Coming into the 2015 NFL Season, the AFC North came in as one of the toughest divisions to play in last season. Each team finished with over seven wins last season, and three of the four teams made the postseason. Each team made its case to find improvement in the off-season to hopefully leap-frog one another in the division.
The firepower on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens offenses seemed to be one of the best on paper after the 2015 NFL Draft, however, multiple unfortunate injuries mixed with vulnerable defensive play in the regular season put these two teams in some shaky situations during the regular season. The Cleveland Browns have shown extremely poor defensive play throughout the season and has still remained in the cellar of the division. However, one team exceeded all expectations and criticism around their franchise quarterback with a strong foundation on both sides of the football, the Cincinnati Bengals.
Cincinnati Bengals: 8-0
Pittsburgh Steelers: 5-4
Baltimore Ravens: 2-6
Cleveland Browns: 2-7
Many people speculated around the decision to give quarterback Andy Dalton a big contract a season prior to be a poor one. Many called for his inability to win in the postseason to be his inevitable downfall for the upcoming season, however, he has shattered all criticism after eight games leading his Bengals to their best start in franchise history.
The undefeated Bengals have boasted a high-powered offense and defense, which are both top five in scoring per game, and have had their already young and talented foundation step up even further this season. The emergence of tight end Tyler Eifert has made life easy for Cincinnati in the red zone this season, and they already hold crucial road wins in Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Even after a magical start to the season, they need to stay composed to close out for a chance to win the division and secure a crucial first round bye in a tough conference.
The Steelers were many experts' favorites to take the division once again after winning the division last season. Unfortunately, they have taken many bumps after eight games to make repeating just more difficult. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has suffered a foot injury that has sidelined him multiple times in the first half of the year, and forced the likes of Mike Vick and Landry Jones to step in for him. However, the biggest loss the Steelers suffered was the loss of running back Le'Veon Bell, who will be missing the rest of the season after a gruesome injury against the Bengals a couple weeks back.
Some luck needs to be on the side of the Steelers as they hope for one of the wild card spots in the AFC, as the team works best when Big Ben is passing it to the evermore impressive wide receiver Antonio Brown, who already has over 1,000 receiving yards on the season.
One of the most unfortunate teams, if not the most unfortunate team coming into the second half of the regular season, has to be the Baltimore Ravens. Every game of the season has been decided by eight points or less, and they have only came out with two victories. Multiple injuries have crippled the team's energy, especially the two season ending injuries to both linebacker Terrell Suggs and wide receiver Steve Smith Sr.. They hold one of the worst passing defenses after the first half of the regular season and the luster of a powerhouse Ravens defense has not been there when it mattered in crunch-time. However, their next four games on their schedule are very winnable and cold help bolster a chance to save any chance to play in the postseason, and it has to start as soon as Sunday.
Speaking of the Cleveland Browns' poor defensive play, they do rank last in rushing yards allowed per game. However, despite being close in most of their early season games, their last three games have combined for a -43 point differential, and the season seems to be slipping from the Browns once again. Despite some great performances from journeyman quarterback Josh McCown, injuries have sidelined him on a few occasions and have started to test young second-year quarterback Johnny Manziel in a couple of games, being 1-1 in starts this season. Even with the emergence of tight end Gary Barnidge in their passing game, the team struggled to score points this season, being the fourth worst in the league in scoring. A shaken up Browns side may continue to falter in games late on in the second half of the season, and it may already be time to look for another franchise quarterback when the draft comes around once again.
The AFC North has not looked as competitive as last season, but there has been high-quality football from every single team in the division. The Bengals will look to grab their second divisional title in three seasons and the Steelers seems to be the only other viable option, at this point, to have a chance to make the playoffs. However, in retrospect, there is a lot of football to be left.
The AFC North still stands today as one of the best divisions in the NFL, and it may seem to remain like that, despite unfortunate circumstances in the case of Pittsburgh and Baltimore. While it is not a good idea to look ahead to the postseason in the minds of some teams, the Bengals have looked like a team possessed in trying to nab their first postseason win since 1991. It seems to be a one-horse race for a division winner here.