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Bengals gaining ground in AFC North; in second place heading into Week 8

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With their win against the Cleveland Browns and slip-ups by both the Steelers and Ravens in Week 7, the AFC North is wide open.

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Cincinnati Bengals David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

It wasn’t the easiest of victories for the Bengals, but they got a much-needed win to potentially turn around their 2016 season. After a tough schedule led to a 2-4 start, Cincinnati got a much-needed win in the first chapter of “The Battle of Ohio”.

Obviously, winning against a division opponent always gives a team a hand up in the standings. After a loss to Pittsburgh in Week 2 and three others to follow, it wasn’t looking great for the Bengals’ chances to repeat as the AFC North champions.

However, both declining play and injuries have mounted in Baltimore and Pittsburgh, leaving a door cracked open for the 3-4 Bengals. Sunday was an example of both, as the Bengals gained ground with losses by both the Steelers and the Ravens as well as the Browns, who Cincinnati beat.

As Cincinnati did in Week 1, the Ravens traveled to New York to take on the Jets. A quarterback carousel ensued, with both Ryan Fitzpatrick and Geno Smith taking snaps for the Jets, but Gang Green was able to sneak out a 24-16 win.

It’s big for the Bengals, both in terms of division standings and common opponents. Cincinnati defeated the Jets in Week 1, and the Ravens have fallen to 3-4, after starting the season with three straight wins. The Bengals and Ravens are now tied for second place in the division.

Meanwhile, the Steelers are giving it their best shot with Landry Jones under center. Ben Roethlisberger had a partial tear of his meniscus, so Pittsburgh is making due with a backup signal-caller. Jones’ first start of 2016 wasn’t an easy one, as the Steelers hosted the Patriots at Heinz Field.

Though Pittsburgh hung tough, New England was too much for Jones and the Steelers to handle. Antonio Brown briefly left the game, joining a depleted Steelers receiving corps, but former Pittsburgh running back LeGarrette Blount was too much to handle as the Patriots moved to 6-1 with a 27-16 win.

The Steelers are now 4-3, but have the head-to-head advantage against the Bengals, as it currently stands. With Cincinnati hosting Pittsburgh in Week 15 (likely far after Roethlisberger will have returned), two games against the Ravens and their traveling to Cleveland in Week 14, the division is wide open. The Ravens made a change at offensive coordinator, but it hasn’t had the spark they had hoped, while the rebuilding Browns are now at 0-7.

Roethlisberger is set to miss a total of 4-6 weeks, reportedly, but we know he doesn’t always adhere to injury reports. Other reports have said he could be back as soon as Week 9; the Steelers have a Week 8 bye.

The 2016 season has brought a mountain of negativity, starting with the Wild Card loss against the Steelers and into the lethargic 3-4 start to this season. However, the Bengals are still knee-deep in the AFC North division race. And, what’s more, Tyler Eifert returned on Sunday, while the new receiver duo of Brandon LaFell and Tyler Boyd seem to be gaining comfortability in Cincinnati’s offense. Throw in a resurgence of the running game by Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard against the Browns and optimism should be rising.

Whether you’re the cynic who employs the “it’s just the Browns” mindset, or the optimist who looks at an easier upcoming stretch of the schedule for Cincinnati, the Bengals are still in the division hunt. Given the record of some AFC teams, it might take another division crown for the Bengals to make the playoffs again in 2016.

The Bills’ loss to Miami this Sunday helps Cincinnati in overall conference standings, but the theme for the Bengals remains the same: keep winning the games you are supposed to win and sneak a couple you aren’t favored in. We’re not looking at the 12-4 record we saw last year, but sometimes scraping your way into the postseason builds character. It might be that type of road the Bengals will travel this year.

After the Bengals were the only AFC North team to win in Week 7, here are the division standings with the Steelers in first, the Ravens and Bengals tied for second and the Browns significantly behind in last place.