Just one month ago, many around the NFL regarded the AFC North as one of the league's weaker divisions.
The Cincinnati Bengals lost both of their bright-minded coordinators (Jay Gruden and Mike Zimmer) to head coaching jobs. And their quarterback, Andy Dalton, entered the season with a looming 0-3 playoff record, with pressure mounting from the fan base. Now, the Bengals are one of only two undefeated teams in the entire league.
The dark Ray Rice cloud looming over the Baltimore Ravens exploded on the Monday following Week 1, creating a media firestorm centered in Baltimore. But the team has responded to the potential distraction in spectacular fashion, winning three straight games since releasing their former star running back.
The Pittsburgh Steelers were coming off back-to-back 8-8 seasons, and executed no significant transaction in the offseason to indicate their record would increase. Despite last Sunday's tough loss to the Buccaneers, the Steelers are showing their offense is dynamic to outscore most teams in the NFL.
For the first time in several years, the expectations for the AFC North had been lowered. A 9-7 record might win the division, and any of the teams, even the Cleveland Browns, might challenge for the division crown.
The speculation that the AFC North was on the decline has officially been ripped to shreds. So far the division has arguably been the most impressive in the NFL.
- The NFC East is the only other division boasting two teams with at least three wins – the Cowboys and Eagles.
- The AFC North's overall point differential is plus-85, easily ranking first out of all the divisions in the NFL. That total could be even more had the Bengals and Browns not been on a bye week.
- All four teams' offenses rank in the top 13 in the NFL in total yards.
- The Steelers loss to the Buccaneers is the only out of division loss for any AFC North team.
- Every quarterback has a QB rating of at least 93, ranking them all in the top 15 in the NFL: Ben Roethlisberger (8th), Brian Hoyer (11th), Andy Dalton (12th) and Joe Flacco (15th).
- All four teams have young offensive players emerging into big contributors – wide receiver Mohamed Sanu and running back Jeremy Hill for the Bengals; running back Lorenzo Taliaferro for the Ravens; wide receiver Markus Wheaton for the Steelers and running backs Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West for the Browns.
Cleveland opening up the season strong has much to do with the division's elevated reputation. Both of the Browns' losses came at the hands of division rivals Pittsburgh and Baltimore by a combined five points – and both on last-second field goals.
"That was AFC North football," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said moments after escaping Cleveland with a victory. "It is a great victory on the road. To win an AFC North game on the road this year is going to be really, really hard to do."
Browns upcoming AFC North schedule
Week 6: Pittsburgh Steelers
Week 10: @Cincinnati Bengals (Thursday Night)
Week 15: Cincinnati Bengals
Week 17: @Baltimore Ravens