Consider the collective record of the AFC North since 2008: three Super Bowl appearances, two Super Bowl wins and an average of two playoff berths earned each season. And as recently as 2014, both wild-card selections came out of the division, meaning exactly half of the AFC playoff teams, or one quarter of the league’s playoff teams, came from the North.
Even with the sad, tragic record of the Cleveland Browns during that stretch — averaging less than five wins per season — the AFC North has been arguably the best, and certainly the hardest-hitting division in football for nearly a decade.
But 2016 seems to have a different feel to it. And given the four teams’ overall showing seven weeks into this season, it’s more than just a feeling.
Let’s start with the Browns. They’re still the doormat of the division, and are almost guaranteed a sixth consecutive last-place finish. Still, they are on pace to set new records of futility. At 0-7 they have the worst record in the NFL and are looking to make a serious run at matching the 2008 Detroit Lions’ infamous winless season.
But the real reason the division has taken a huge step back to the pack is the mediocrity of its long-standing stalwarts; Cincinnati, Baltimore and Pittsburgh have combined for more losses (11) than wins (10).
The Bengals never have been in the same class as Pittsburgh and Baltimore. Failing to win a single playoff game in a century that has seen the Steelers and Ravens each win two Super Bowls ends that discussion. But lately, Cincinnati has done very well in the regular season. Every year from 2011 to 2015 they’ve averaged more than 10 wins, and at the very least have been over .500 at some point through the first seven weeks. That’s not the case this year. At 3-4, they haven’t strung together a winning streak yet. That’s a pretty sharp drop for a club that on this date a year ago was undefeated.
Baltimore jumped out to a similarly strong start this season, winning its first three games and boasting one of the best (statistical) defenses in the league. But since Week 4 the Ravens have crumbled, and a defense that has yielded a handful of enormous plays (3 touchdowns of 66 yards or more) during the last two weeks deserves plenty of the blame.
Still, it’s an absolutely awful offense that has the Ravens sitting at 3-4. Joe Flacco is on pace to have the worst season of his career and has looked remarkably uncomfortable in the pocket, frequently throwing off his back foot when no rush is within 5 feet. Given how often he goes back to pass (Flacco leads the NFL in attempts), that might be understandable.
Ostensibly, the Ravens fired offensive coordinator Marc Trestman two weeks ago because of his play-calling. Despite every game at the start of the season being close, Baltimore often abandoned the run in the second half. And that didn’t change with Marty Mornhinweg taking over play-calling duties: Baltimore ran the ball just 4 times in the second half of their 24-16 loss to the New York Jets.
The Ravens’ hated rivals, the Steelers, haven’t had that type of offensive imbalance this season. Even without Ben Roethlisberger under center for Sunday’s loss to the New England Patriots, Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell ran often and efficiently and Landry Jones made a handful of excellent throws. No, for the Steelers, the real reason they are 4-3 and clinging to a one-game division lead that very well could evaporate in two weeks against the Ravens, is a defense that cannot force turnovers, pressure the quarterback or stop the run.
In their three losses this year, the Steelers have zero sacks, zero interceptions and 1 fumble recovery, and are surrendering an average of 162 yards on the ground.
The absence of key players for all three teams has certainly contributed to the group’s poor showing during the last three weeks, a time in which the Bengals, Steelers and Ravens have a combined two wins.
Roethlisberger’s injured knee might have cost the Steelers the last two weeks, but the absences of Bud Dupree, Ryan Shazier, Cameron Hayward and Marcus Gilbert each have been devastating.
For Baltimore, the injury to Steve Smith has been blamed for a lot of its scoring woes, but injuries to tight ends Ben Watson and Maxx Williams and offensive linemen Ronnie Stanley and Marshal Yanda have hamstrung the offense. Injuries to Elvis Dumervil, C.J. Mosley and most recently Terrell Suggs have equally undercut the defense’s ability to defend the run and pressure the quarterback.
In Cincinnati, the injury to Tyler Eifert — a significant red-zone threat and quietly one of the best run blocking tight ends in the NFL— greatly limited the Bengals for the first six weeks. It’s no coincidence the Bengals had by far their best offensive showing of the season in Eifert’s return against Cleveland (197 total yards more than any other game this season). And while not an injury, the three-game suspension that Vontaze Burfict served at the beginning of the season did cost the Bengals their best defender against two strong offensive lines in Denver and Pittsburgh.
And that’s the real common thread. As much as its records and outstanding skill players such as A.J. Green, Antonio Brown and Ray Rice, or franchise quarterbacks Andy Dalton, Flacco and Roethlisberger have enhanced the AFC North’s reputation, it’s the hard-hitting, physical, occasionally vicious style of play that has defined and amplified the division’s prestige. And with so many offensive lineman and front-seven players injured or ailing, it’s no wonder the entire AFC North has just three total wins in the month of October.