Commentary: Who Does The AFC North Crown Run Through?

BALTIMORE - NOVEMBER 20: Bernard Scott #28 of the Cincinnati Bengals runs the ball against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium on November 20, 2011 in Baltimore, Maryland. The Ravens defeated the Bengals 31-24. (Photo by Larry French/Getty Images)

In the last three weeks, we've seen three of the best teams in the AFC face off against each other with each team attempting to assert itself as a division leader and playoff force to be reckoned with. In light of the results of these past few weeks' games, it got me asking myself as to which team the AFC North crown actually runs through.

In case you missed it, I'll provide you a brief synopsis of the current state of this bruising division. Three Sundays ago, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens squared off in an entertaining Sunday Night match up. The Ravens snatched victory from the jaws of defeat and won the game on a last-second touchdown catch by Torrey Smith. This win sealed the season sweep of the Steelers for the Ravens, as they had already beat them once on Opening Day.

Then in consecutive weeks, our beloved Cincinnati Bengals lost to each of these division foes in heartbreaking, last-second fashion. These games were not only a good gauge on how far the Bengals have come, but it was also a great opportunity to get a stranglehold on the division and slay the "ghosts of failures past". They didn't seize that opportunity. The Bengals still have one game each against these teams.

I've omitted the Cleveland Browns from the argument, as they really haven't been very competitive in this division since their re-inception to the NFL back in 1999. So, with these teams all beating each other, it begs the question of "which team does this division run through"?

If you were to start with the Bengals, it wouldn't seem likely to many that they would be viewed as the "King of the Hill" in the division, given their results over the past two weeks. Losing to two other division leaders when you've had a relatively easy schedule to that point doesn't exactly help your cause. In his first eight games, quarterback Andy Dalton threw only seven interceptions. In the last two games against the Steelers and Ravens, respectively, he's thrown five, furthering the point that their division rivals still the have fearsome, media-darling defenses. There's really only two points that can be made in Cincinnati's favor. The first is that they'll get their biggest playmaker back in A.J. Green. He was injured for most of the game against the Steelers and for the entire Ravens game. His presence was missed and though the offense still put up yards and points, they've missed Green. The second is that the Bengals have a chance to play these teams one more time apiece this season and show that they're the best in the division. In recent history, the Bengals have fared quite well against the Ravens, but rather poorly against the Steelers.

 

The Ravens are an interesting squad this year. As I noted earlier, they've beaten the Steelers twice already this season. However, with every big win the Ravens have had this season, they've also lost some horrible ones. And, they've been against some bad teams--all of which the Bengals have beaten this season. Throw in a very narrow victory against a bad Arizona Cardinals squad and they don't seem to be the superpower that many in the media have built them up to be. Nevertheless, they have a 3-0 record against the Bengals and the Steelers and that's the argument that many will use in saying that the division runs through Baltimore.

For a variety of reasons, my contention is that the division still goes through the Pittsburgh Steelers. If you want to take the classical perspective, you can say that the Steelers made the Super Bowl just last season and beat the Ravens in getting there. Throw in the fact that they've historically owned the Bengals and the AFC North division, especially in the last ten years or so, and one can see why it's pretty easy to say the buck stops here. And, for all of the times that the Steelers lose to the Ravens and Bengals in the regular season, they've beat them when it counts--the playoffs. So, though the Steelers have lost to the Ravens twice already this season, that may become a moot point, depending on how the rest of the season plays out. Regardless, if the Bengals want to start making a statement in this division, it's going to have to be through victories against Pittsburgh. You have to beat the bully to take control of the block.

That's just the point though: the argument of who the division goes through may not be fully clear until the last couple of games of the season. The Bengals could beat the Steelers in a couple of weeks and turn the division on its head again. If that happens, it'd be hard at that point to call the Steelers the "cream of the crop" in the AFC North with three divisional losses against two rivals with similar records. Depending on what happens with everything, the next few months could get very interesting and my viewpoint on who the division goes through may change.

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