Once 'black and blue,' some in AFC North closer to down and out

  • From the Super Bowl-champion Ravens to the upstart Cincinnati Bengals, it's never easy going in the AFC North.
From the Super Bowl-champion Ravens to the upstart Cincinnati…
November 02, 2013|By Jeff Zrebiec, The Baltimore Sun

The logic was sound.

The Ravens were the defending Super Bowl champions and hadn't missed the playoffs since 2007. The Cincinnati Bengals made the playoffs in consecutive seasons and were poised to take the next step. The Pittsburgh Steelers haven't had a losing season since 2003, so they wouldn't be mediocre for long. And the Cleveland Browns, well, they were still the Browns and in the midst of another rebuilding project.

When the regular season started eight weeks ago, plenty of pundits labeled the AFC North one of the top divisions in the NFL. However, as the season reaches its midpoint this weekend, three of the four teams in the division find themselves headed in the wrong direction.

A division that once was defined by power running games now features three offenses searching for identities. A division that has produced three Super Bowl winners in the last eight years currently lacks an elite team. And a division that has sent the most teams to the playoffs in the past five years may be hard pressed to get more than one team in the postseason this year.

Ben Roethlisberger, the veteran quarterback of the last-place Steelers (2-5), summed up the sense of urgency that AFC North teams face this weekend when he called Sunday's game against the New England Patriots a "must-win." On the same day, Ravens running back Ray Rice declared that his 3-4 team was starting a "new chapter" as it prepared to face the Browns (3-5) on Sunday.

"Every game is a must-win, if I'm being honest," Rice said. "The Bengals are playing good football; we'll leave them where they're at. Obviously, we've been down this road before, but it just happened a little bit later in the year. So, we've just got to channel our emotions as a team and not hit the panic button and go out there and just play football."

The Ravens got a bit of a reprieve this week as the Bengals (6-3) were beaten in overtime by the Miami Dolphins on Thursday night. That pulled the Ravens within two games of the first place Bengals with two games between the teams ahead, the first one scheduled for next Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium. It also was the latest confounding performance for an AFC North team.

Even the Bengals, the presumed class of the division, have losses to the Bears (4-3), Browns and Dolphins (4-4) on their resume.

"Cincinnati has probably exceeded my expectations," said NFL Network analyst and former Washington Redskins and Houston Texans general manager Charley Casserly. "Cleveland is about where I thought they'd be. Because of all their turnover, I really didn't have a feel for where the Ravens would be in the first half of the season. [As] for Pittsburgh, they are under where I thought they'd be but I'm not totally surprised where their problems are."

It's far too early to make any definitive conclusions about the state of the division and whether the balance of power in the conference has shifted. After all, few people considered the Ravens legitimate Super Bowl contenders as late as last December, when they dropped three consecutive games and fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron.

But enough football has been played to suggest that things are trending in the wrong direction. Since the 2008 season, John Harbaugh's first as the Ravens' head coach, the division has sent 11 teams to the postseason, two more than the NFC North, the next highest division. The AFC North also is the only division to send multiple teams to the playoffs in five straight seasons.

However, the Bengals are currently the only team in the division with a winning record, and the combined record of the AFC North is 14-17, which ranks fifth among the eight divisions.

"It's just one of those years where Pittsburgh isn't having the year that they usually have and we aren't having that kind of year," said former Ravens running back Jamal Lewis. "Cincinnati and Cleveland are more the buzz because they are usually the low men on the totem pole. That's the difference."

It wasn't too long ago when the AFC North was being referred to as the "black-and-blue" division, with punishing backs like the Steelers' Jerome Bettis and the Ravens' Lewis setting the tone for their respective offenses.

However, the four AFC North teams currently rank 17th (Bengals), 26th (Browns), 28th (Ravens) and 30th (Steelers) in rushing yards per game. The division's leading rusher is Cincinnati's BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who ranks 18th in the NFL with 424 yards and is on pace to finish with just 754 yards.

"It's definitely different," said Ravens nose tackle Haloti Ngata, who reminisced about a time when all the AFC North teams featured a power, downhill running game. "I just think teams are just adjusting to what the league is. It's basically a pass-happy league. A lot of teams are getting players that are dominant as pass catchers. They want to see those guys make plays."

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