­ning these close games.”

Since 2008, Har­baugh’s first year in Bal­ti­more, the AFC North has sent two teams to the post­sea­son in seven of the past eight years. In 2011 and 2014, the Ravens, Steel­ers and Ben­gals qual­i­fied for the play­offs. Dur­ing that eight-sea­son span, the AFC West, in 2013, was the only other divi­sion to pro­duce three post­sea­son par­tic­i­pants in the same year.

Over­all, the Ravens, Steel­ers and Ben­gals have com­bined for 17 play­off berths and two Su­per Bowl ti­tles over the past eight sea­sons. Many pun­dits be­lieved the trend of at least two AFC North teams mak­ing the play­offs would con­tinue this year.

The Steel­ers, who have made the play­offs in six of coach Mike Tom­lin’s nine sea­sons, boasted of maybe the top skill po­si­tion tal­ent in the AFC. For all the talk of their post­sea­son trou­bles, the Ben­gals have been to the play­offs five straight years and six of the past seven.

The Ravens fin­ished 5-11 last sea­son, but few ex­pected a team that ad­vanced to the post­sea­son in six of Har­baugh’s first eight sea­sons to be The Steel­ers have made the play­offs in six of nine sea­sons un­der coach Mike Tom­lin, at left with Ben Roeth­lis­berger dur­ing a game against the Jets. down for long.

But each team has been a dis­ap­point­ment to vary­ing de­grees, and the Browns, well, they have re­mained the Browns de­spite all the op­ti­mism that came with coach Hue Jackson’s ar­rival.

One seg­ment on NFL Net­work last week even de­bated whether the AFC North or the AFC South, which re­cently has been known as the door­mat divi­sion, is the worst divi­sion in the league.

“In the NFL, that’s how it al­ways is. Peo­ple are like, ‘This team is no good,’ and, ‘That team is no good.’ But ev­ery week, you see some­body beat­ing some­body they quote- un­quote shouldn’t or games that are close that should be blowouts. That’s the way it is,” Ravens cen­ter Jeremy Zut­tah said last week. “Ev­ery team’s got tal­ent, and any team can win on any given Sun­day. That’s how it is.”

The Steel­ers won four of their first five games and av­er­aged 34 points a game in those four vic­to­ries. They’ve since lost back-to-back games, stand­out quar­ter­back Ben Roeth­lis­berger is deal­ing with a knee in­jury, and Pitts­burgh’s de­fense is ranked 27th in the league in yards al­lowed per game.

De­spite the Andy Dal­ton-to-A.J. Green con­nec­tion — the star re­ceiver has 896 of the Ben­gals’ 2,349 re­ceiv­ing yards so far — Cincin­nati has been over­matched in games against the Steel­ers, Cow­boys, New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots and Den­ver Bron­cos. Marvin Lewis’ team has been hurt by the sea­son-open­ing three-game sus­pen­sion of stand­out line­backer Von­taze Bur­fict as well as in­juries to Bur­fict and Pro Bowl tight end Tyler Eifert. The team also is feel­ing the st­ing of the off­sea­son losses of Marvin Jones, Mo­hamed Sanu and Reg­gie Nel­son, and the de­par­ture of Jackson, their for­mer of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor, to the Browns.

The Ravens, mean­while, started the sea­son with three nar­row vic­to­ries be­fore go­ing win­less in Oc­to­ber. Their of­fense has been a mess, cost­ing play-caller Marc Trest­man his job as of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor, their de­fense sud­denly is giv­ing up too many big plays, and in­juries have been un­re­lent­ing for the sec­ond straight year.

Still, CBS NFL an­a­lyst Solomon Wil­cots said it’s far too early to la­bel the divi­sion a dis­ap­point­ment.

“Just be­cause things look a cer­tain way, by the end of the year, I be­lieve if you have a quar­ter­back — and you can play de­fense — it sort of flushes out,” said Wil­cots, who played five of his six NFL sea­sons with ei­ther the Ben­gals or Steel­ers. “It re­ally does. That’s what I rely on. I re­ally do be­lieve it’s still a for­mi­da­ble divi­sion with po­ten­tially three play­off teams.”

Wil­cots said what makes a divi­sion is qual­ity quar­ter­back play, and when he looks at the AFCNorth, he sees two quar­ter­backs in Flacco and Roeth­lis­berger who have led their team to the Su­per Bowl, and an­other in Dal­ton who led the Ben­gals to 50 reg­u­larsea­son wins over his first five NFL sea­sons. But none of the three teams’ of­fenses are whole.

The Steel­ers are 0-2 in games Roeth­lis­berger has missed or been un­able to fin­ish, and it’s not cer­tain that he’ll play Sun­day. Dal­ton has played well, but the Ben­gals haven’t been able to con­sis­tently estab­lish a ground game or a rhythm un­der of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Ken Zam­pese.

Then there’s the Ravens and Flacco, who is en­dur­ing one of the most dis­ap­point­ing sea­sons of his ca­reer. From run­ning the ball to pro­tect­ing the quar­ter­back to mak­ing plays down­field, the Ravens haven’t done any­thing con­sis­tently well on of­fense.

“Bal­ti­more could be in a lit­tle trou­ble,” Wil­cots said. “I’m con­cerned about Bal­ti­more’s de­fense. I’m con­cerned they can’t run the ball. They can be in trou­ble, but to me, they’re still the Ravens. Their record may not be as pretty, but they’ll give you a bloody nose along the way. I still think Cincin­nati is a play­off team, and I see Pitts­burgh as a play­off team, pro­vided they are healthy.”

JUSTIN K. ALLER/GETTY IM­AGES

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