CINCINNATI, OH – OCTOBER 7: Dre Kirkpatrick #27 of the Cincinnati Bengals and Jessie Bates #30 celebrate after Bates intercepted a pass from Ryan Tannehill #17 of the Miami Dolphins during the fourth quarter at Paul Brown Stadium on October 7, 2018 in Cincinnati, Ohio. Cincinnati defeated Miami 27-17. (Photo by Bobby Ellis/Getty Images)

A third of the NFL season has come and gone, and the AFC North looks very different than many experts had pictured it might look. The Cincinnati Bengals are the early front-runners in the AFC North. The Pittsburgh Steelers find themselves in the basement of the division. The Baltimore Ravens are second, but their performances have been inconsistent. The Cleveland Browns are performing better than expected with not just one win, but two. At this point the division is up for grabs, and anyone can still run away with the crown. Each team has a chance to do that, so long as they can correct a couple of their own weaknesses along the way.

Staying Healthy the Key for the Bengals to Stay in First

The Bengals find themselves atop the AFC North with a 4-1 record through the first five games this season. This is the best start for the Bengals since they started 5-0 in 2015. There is a lot to be happy about in Cincinnati so far this year. However, their biggest obstacle to continuing this fast start is remaining healthy. Already this season they have lost running backs Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard to injuries for games at a time. Tight end Tyler Eifert and defensive tackle Ryan Glasgow have both been lost for the season.

Cincinnati can’t afford to keep losing players if they hope to stay in first and make it to the playoffs. They also need Andy Dalton to take care of the ball better. His 12 touchdowns are among the best in the league, but his seven interceptions are among the worst. If Geno Atkins continues to lead the league in sacks, and Nick Vigil remains among the league leaders in tackles, the Bengals can start to run away with the division. And maybe that can translate to some success come January.

Finding Offensive Consistency Important for the Ravens

Baltimore sits in second place in the division, which is more or less where most expected them to be at this point in the season. This is the third year in a row that the Ravens find themselves with three wins in the first five games. In order for the Ravens to overcome the Bengals and win the AFC North, they need to find more offensive consistency. Baltimore opened the season with a dominating 47-3 over the clearly over-matched Buffalo Bills. But just last week, the Ravens struggled to a 12-9 overtime loss to the Browns. That is quite a difference in just a handful of games.

There is more detail to the Ravens struggles that can be found here, but it comes down to a running game that needs to keep opposing defenses off-balance. Joe Flacco has raised his level of play from what it has been the last couple of years. He has the passing offense ranked as one of the top ten in the league. Flacco needs the running game to show up in order for that success to continue. With a strong defense already in place, a consistent offense could put this team on a path to not only win the division,but maybe a deep playoff run as well.

Browns Need Work and Luck – But Things are Looking Up

The Cleveland sit in third place in the AFC North with a 2-2-1 record. Not since 2015 have the Browns won two of their first five games. In fact, if not for a referee blunder in a Week Four loss to the Oakland Raiders, the Browns very well could be 3-1-1. And if the Browns had a better kicker to start the season, the Browns could be a shocking 5-0. The kicking game that helped them to a win over the Ravens in Week Five could have had Cleveland off to its first 5-0 start since 1963! All of that aside, the Browns still have a lot of work to do.

In most offensive and defensive categories, the Browns still rank in the bottom half of the league. Cleveland is 2-1 since starting Baker Mayfield in Week Three. Mayfield might have the “IT” factor that can keep the team in games and make the plays to win close ones like they have in his three starts. But the Browns still give up a lot of yards and a lot of points to their opponents. It’s too much of a leap to believe the Browns can win the AFC North –  this year. Their trajectory is headed in that direction for sure, and they could very well decide which of the other teams win the division. They have beaten the Ravens and tied the Steelers already this season. The Browns’ divisional rivals would be wise to take them seriously if they hope to win the division this year.

Major Piece of the Offense Returns for Pittsburgh

After five weeks, the Steelers are in the cellar of the AFC North. Pittsburgh hasn’t been in this position since 2013. In order to climb out of the hole that they have dug for themselves, the Steelers need to improve on their rushing offense and defense. Both of those things can be improved with the return of Le’Veon Bell. Bell has stated that he will be returning from his holdout when the Steelers have their bye on Week Seven. His production has been missed by the Steelers offense, despite the best efforts James Conner has put in.

Bell’s return would force defenses to give more respect to the run and passing game. Conner has done the best he can, and he will likely still see plenty of a workload even when Bell returns. Bell’s dynamic ability will stabilize and balance an offense that has been heavily reliant on the passing of Ben Roethlisberger. A balanced offense will help protect an embattled defense that gives up plenty of yards and points per game. That protection could help keep guys like T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree fresh so they can do what they do best; pressure the quarterback. Bell’s return could make the Steelers the scary offensive juggernaut everyone thought they would be. That could lead to not only a division championship at the end of the regular season, but possibly a Super Bowl championship.

Conclusion

The AFC North is wide open after five games this season. Each of the teams – except maybe the Browns, but you never know – have a chance to go on a run and win the division title. All four teams have a nagging problem that they need to fix in order to make that happen. If they can do that, they can lock up a playoff spot in January. Of course, all of this will be settled on the field and those division games are critical. Pittsburgh’s next three games are against division rivals. Cleveland’s next game against an AFC North foe is Week Eight against the Steelers. The Ravens and the Steelers will renew their grudge match in Baltimore for Week Nine. And Cincinnati battles Pittsburgh this Sunday, as the Bengals look to extend their division lead and end the Steelers divisional hopes. In four weeks the AFC North will look much clearer, and possibly, wrapped up.

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