Oh, what a difference a year makes.
Last season, the AFC North was widely considered one of the best divisions in football. While the numbers don’t necessarily support this claim – the division’s 33 collective wins were fewer than the NFC West (34), NFC South (34), and NFC North (35) – but ingrained perceptions of AFC North squads as tough, physical teams who were miserable to play against often informed the discussion. Further, the division did produce the eventual champion Ravens, so that has to count for something.
In 2013, however, the story is much different. The North has 17 wins, trailing the NFC North (18), AFC East (19), NFC West (24), and AFC West (24). The even bigger difference is that this year’s version of the division doesn’t have a single team that everyone, or even most people, agrees is very good.
The Bengals are this year’s Jekyll and Hyde team. They’ll beat the Patriots and Packers only to lose back-to-back overtime games to the Ravens and scandal-wracked Dolphins. Speaking of the Ravens, they’ve clearly declined from last year’s Super Bowl-winning team due to a number of key offseason departures. The offense has been positively anemic, and they can no longer rely on their defense to win them games. The Steelers, as I predicted during the preseason, are pretty awful.
All of that mediocrity has somehow left the Browns just a game and a half out of first place in the division, ahead of Baltimore on the divisional record tiebreaker with a game in hand on the division-leading Bengals. This is a fundamentally flawed football team that has started three different quarterbacks in only nine games and traded its starting running back – the third overall pick just a season ago – after three games. Yet, somehow, Rob Chudzinski’s Browns have an outside shot to steal a division title.
Just check out each team’s remaining schedule (I don’t see any way the Steelers can turn their season around, so I’m excluding them from this exercise). The Bengals (6-4) play the Browns at home this coming week. They have tough games against the Colts and against the Chargers in San Diego, as well as a Sunday night game at Pittsburgh and a home date with the Ravens. I’m giving them a win against the Vikings at home. They should win one of the two remaining home divisional contests, but it’s not inconceivable to see them finishing out 3-3 or 2-4, especially if the bad Bengals show up in some key games.
The Ravens (4-5) still have to go to Chicago and Detroit, while also facing the Patriots and an occasionally frisky Jets team at home. They also have home games against Minnesota (win) and a Sunday nighter against Pittsburgh, which I’ll hesitantly call a win, before closing the season in Cincinnati. I think they’ll handle the Jets, and for the sake of argument, let’s say they beat Chicago at Soldier Field. That’s still only eight wins, leaving them to finish at 8-8.
The Browns (4-5) probably have the toughest remaining schedule (at Cincinnati, at New England, home to the Bears, at the Jets, and both games against the Steelers), but they also have the inside track to the divisional record tiebreaker with a 2-1 record against the AFC North. If they can beat the Steelers at home and steal a road win in either Pittsburgh or Cincinnati, then they would be 4-2, securing their first winning divisional record since reentering the NFL in 1999. That 4-2 mark would ensure that no other team in the division could beat them in the divisional record tiebreaker.
Let’s assume they get those two divisional wins. Add in a victory over lowly Jacksonville at home, and that’s seven wins for the Browns. Could they steal two more wins from the Jets and the Bears at home? Or, could they sweep their three remaining divisional games?
I have made my own opinions about the Steelers clear, and I truly believe that the Browns, assuming Jason Campbell is starting, can march into Pittsburgh and get a win in Week 17. That assumption means that this weekend’s game in Cincinnati is of the utmost importance. If the Browns can pull out that game, they would own the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Bengals and pull within a half game (even in the loss column) with Cincinnati. It’s plausible that just a few days from now, the Cleveland Browns could be sitting in a position of extreme strength in the AFC North race.
In recent years, Cleveland fans have gotten uncomfortably familiar with the phrase “mathematically eliminated.” This season though, entering Week 11, the Browns are not just mathematically, but also realistically, very alive.
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