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AFC North race: Browns’ win over Ravens, Bengals’ OT loss to 49ers tightens division battle from top to bottom

AFC North race: Browns' win over Ravens, Bengals' OT loss to 49ers tightens division battle from top to bottom

Does anyone want to win the AFC North? It certainly doesn’t look like it after the division went 1-3 in Week 14 competition. Through 14 weeks, the division’s four teams are separated by just 1.5 games, with several intra-division games on tap during the season’s final four weeks. 

Two weeks ago, the Ravens were 8-3 and vying to earn the AFC’s lone playoff bye. But road losses to the Steelers and Browns have brought Baltimore back to the field as it relates to the rest of the division. While they are still atop the division, the Ravens’ 2021 season is at a crossroads. Lamar Jackson left Sunday’s 24-22 loss to the Browns with a high ankle sprain; Jackson will now undergo tests to determine the severity of his injury. Making things more bleak is the fact that the Ravens’ remaining four games include a home game against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, a road game against Cincinnati, a home game against the 8-4 Rams and a home regular-season finale against the Steelers. Baltimore will probably have to win at least two of their remaining four games to either clinch the North and/or a playoff berth. 

If there was a bright spot for the Ravens on Sunday, it was the play of second-year QB Tyler Huntley and rookie receiver Rashod Bateman. Huntley threw for 270 yards and ran for 45 yards while engineering four scoring drives. Bateman’s first 100-yard game as a Raven included a balletic 36-yard reception that set up Huntley’s fourth-quarter touchdown pass to Mark Andrews. If Jackson has to miss time with his injury, Huntley has proved that he can have success moving the Ravens’ offense. 

With the win, the Browns improved to 7-6 and moved from fourth to second place in the division. The Browns were clearly energized following their Week 13 bye. They came out fast on both sides of the ball and took a 10-0 lead before Jackson left the game with his injury. Cleveland received a solid performance from Baker Mayfield, who had considerable success getting the ball to second-year wideout Donovan Peoples-Jones, who finished the day with 90 yards on five receptions. Mayfield’s health is still a concern, along with some of his decision-making, but the fact that the Browns won on a day where their running game was not at its best is a positive sign. 

Cleveland’s defense gave up some big plays, but it made its share of big plays, too. Myles Garrett recorded his first career touchdown off of a strip-sack of Huntley in the first half. Takk McKinley’s forced fumble of Huntley prevented the Ravens from scoring on their first possession of the second half. Jadeveon Clowney’s sack of Huntley on the Ravens’ final possession helped Cleveland’s defense force a turnover on downs. 

Two of Cleveland’s final four games are against divisional foes. The Browns will face the slumping Raiders at home next Sunday before playing at the Packers and Steelers in what will likely be Ben Roethlisberger’s final home game at Heinz Field. Cleveland will finish the regular season with a home game against Cincinnati. The Browns routed the Bengals 41-16 in Cincinnati back in Week 9. 

The AFC’s top-seeded team seven weeks into the 2021 season, the Bengals are just 2-4 since their 41-17 win over the Ravens. The Bengals appeared to have their mojo back after defeating the Raiders and Steelers following their Week 10 bye. But Cincinnati has followed those games up with home losses against the Chargers and 49ers. Sunday’s 23-20 overtime loss to the 49ers was especially rough, as Cincinnati endured several self-inflicted errors before taking a three-point lead in overtime. But the Bengals had no answer for George Kittle, whose receptions of 8, 21 and 9 yards in overtime helped set up the 49ers’ game-winning touchdown. 

Cincinnati is arguably the division’s best team, but turnovers and an overall lack of execution at times has contributed to the Bengals’ recent slide. The Bengals coughed the ball up twice on special teams on Sunday, while Cincinnati’s offense was just 1 of 5 in the red zone. Cincinnati received another strong outing from quarterback Joe Burrow, who threw for 348 yards and two touchdowns while helping the Bengals rally back from a 14-point deficit. 

The Bengals have arguably the division’s toughest remaining schedule. They’re at 7-6 Denver next Sunday before hosting the Ravens in Week 16. The Bengals will then host the two-time defending AFC champion Chiefs before facing Cleveland in Week 18. Given their remaining four games, a win on Sunday would go a long way in the Bengals possibly clinching their first playoff berth in six years. 

No AFC North team has had a stranger season than the Steelers. Pittsburgh started 1-3 before a four-game winning streak put the Steelers in position to supplant the Ravens for first place in the North. But a tie against the Lions began a downward spiral for the Steelers, who are just 1-3-1 over their past five games. A young offensive line and a porous run defense has largely contributed to the Steelers’ recent slide. But despite their mediocre 6-6-1 record, the Steelers are only 1.5 games back of the Ravens with four weeks to go in the regular season. 

Despite their weaknesses, the Steelers have reasons for optimism. Reserves John Leglue, Ahkello Witherspoon and Montravius Adams have provided a lift in recent weeks. Najee Harris is on pace to have the best rookie season of any Steelers running back in franchise history. Diontae Johnson is a bona fide No. 1 receiver. Pittsburgh finally found Heath Miller’s heir apparent in rookie Pat Freiermuth. T.J. Watt is having his best season to date, while Cam Heyward and Minkah Fitzpatrick continue to play at Pro Bowl levels. 

The Steelers have also gotten solid play from Roethlisberger, who barring the unexpected is playing the final regular-season games of a career that will one day be enshrined in Canton, Ohio. While most of his mobility is gone, the 39-year-old is putting up numbers that rival his career averages. In 12 games, Roethlisberger has completed 65.3% of his passes for 3,066 yards with 19 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. He’s thrown 15 touchdowns and just three interceptions over Pittsburgh’s last eight games that includes his 308-yard, three-touchdown performance in Thursday night’s 36-28 loss to Minnesota, a setback that the Steelers nearly tied after falling behind 29-0. 

Pittsburgh would realistically have to win three of their final four games to make the playoffs. The Steelers will host the 9-4 Titans in Week 15 before traveling to Kansas City the day after Christmas. If they split those games, the Steelers’ contests against Cleveland and Baltimore would essentially be playoff games, which would be an extremely fitting way for Roethlisberger to close out his regular-season career. 

Who will win the North is anyone’s guess. Each team has its own unique strengths and weaknesses. One thing that is almost certain is that the North won’t be decided until Week 18, when the four teams face each other in two games that will ultimately determine a champion. 

This content was originally published here.

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