Earlier in the week, I put a poll to Twitter asking who Steelers’ Nation thought was the AFC North favorite following the first six weeks of the year. Each team came into the season believing they had a case to be that team and all four teams remain in the mix, a division that’s tightened up after the North went undefeated during Pittsburgh’s bye.
With over 3,100 responses, the Baltimore Ravens were the runaway winners with more than 43 percent of the vote. Pittsburgh came in second at over 28 percent followed by the Cincinnati Bengals at 23 percent. The Cleveland Browns were the last place team at a little more than five percent.
A fairly unbiased poll given the large number of responses likely came from Steelers’ fans. This is a division almost certain to come down to the wire but let’s give a quick run through of the case each team can make.
Baltimore Ravens – Arguably the most well-rounded roster in the division…when healthy, at least. Lamar Jackson is an MVP winner and dynamic player who is having his best year from the pocket. The ball’s coming out quicker, he’s more accurate, and new OC Todd Monken has given a real boost to the passing game. Better receivers, including explosive rookie Zay Flowers, sure helps. But the offense still has run game roots and they’re situationally sound.
Defensively, they don’t give up much against the run with three excellent safeties and a solid cornerback room when Marlon Humphrey is healthy and at his best. You don’t find a better ILB duo in football than Roquan Smith and Patrick Queen, or they’re right up there with San Francisco’s Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw. Kicker Justin Tucker is the leg you want in close games, which is what AFC North battles always come down to.
Pittsburgh Steelers – No one wins close and tough like the Steelers. It isn’t going to be pretty but they come out on top. They’re already 2-0 in the division this year, beating Cleveland and Baltimore, giving them a leg up five games into their season.
Despite their warts, they’re a splash play team. They get sacks, take the ball away, and as infrequent as the offense hits, it can hit big with a pair of 70-yard touchdowns this season. That’s tied with the New York Jets for the most in football. If the Steelers can go even 2-2 in the division the rest of the way, they’ll finish 4-2. In most years, that’s enough to put you squarely in the mix for the divisional crown.
Cleveland Browns – The Deshaun Watson experience has been rocky but the Browns boast one of the NFL’s best defenses. Maybe the best defense. Quarterbacks melt when they face this pass rush and secondary. They’re completing under 52 percent of their passes, have thrown only four touchdowns, and averaging 5.4 yards per attempt, tied with Baltimore for the lowest mark allowed this season. Myles Garrett is a freak and the Browns have better rush complements around him all packaged under new DC’s Jim Schwartz’s organized chaos.
If Watson can get healthy and be even above average, that’s a good enough recipe to win with. With time, they may find more traction with their run game as they adjust to playing without RB Nick Chubb. They just ran for 160 in their upset win over San Francisco.
Cincinnati Bengals – Despite their horrendous 1-3 start, the Bengals are feeling like the Bengals again. QB Joe Burrow has looked healthy the last two weeks and the offense came alive against the Arizona Cardinals before squeaking out a win against a quality Seattle opponent on Sunday. They’re now 3-3 and right back in the hunt, even if they remain in last place. Starting 0-2 in the division is tough but it’s realistic for them to still finish the season 3-3 in the North. However, they will have to overcome a tough-looking schedule with dates against the 49ers, Bills, and Chiefs still on tap.
We can’t do a Twitter poll but I’ll ask you guys to comment below. As of this moment, who is the AFC North favorite? I’ll tally up the responses throughout the day and see how close they match the Twitter results.