Going into the 2023 season, predicting that the NFL’s best division would be the AFC North was no hot take. It was considered the only division in which all four teams had a chance to make the playoffs. Last year, that honor went to the AFC West and the wheels proved to be creaky a few weeks into the season for every team except the Kansas City Chiefs. The AFC North appears to have recovered from its early-season slump. It is now the only division in which all four teams are at least two games over .500.
Much of what had the division on the ropes early this season was injury. None was bigger than Joe Burrow’s injured calf. He suffered it the first week of training camp. He missed several weeks of practice and the entire preseason. Burrow’s rhythm was clearly off during the Cincinnati Bengals’ Week 1 loss to the Cleveland Browns. The following week he re-aggravated the injury as Cincy fell to 0-2 with a loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
They struggled for two more weeks, entering the Week 5 game against the Arizona Cardinals 1-3. That was the week that the wheels started to turn for Burrow. He was able to get out of the pocket and buy time with his legs. They won their next two games and since their Week 7 bye, Burrow has played like one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL against two teams with Super Bowl aspirations.
The Bengals beat the San Francisco 49ers on the road by 14 points. On Sunday night, Burrow and the Bengals offense ran the final three and a half minutes off of the clock to defeat the Buffalo Bills, 24-18 and move to 5-3 on the season. Burrow completed no less than 70 percent of his passes in both victories, threw no interceptions, and these are his only games of the season in which he has averaged better than seven yards per completion. Another late-season start, and once again the Bengals look like one of the best teams in the league.
Both the Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers are also 5-3, and dealt with their own quarterback issues. However, they currently don’t have the luxury of simply waiting for their starting QBs to return to health. Kenny Pickett and Deshaun Watson have both missed time, and have also been unimpressive throughout the season.
On defense though, both of these teams present serious problems for opponents. Veteran standout defensive lineman Cam Heyward returned to the Steelers lineup after missing seven weeks with a core muscle injury that required surgery. Upon his return, Pittsburgh put a quick end to the Will Levis show with a 20-16 win against the Tennessee Titans. Pickett had a pedestrian game behind center, but they have enough skill-position talent with George Pickens, Diontae Johnson, and Jaylen Warren to accompany a rock solid defense.
The Steelers also have division wins in their back pocket against the Ravens and Browns, respectively. They knocked off the Browns in a game in which Watson was healthy. As great as Cleveland’s defense has played, Watson’s struggles and injuries have resulted in the most unbalanced team in the NFL. The Browns entered Week 9 ranked second in Defensive DVOA and 28th in Offensive.
Watson returned Sunday and played well against the Cardinals — who have one of the league’s worst defenses and traded their starting quarterback five days before the game. The Browns’ next two games are rematches against the Steelers and Ravens. They lost to both teams in their first meetings this season. After that, their schedule eases up with the Bengals and Jacksonville Jaguars as the only other playoff caliber teams remaining on it.
The cream of the crop in the North is by far the Ravens. At their best, they are unstoppable on both sides of the ball. They entered Week 8 as a top-five unit on both offense and defense — per DVOA.
Two NFC contenders have come to Baltimore in the last three weeks, and both were housed. The Detroit Lions and Seattle Seahawks both lost by 30-plus at M&T Bank Stadium. When the Ravens are cooking, they can quickly turn an opponent into pit beef.
Their problem lies when the game is still up for grabs after halftime. In Week 8, they gave up 17 fourth-quarter points to the Cardinals in a 31-24 victory. Injury woes hurt them early in the season in losses to the Steelers and Indianapolis Colts, but they were ahead late in both games. They just weren’t able to finish the game, and largely because their offensive play calling was too conservative.
Not counting J.K. Dobbins’ achilles injury, at the halfway point of this season the Ravens are healthier than they have been in years. They are also tied with the Chiefs for the best record in the conference — per winning percentage, the Chiefs have played and lost more games. With several divisional battles remaining, as well as a tough three-game stretch in December that includes consecutive road games against the Jaguars and 49ers, the Ravens follow that with a home game against the Miami Dolphins.
They should be able to finish the season as AFC North Champions, but only if they start closing out games when not up by 30 points.