While the Browns were resting up for their game next week against the Cincinnati Bengals, the rest of the AFC North got significantly tighter this weekend. The Ravens beat the Bengals in overtime which evened their record with the Browns while the Steelers try to claw their way out of the hole they dug and find themselves just a game behind second place in the division. The Bengals have a two game lead in the win column, but they have made next week’s game with the Browns as well as the regular season finale with the Ravens and the division is closer than their two game lead suggests.
The Bengals are sitting with a 6-4 record, but they have lost their first matchups with Baltimore and Cleveland. As a result, if the Browns or Ravens can beat them in the second matchup, they own the tie-breaker, so in effect, winning that game would give move them up a game and a half in the division. If the Bengals finish in a tie for first place and either the Browns or Ravens sweep them, the Bengals lose the division. As a result, the Bengals suddenly have made this week’s game against the Browns a critical win for both teams.
The Bengals have dealt with some terrible injuries including Geno Atkins and Leon Hall, but they have the depth to get through those injuries, even if they are not at the same level they were before. The problem is that Andy Dalton is unpredictable. When he is good, the Bengals are dominant. When he is bad, they play down to their opponents and end up in bad positions at the end of games. Dalton has 6 interceptions over the past two weeks and the Bengals lost both matchups.
The Ravens and Browns split their season series, so neither one has an advantage in that respect and now find themselves in a dead heat for second place, now both at 4-5. They also happen to play an extremely similar schedule down the stretch with a couple key differences. Both teams play the Jets, Patriots, Bears, Bengals and Steelers. The Ravens also have to play the Minnesota Vikings and Detroit Lions while the Browns get Jacksonville, a second game with Pittsburgh. The Browns get the benefit of playing Jacksonville and the Bears at home but the Ravens get the Patriots and Jets at home, so the schedules work out to be pretty close to the same in terms of difficulty.
The Steelers have the biggest hole to dig themselves out of, but they have the most ability to make a big climb with four divisional games remaining. In order to pull it off, the Steelers might have to win six of their remaining seven but their schedule is the least difficult within the division.
The Bengals are still the favorite to win the division. Despite their issues at quarterback and injuries, they have far and away the most talent and depth. Still, they could have all but put the division away with a win against Baltimore and have opened the door to be caught from behind and overtaken. The Browns playoff chances become legitimized or dashed this coming week. They have to win if they are going to have a chance to make a legitimate run and the rest of the division needs the Browns to win to gain another ground on Cincinnati. The division went from a forgone conclusion to a three horse race over the course of the weekend with a possibility of letting the Steelers back in as well.