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AFC North standings: Race for first place heating up

The Bengals are now just one game off the pace.

Jacksonville Jaguars v Pittsburgh Steelers
Leonard Fournette
Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Things can change in a hurry in the National Football League. Just two short weeks ago, the Cincinnati Bengals were left for dead in an AFC North Division that was ruled by the Pittsburgh Steelers.

All of a sudden, after Sunday’s inspired 20-16 win over the visiting Buffalo Bills, Cincinnati finds itself just one game out of the mix.

Probably the most unexpected result came in Pittsburgh, where the defending division-champion Steelers were demolished, 30-9, by a Jacksonville squad that could not seem to get out of its own way last week in a loss to the lowly New York Jets.

Baltimore moved into a tie with the Steelers for the division lead after beating a Derek Carr-less Oakland Raider squad by a score of 30-17, and Cleveland remained winless with a 17-14 loss to the Jets.

The story of the Pittsburgh game wasn’t so much the five interceptions thrown by Steelers’ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who completed 33 of 55 passes for 312 yards and finished with a QBR of 22.2. Jacksonville quarterback Blake Bortles was not much better, as he finished with eight completions in 14 attempts with an interception and a QBR of 58.8.

The real story was the on-again, off-again play of Steelers’ running back Le’Veon Bell. After what many thought was his breakout game last week, he regressed to the form he showed in his first game back when he rushed for just 47 yards on 15 carries, an average of 3.1 yards per carry.

But perhaps the biggest story was the Bell-like presence of the Jaguars’ rookie running back, Leonard Fournette. Fournette showed why Jacksonville took him with the fourth overall selection in the 2017 NFL Draft when he rushed for 181 yards on 28 carries, an average of 6.1 yards per carry, and scored two touchdowns against a Pittsburgh defense that was supposed to be among the league’s best.

And it was Fournette who put the game out of reach for the Jaguars. Jacksonville was clinging to a 23-9 lead late in the fourth quarter when it took over in the shadow of its own goal line at the 2-yard-line. But on the third play of the possession, Fournette went rumbling and stumbling for a 90-yard touchdown run to seal the victory.

Joe Flacco finally found his rhythm in the deep passing attack in leading Baltimore past Oakland. The Raiders were without the services of Derek Carr, who is out with a transverse process fracture in his back.

Flacco, who had completed only three pass plays of longer than 20 yards through the first four games, found Mike Wallace on completions of 52 yards, 54 yards, and 27 yards to help put the Ravens over the top. Flacco finished with 19 completions in 26 attempts for 222 yards and got plenty of help from a ground game that featured the dynamic duo of Javorius Allen, who rushed 21 times for 73 yards and a touchdown, and Alex Collins, who had 12 carries for 55 yards.

Carr’s backup, EJ Manuel, helped keep things close with a workmanlike performance that featured 13 completions in 26 attempts for 159 yards and a touchdown. Manuel also rushed for 15 yards on two carries.

Oakland’s ground game, however, was unable to pick up the slack. Marshawn Lynch managed just 43 yards on 12 carries, and Jalen Richard added nine carries for 37 yards. The Raiders hung around into the fourth quarter before Ravens kicker Justin Tucker iced the game with field goals of 21 and 44 yards.

There may not be a more surprising team in the National Football League right now than the New York Jets, who moved into a three-way tie for first place in the AFC East with the victory over the Browns.

The Jets, who many accused of intending to tank the 2017 season who they engaged in a dump of high-priced veterans during the off-season, won their third straight game under the direction of quarterback Josh McCown, the 38-year-old journeyman who was cut by the Browns earlier this year.

McCown completed 23 of 30 passes for 194 yards and threw touchdown passes of two yards to Austin Seferian-Jenkins and 24 yards to Jermaine Kearse.

Cleveland saw rookie kicker Zane Gonzales miss two field goal attempts in the first half, but was able to rally and pull close after backup quarterback Kevin Hogan replaced DeShone Kizer in the second half. Hogan threw a 21-yard touchdown pass to rookie tight end David Njoku to bring the Browns to within three, but time ran out on the Browns’ comeback effort.

No. 1 overall pick Myles Garrett finally got to see the field for Cleveland, and he lived up to his billing when he recorded a sack on his first play of the season. Garrett finished with two sacks and two quarterback hits.

Don’t look now, but we have a race in the AFC North. And, as someone once said, football season is not a sprint but a marathon, and there is still plenty of race left to go.

Here’s a look at the updated standings:

  1. Pittsburgh Steelers (3-2, 2-0 in division, 2-1 in AFC)
  2. Baltimore Ravens (3-2, 2-1 in division, 3-2 in AFC)
  3. Cincinnati Bengals (2-3, 1-1 in division, 2-2 in AFC)
  4. Cleveland Browns (0-5, 0-3 in division, 0-5 in AFC)


Now who is the team to beat in the AFC North?

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  • 32%
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    (88 votes)
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    (583 votes)
  • 1%
    (20 votes)
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