Making Sense of the NFL’s Most Epic Division Race – the AFC North

In recent years, the AFC North has been the most competitive and tightly-contested in the league.

  • Since 2005, the division has been decided by tiebreaker five times, while two other times, the division champ has won by exactly one game two other times. If the 2014 season is any indication, this will mark an 80% rate in the past decade of the AFC North being decided by either 1 or 0 games.
  • For a more recent show of the division’s cutthroatedness, the North is one of three divisions in football to have at least three different champions in the past four seasons, and one of only two to achieve that feat with each champion winning 10 or more games (2010: Pitt 12-4, 2011: Bal 10-6, 2012: Bal 12-4, 2013: Cin 11-5). The NFC South is the only other division that qualifies.
  • And moreso than the NFC South, the AFC North’s playoff representatives have shown the ability to make deep runs in January, being one of three divisions that has reached the title game four times since realignment in 2002 (AFC East, NFC West).
  • The two teams widely considered biggest rivals in the division, Baltimore and Pittsburgh, have finished with identical records in four of the past five seasons. Through 10 weeks this season, they are both 6-4.

Which brings us to 2014. One team not mentioned in the bullet points above is the lowly Cleveland Browns, the so often cellar dweller in a division otherwise hotly contested. But not this year. For the first time since the AFL-NFL merger, every team in a division is at least two games above .500, and currently the team with the best winning percentage of the four is the Cleveland Browns. In the paragraphs below, we’ll try to make an educated guess at who will still be standing once Week 17 comes and goes.

Cleveland (6-3) – After an enormous road win in Cincinnati that had neither oddsmakers or BFFPP members giving them much of a chance, the Browns need a 4-3 finish to get to 10 wins, and a while a 5-2 finish would get them to 11-5 and all but lock up a playoff berth.

Remaining schedule: vHou, @Atl, @Buf, vInd, vCin, @Car, @Bal.

The only game I would say is a likely loss here is the finale at Baltimore. The rest seem to break nicely for the Browns, as they get the better teams at home and the worse ones on the road.

Pear Projection: Cleveland falls short, winning only 2 of the next 7 and ends the season at 8-8.

Cincinnati (5-3-1) – Through three weeks, the Bengals were being annointed as the AFC’s elite alongside Denver. While at the time of their Week 5 Sunday Night massacre in New England, it was easy to say “just one game, they can right the ship and move forward,” its becoming increasingly obvious that such utter failure while attempting to prove their worth against one of the league’s elite just completely let the wind out of their sails. Injuries have done the Bengals no favors, as almost all of their starting skill position players have missed time this season.

Remaining schedule: @NO, @Hou, @TB, vPit, @Cle, vDen, @Pit

Simply brutal. You see a 5-3-1 record and you think the team is in decent shape, but with five of the final seven games on the road, you have to think this team will look back on last week’s home loss to Cleveland as the one that got away. Even though it never got away, it was gone from the first Dalton INT one minute into the game.

Pear Projection: Sputtering to the finish at 7-8-1, the Bungles will have an offseason of “why did we give Dalton that contract again?”

Pittsburgh (6-4) – Pittsburgh has had the highs and lows that Cincinnati has experienced this season, alternating wins with embarrassing losses for the first six weeks. Many sportswriters deemed the final 5 minutes of the first half against Houston to be “season saving,” as three quick scores erased a deficit and lead them to victory and a 4-3 record, then the Lers officially found their stride to the tune of back to back Big Ben 6-packs. Last week, however, in a game that can only be categorized as “one that makes so little sense that it makes sense,” the white hot Steelers were stonewalled by the laughingstock Jets. What was a golden opportunity to gain a leg up in the division was wasted, and the team finds themselves technically in last place heading into Week 11.

Remaining schedule: @Ten, BYE, vNO, @Cin, @Atl, vKC, vCin

Having the Tennessee game directly following the Jets debacle should give Pit the focus to get to the bye at 7-4, meaning simply taking care of business at home would get them to 10-6.

Pear Projection: Alas, I dont see the “taking care of business” happening. Who knows, maybe they go to Atlanta and pull out a win, giving them the room to spare one home loss. But there is something about this Steelers defense that just seems so old. Antonio Brown is about as impressive as a WR as I have watched play this season, but I can’t shake the feeling that a hiccup along the way leaves the Lers at 9-7.

Baltimore (6-4) – After losing their opener at home to Cincinnati, the Ravens were somewhat left for dead. After all, a home loss to a main threat is a terrible way to start a campaign. But while Cincy peaked after 4 weeks, Baltimore rebounded exquisitely from the Week 1 loss, winning 5 of their next 6 while showing a new crop of defensive studs to replace the old guard. Back to back road division losses hurt the momentum, but the biggest loss of all is likely the season ender of CB Jimmy Smith. Baltimore is on the short list of defensive units that I would expect to survive with a “next man up” mentaility, but a Pro Bowl corner is still a Pro Bowl corner.

Remaining schedule: BYE, @NO, vSD, @Mia, vJax, @Hou, vCle

Manageable, but not easy. Likely looking at a 6-5 record with the unenviable task of winning at New Orleans in a primetime game. Another situation where either 9-7 or 10-6 is likely.

Pear Projection: Bias Alert – I picked the Ravens to win the division at the start of the season, and I am sticking to it. I struggle to see any of these teams getting to 11 wins with the attrition caused by playing eachother twice, and I still think the Ravens can hold serve at home and pick up one road win out of the three. 10-6.

And even though our official Pear Projections say otherwise, there is a decent chance that all four, or at least three of these teams are alive for the division crown as they go Battle Royale in Week 17. Imagine a scenario (I did not do the math) where Cle (9-6) @ Bal (9-6) then Cin (7-7-1) @ Pit (9-6)? Chaos in the gloomy streets of the North!

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