AFC North Quietly Becoming the NFL’s Toughest Division
November 4, 2020
For most of the season, the NFC West has been the toughest, most competitive division in the NFL. But that designation does not belong to them anymore. No, it belongs to the AFC North instead.
That is not to say that the NFC West is not one of the most competitive divisions in the league. It is the only division in the league where no team has a losing record.
All four teams have good odds to win the conference (Seahawks +333, Rams +1300, Cardinals +1300, and 49ers +1600; odds via FoxBet.com).
As a division, it is the only one where every team still has a realistic shot at taking the division title (Seahawks -333, Rams +750, Cardinals +550, and 49ers +1400). However, with all their injuries, the 49ers will quickly fall out of contention in the weeks ahead.
When it comes to the Rams, you cannot trust them. They outgained Miami 471 yards to 145 last week and still lost by 11. So, yeah— the NFC West is not the toughest division in the NFL anymore. But another one has been quietly sneaking up on fans, the AFC North.
Having the only remaining undefeated team, the Pittsburgh Steelers is a significant factor in this designation. So is having the team with the league’s No. 1 rushing attack, the Baltimore Ravens (who also happen to have the No. 2 scoring defense).
While it is hard to know what version of the Cleveland Browns will show up from one week to the next, they are still a 5-3 team and have a good chance of making the playoffs (Yes -200; No +150). The 2-5-1 Cincinnati Bengals appear to be the competitive outlier, but they are actually the icing on the proverbial cake.
Do Not Overlook the Cincinnati Bengals
In the aggregate, it is okay to overlook the Bengals. At 2-5-1, it would take a miracle for them to win the AFC North (but the payout at +75000 would be nice). Most, if not all, sportsbooks are not even offering odds on them to make the playoffs. So, what makes them unique?
They are playing well enough to mess things up for someone else.
Despite playing a rookie quarterback this season, they have been competitive in almost every game. Of their five losses, their 27-3 loss to the Ravens in Week Five is the only blowout. They were in the other, had a chance to win each one, and ultimately lost by less than a touchdown.
As for their tie with the Eagles, Philadelphia needed a touchdown run from Carson Wentz with 21 seconds left to push that game into overtime. But they are not just playing well enough to keep from losing badly. That much was evident last week in their 31-20 win over the Tennessee Titans.
Not only did they take down one of the better teams in the AFC, but the Bengals also controlled the game from beginning to end. Oh—and they did it with four starting offensive linemen and their No. 1 running back, Joe Mixon, out.
Defensively, they have a lot of work to do. They give up too many yards every week (400.9 total yards/game) and, more importantly, points (26.8/game). But Joe Burrow seems to be getting better and better with each game he plays.
Should that trend continue, it is not hard to see the Bengals playing the role of spoiler this season.
What Does This Mean for the AFC North?
It means the Bengals game against the Steelers could have division title implications.
Pittsburgh is currently 7-0 and will likely be 8-0 following their game against the dreadful Dallas Cowboys this week. With a two-game lead on the Ravens and a win over Baltimore, they are firmly in control of the AFC North and heavily favored to win it (-335 with odds via DraftKings; Ravens odds are +250).
But the Steelers have struggled to get their offense on track sometimes. While their defense is one of the best against the run, that may not matter against the Bengals in a couple of weeks. Cincinnati is going to ask Joe Burrow to win the game, not Joe Mixon.
Now, the Steelers defense is inside the top ten in every category, so Burrow will have his work cut out for him. But if the Steelers get off to a slow start and Burrow can put some points on the board, Cincinnati could pull off the upset.
That would only be one loss for the Steelers, but it could be the first with challenging games coming up against the Ravens, Buffalo Bills, Indianapolis Colts, and rematched with the Bengals and Browns.
Should Baltimore run the table (which is possible, but will be hard), and the Steelers slip against the Bengals, the AFC North will become up for grabs.