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What if NFL divisions changed and the Bengals left the AFC North?

In a classic “what if?” scenario, we look at some of the options for the Bengals if they didn’t annually clash with their biggest foes twice a year.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Whether some like to admit it or not, the AFC North is one of, if not the most competitive division in the NFL.

When the Cincinnati Bengals aren’t busy making five straight postseasons, as they did from 2011-2015, the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers are always seemingly in the hunt for another Lombardi Trophy.

What’s interesting about the division is the dichotomy in the age of the four franchises that comprise it. Comparatively speaking, the Bengals and the Ravens are on the younger end of the age spectrum when it comes to the overall NFL landscape.

Meanwhile, the Browns and the Steelers are two of the oldest and most storied franchises in the league. Even though Cleveland hasn’t had massive success since Paul Brown roamed the sidelines, they are one of the patriarchs of the NFL. And, for anyone who has followed the game over the past few decades, Pittsburgh is known as an elite sports franchise.

However, what could become of the Bengals if they were placed in a different division? Would they be more successful? And, if they weren’t in the AFC North, which division would make the most sense for them to be placed in, geographically-speaking?

Other geographical possibilities:

AFC South: Since the state of Ohio is in the midwestern United States, it doesn’t make a ton of sense for the club to be moved to the “south” on paper. Still, Indianapolis—a city that is about an hour and a half drive from Cincinnati—is in this division.

The Bengals matching up bi-annually with a team so close by makes a lot of sense if a divisional re-alignment were to occur. And though they aren’t geographically close to the cities of Nashville, Jacksonville and Houston, those teams already pop frequently on their annual schedule—particularly the Texans.

NFC North: Along with a potential divisional shift might come a conference shift. Because they’re already in the north of the American Football Conference, a potential move to the north in the NFC makes sense too, right?

As it currently stands, the Bengals don’t often face the Packers, Lions, Bears and/or Vikings, but a move to this division would make regional sense. As many NFL fans know, the NFC North is perhaps the most storied group of teams in modern professional football.

AFC East: Cincinnati often faces teams in this division, with the Buffalo Bills seeming to be the most frequent—especially in recent years. This division has seen its share of reigning cycles, with Jim Kelly’s Bills and Dan Marino’s Dolphins being the teams to beat in the 1980s-1990s, to Tom Brady’s Patriots becoming arguably the best dynasty the NFL has ever seen.

Though every team is very close in proximity to the Atlantic Ocean and the city of Cincinnati is not, it still makes sense from a conference and regional perspective, should a move be made.

How successful might they be outside of the AFC North?

It’s really impossible to fully know how the Bengals would do if they weren’t in the rough-and-tumble AFC North (and, furthermore, under the boot heel of the Steelers), but there is some evidence to point towards. Let’s take a look at the historical records of the Bengals in head-to-head contests with some of the opponents in the proposed divisions.

Buffalo Bills, 15-16 (including 2-0 postseason record): The pesky boys from upstate New York have been a thorn in the Bengals’ side in the regular season, but Boomer Esiason had Kelly’s number in the postseason. Unfortunately, both teams share dubious postseason drought distinctions.

Chicago Bears, 6-5: The Bears and rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky stomped the Bengals in Cincinnati last year, and the team also lost a heartbreaker in Chicago four years earlier. However, the Bengals grabbed two wins in the Carson Palmer era, and oddly enough, two more in the 1990s.

Detroit Lions, 9-3: If there’s a team that most resembles the Bengals’ futility, it’s in the Lions. Cincinnati dashed Detroit’s postseason hopes at the end of last season, marking six consecutive regular season wins against the Lions in the head-to-head history.

Green Bay Packers, 7-6: Many cynical Bengals fans might remember the catalyst to Brett Favre’s illustrious career coming in his magical comeback win back in 1992 after Don Majkowski’s injury. Still, in the Marvin Lewis era, Cincinnati is 3-1 against the Packers—against both Favre and Aaron Rodgers.

Houston Texans, 4-8 (including 0-2 postseason record): Houston’s newest franchise hasn’t been around long, but they have struck more than a couple of daggers in the hearts of Bengals fans. Back-to-back playoff losses in 2011-2012 aside, Cincinnati has lost the last three contests against the Texans, which were all on primetime television.

Indianapolis Colts, 11-19 (including 0-2 postseason record): “The I-74 Bowl” has been a bit lopsided, thanks in large part to Peyton Manning’s reign in Indianapolis. However, his successor, Andrew Luck, got the best of the Bengals in the 2014 Wild Card game.

Jacksonville Jaguars, 9-12: Remember Mark Brunell and Tom Coughlin’s Jaguars? They took it to the Bengals with great frequency in the pre-Lewis era, and those ghosts came back to haunt them back in 2017 in a 23-7 loss.

Miami Dolphins, 6-16 (including 0-1 postseason record): Marino tortured the Bengals to be sure, but Lewis hasn’t been the cure-all in this clash, either. Since Lewis took over in 2003, the Dolphins and Bengals have clashed six times for a 3-3 record. Still, two of the Bengals’ wins came on primetime against Miami.

Minnesota Vikings, 6-7: Not too much to say here, except the fact that the last two contests have been total blowouts. When Lewis seemed to be on his way out of Cincinnati last year, Mike Zimmer’s Vikings trounced the Bengals, 34-7.

New England Patriots, 9-16: Brady, simply put, owns the Bengals. He is 6-1 against Cincinnati, with the lone loss being a 13-7 nail-biter in the Cincinnati rain.

New York Jets, 9-17 (including 0-2 postseason record): The most lasting thought in this rivalry has to be Mark Sanchez and the Jets’ defense improbably beating the Bengals on their home turf back in the 2009 Wild Card game. Cincinnati has won the past two head-to-head clashes, though.

Tennessee Titans/Houston Oilers, 34-40-1 (including 1-0 postseason record): This one is complicated because of the overlapping of franchises, but it’s been a relatively-even matchup. Unfortunately for some, the rivalry that existed between the Bengals and Oilers has dissipated, but the Titans have still taken in to the Bengals. This has mostly occurred in the Steve McNair/Eddie George era.


Would the Bengals fare better in a different division?

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