Talk Nerdy to me: Surveying the crazy AFC North

By: Jonathan Munshaw

Every week, I do a weekly power rankings article for eDraft, a fantasy sports website that Sports Editor Matt Hamilton and I write for. This season, it’s been nearly impossible to do them on a week-to-week basis. There’s just way too much turnover.

This is particularly true in the AFC North, which is arguably a tougher division to figure out than the lousy NFC South.

So, I’m going to devote this column (my first in two weeks) to figure out the division.

A lot of people are going to throw the Cleveland Browns under the bus for being the Browns and say they’re the worst team in the division. However, I think that distinction falls to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Their passing offense is obviously loaded with talent. Ben Roethlisberger’s connection with Antonio Brown has been one of the top storylines this year and has propelled the Steelers to seven wins.

However, their inconsistency will eventually come back to get them. They’ve lost to the New York Jets, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New Orleans Saints, who all have sub-.500 records.

They are also only outscoring their opponents by 1.9 points per game (scoring differential is sometimes a better measuring stick for team performance than actual record).

Two of Pittsburgh’s wins (Week 1 over the Browns and Week 11 over the Tennessee Titans) were decided by just three points.

Basically, given the Steelers’ performance per-game this season, those games could have gone either way.

I’m not counting this weekend’s loss to the Saints, either, because Roethlisberger made the score much closer than it actually was by throwing a garbage time touchdown at the end to Brown.

The Steelers remaining schedule has them playing the Bengals twice and the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 13, which are all losable games, given how they’ve played so far.

The Browns, as much as it pains me to say, are probably out of the playoff hunt now in the AFC after losing to the Buffalo Bills on the road Sunday. However, I still think they are a better team than the Steelers, especially on the defensive side of the ball.

Heading in to Sunday’s games, the Browns were 13th in defensive DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) according to Football Outsiders, while the Steelers ranked as the fourth worst.

In the past two games, Joe Haden has been on fire as well in the secondary for the Browns, allowing a passer rating to his opponents (Kyle Orton and Matt Ryan) of 0.6.

I’ve covered DVOA in this column before, but as a quick refresher, it basically measures a team’s performance based on their schedule, and is expressed as a percent. In this case, Pittsburgh’s defense makes their opponents’ offenses 9.7 percent better than they would be on an average day, while Cleveland’s makes them 0.9 percent worse.

Pittsburgh also has the 11th worst cumulative defensive rating on Pro Football Focus, worse than even the New York Giants and Chicago Bears, who are widely considered as two of the worst defenses in football right now.

There are also the surprising performances of Cleveland’s receivers this year prior to Josh Gordon returning. Out of every receiver who has taken a snap in the AFC North this season and has been targeted at least 12 times, the Browns have three guys with three or fewer drops (Andrew Hawkins, Travis Benjamin and Gordon) while Pittsburgh’s Martavis Bryant and Antonio Brown both have four drops.

Gordon also averages the most yards per pass route in the division (2.87), while Hawkins trails Brown in that category by just 0.21 yards.

With Brian Hoyer or Johnny Manziel under center, there’s no denying that Cleveland’s strong running game of Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell has helped the pass game take a step forward.
Both the Steelers and Browns are out of the playoff race at this point, in my opinion, but another 7-5 team, the Ravens, are still in the hunt for a Wild Card spot and the Bengals are going to run away with the division.

Cincinnati, besides the blowout loss to the Browns, is 4-1 in their past five games and have won their past three games by an average of nine points per game. Also, keep in mind that all three of those games were on the road, including a win in the Super Dome over the Saints and over the Texans, who are now in contention for a Wild Card spot, all of a sudden.

The Ravens, as they showed on Monday, still have a huge weakness in the secondary that they have to overcome.

In the past two weeks (after Baltimore destroyed their secondary and re-built it), eight corners in the AFC North are allowing a passer rating of 125 or higher, per Pro Football Focus. Four of them are Ravens.

Two of them: Danny Gorrer and Anthony Levine, might actually be actors from “The Wire” that I’ve never heard of. I’m not sure.

Meanwhile, on the season, Cincinnati’s Terence Newman and Dre Kirkpatrick have combined to give up just two touchdowns and have held their opponents to passer ratings of 73.3 and 83.3, respectively. Jimmy Smith was one of the best corners in the division for the Ravens, but he’s done for the year.

On offense, Justin Forsett has been huge for the Ravens, but lately the passing game has been non-existent.

Torrey Smith has gotten back on track, ranking third in the division in receiving yards through the past five weeks, but crowd favorite Steve Smith ranks just 11th in that span with just 144 yards in five weeks, less than Mohamed Sanu, Andrew Hawkins, Miles Austin, Martavis Bryant and Gordon (who has only played two games so far).

There’s no true No. 3 passing option, either for Joe Flacco and the Ravens after losing Dennis Pitta.

In their past three games, the Ravens are just 2-3, worse than anyone else in the division.

The ugly tie that Cincinnati holds onto will end up saving them in the long run, and it doesn’t help that Baltimore is, at best, going to finish 3-3 in the division (potentially 2-4 if it loses to the Browns, which it won’t).

Meanwhile, the Bengals could finish 5-1 in the division at best, and also 2-4 at the worst, but I expect them to win at least one of the games against the Steelers.

Now that I’ve spent 1,000 words on this division, hopefully I’ve helped clarify some of the confusion. Any hate mail about me picking the Bengals over the Ravens can be sent to sports@thetowerlight.com (I kid, of course).

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