Since 2002, when the AFC Central was cut down to four teams and renamed the AFC North, it has been one of the most competitive divisions in the NFL. In nine out of 17 seasons the division has had two teams make the playoffs, and it is one of only two divisions to have three teams make it on more than one occasion, doing so in 2011 and 2014. The only other division in the league to achieve that feat is the NFC East, which has done so nine and two times respectively, the same as the AFC North.
This division has been a powerhouse, and I remember getting excited whenever I got to watch one of the three franchises at their peak. The prime Andy Dalton, A.J. Green, Gio Bernard and healthy Tyler Eifert-led Bengals were fun, and though they never were able to get over the hump, they always challenged the other teams in the division and even had a five-year playoff stretch. Prime Big Ben, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown were terrifying, and the Super Bowl-winning Steelers squad of Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu, Santonio Holmes, James Harrison, Hines Ward and the bunch was a threat year-in and year-out. And the improbable Super Bowl run the Ravens made in 2012 might have been the single most exciting NFL playoffs I have ever watched, considering my Jets let me down on a yearly basis. The team was scary, and the defense of Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs was still a force, even though a couple of them were at the end of their runs. As for the Browns, well, umm … moving on.
But now, the division looks like the most pathetic in football.
The one bright spot is the Baltimore Ravens, who are the lone team with a winning record. 2018 No. 32 overall pick Lamar Jackson has had a solid start to the season, and even though he has slowed down after his explosive Weeks 1 and 2, he is still looking like the best quarterback to come out of the draft. The defense has been solid despite losing C.J. Mosley, Za’Darius Smith and Eric Weddle, and the combination of the two sides of the ball has been good enough to get them to 3-2 at this point in the season.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Cincinnati Bengals have just been flat-out bad. If not for the presence of the Miami Dolphins and Washington Redskins, they would perhaps be the worst in football. A.J. Green hasn’t played a game yet this season and fellow wideout John Ross, who was finally approaching a breakout, has been shut down for the season. The defense is a long way away from the hard-hitting Pacman Jones units of the early 2010s, as they are giving up the second-most yards and sixth-most points per game.
The Steelers have fallen off a cliff, and while few expected them to make the playoffs this year, hardly anyone saw the disaster that is currently happening in Pittsburgh coming. A lot of it is out of their control, with Roethlisberger hurting his elbow in Week 2 and getting knocked out of the season and then backup Mason Rudolph getting hit so hard he needed to be hospitalized this past weekend, but the defense hasn’t been particularly good and the offense, in general, has oftentimes ceased to function. For a team that missed the playoffs for the first time since 2013 last year but still went 9-6-1, the collapse was much quicker than even I thought.
And the Browns, the poor, poor Cleveland Browns. This was supposed to be the year. They finally have a franchise quarterback (or so they thought), they have weapons on almost every position on offense, some budding superstars on defense and an exciting attitude that had some even picking them as dark horse Super Bowl candidates. But at some points this season, they’ve looked like the worst team in the division. They got blown out by the Tennessee Titans in Week 1 so bad that it had people wondering if the Titans were just that good, but since they put 43 points up on Cleveland they have scored a max of 17 points in one game and have been held to single digits twice.
Sure, the Browns have two wins, but one came against a Jets team that had to start Trevor Siemian at quarterback, and he didn’t even last two quarters before Myles Garrett destroyed his ankle. The Jets were then forced to put 2018 sixth round pick Luke Falk, who had already been cut by two teams in his career, in on Monday Night Football. Not only that, but star middle linebacker C.J. Mosley was out with a groin injury alongside No. 3 overall pick Quinnen Williams, and the Browns still only managed to score 23 points! If the Jets didn’t blow that one coverage on the 89-yard TD reception by Odell Beckham Jr. (which, by the way, the Jets screwed up so bad that Rashard Higgins could have done the exact same thing, it wasn’t very impressive), it probably would have been seven points less. They then put up just 13 points on the Rams, which didn’t look too bad until Jameis freaking Winston tattooed them for 55 points the next week. They did finally get the statement win they had been looking for, taking down Jackson and the Ravens and exploding for 40 points, and what did they do with that momentum? Lose 31-3 to the San Francisco 49ers in primetime, and quarterback Baker Mayfield looked just about as bad as a quarterback could look. Seriously, Falk had the ball literally ripped from his arms and run back for a touchdown against the Eagles and he still had a better game than the 2018 No. 1 overall pick. With three of their next four games coming against teams that have just two losses between them (Seahawks, Patriots, Bills), I could realistically see the Browns being out of the playoff hunt as early as mid-November. For a team that had as high expectations as the Browns did heading into the season, this can only be described as a disaster.
It’s been three straight years of just one playoff team coming from this division, and at this point, it’s almost a guarantee that it’s going to be four. They haven’t had more than two years in a row without a wild card team since 2002. Not once have they had three teams finish under .500 in that same span.
The AFC North is not what it used to be, and, honestly, it’s disappointing.
Jorge Eckardt is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at Jorge.firstname.lastname@example.org. He tweets @jorge_eckardt31