Which AFC North Team is the Best?

It’s been the tightest division race in football this season, with all four teams still possessing a winning record. The Bengals (somehow) are currently on top with an 8-4-1 record. The Ravens and Steelers are a half game back, both at 8-5. The Browns are a game and a half out at 7-6, and their chances are looking bleaker each week. So which team has the best chance to win the division, and can any of these four make a run in the playoffs?

The Browns would appear to have the worst chance. They’re starting a rookie quarterback, and while Johnny Manziel might be able to make a few random big plays, it’s tough to actually count on him leading this team into the postseason. Their best bet is to lean on the running game and have Manziel use play-action off of it. The Browns have 85 pass plays of 15 or more yards this season. 50 of those are off of play-action, which leads the league. Even with Brian Hoyer as the quarterback, the Browns relied on play-action to get the ball downfield. With the need to simplify the reads in the passing game for Manziel, a similar approach will absolutely be utilized by Cleveland moving forward.

The Bengals have been excruciatingly inconsistent all season. Andy Dalton’s up and down play has been a big reason for this. So has the play of Cincinnati’s linebackers. The only consistent aspect of the Bengals this season has been that teams can and will game plan to attack their linebackers. Most have done this with play-action, something Bengals linebackers have overreacted to all season (Ben Roethlisberger was 7-9 for 165 yards and 2 touchdowns on play-action against Cincy last week).

Teams also like to attack Bengals linebackers in the running game. Just look at what the Steelers did on Sunday against Cincinnati. They ran counter plays 9 times for 115 yards and 2 touchdowns in the 4th quarter alone.

Additionally, the Bengals have a difficult remaining schedule. They are at Cleveland, home to Denver, and then at Pittsburgh. It would be surprising to see them get through that and come out on top of the AFC North. If they somehow manage to win the division, it’s hard to imagine this unit doing much of anything in the postseason.

This leaves the Steelers and Ravens as the teams most likely to take the division. Baltimore’s schedule is easier, so the edge should go to them. However, the Steelers currently have better division and conference records than the Ravens. So if they end the season tied, the tiebreaker will go to Pittsburgh.

The Steelers and Ravens are also the teams best equipped to do some damage in the AFC playoffs. Both have balanced offenses and quarterbacks with strong arms. This means either team has a chance on the road in poor weather.

The Steelers rely on Le’Veon Bell to get them yards on the ground. He has turned into arguably the best back in the league. Pittsburgh also has great speed on the outside at the receiver position, which has helped to create big plays and stretch the defense.

The Ravens, on the other hand, rely more on their line and running scheme (zone and lead runs) to pick up yards on the ground. There might not be any group of interior offensive lineman playing better right now than left guard Kelechi Osemele, center Jeremy Zuttah, and right guard Marshal Yanda. They are moving the line of scrimmage on a weekly basis.

The Ravens also do a good job of throwing out of run looks. They’ve been able to dictate base-defense personnel as well as defensive looks that are geared to stop the run. They’ve then been able to throw against these looks and generate big plays through the air. Take the below play from Week 14 against the Dolphins for instance. It was 1st and 10 in the 2nd quarter. Here the Ravens used “21” personnel – 2 backs and 1 tight end. They aligned in an I-formation, which is a look from which the Ravens often like to run. The Dolphins matched up with their base personnel and eventually rotated to single high (eight in the box) at the snap.

Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass
Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

The play-action sucked up the linebackers.

Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass
Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

Torrey Smith’s route on the outside popped the top off of the defense, taking the corner to his side and the deep safety with him. The crossing route by Steve Smith was run into the area underneath the corner and behind the sucked-up linebackers who were occupied with the run-action and the fullback’s flat route.

Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass
Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

The result here was an easy 27-yard gain.

This is a common route concept in the NFL. Defenses prepare for and are aware of it. WHEN it’s called in the game is key, though, and Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak has done a great job of dialing up these types of plays at the right times in 2014. This is one reason why Joe Flacco is (quietly) having the best statistical season of his career.

Defensively, the Steelers have struggled this year. They still look old and slow. They aren’t quite the unit we saw get to three Super Bowls in 6 seasons from 2005-10. One key part of that is Troy Polamalu. He doesn’t move anywhere near as well as he used to. The defensive line doesn’t quite hold the point like it used to either. The Steelers also don’t get to the quarterback anymore, ranking 25th in the NFL with just 24 sacks through 13 games. This has left their corners exposed at times.

The Ravens definitely have the edge over Pittsburgh on the defensive side of the ball. Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil might be the best pass-rush tandem in the league. They collapsed the pocket on play after play against the Dolphins last week. Suggs overpowered rookie left tackle Ja’Wuan James, and Dumervil beat right tackle Dallas Thomas in every way possible.

Even without Haloti Ngata, the Ravens have a deep defensive line and a very good front seven. Their issues are in the secondary, where injuries and ineffective performance have forced them to play more zone coverage, which has been easily picked apart when the Ravens aren’t able to get to the quarterback. It’s hard to like any of these secondaries against the Patriots or Broncos in the playoffs.

So can either of these teams beat New England or Denver on the road in January? Of course they could. This is the NFL. The odds aren’t very good, though. The Steelers and Ravens don’t have many areas where they hold matchup advantages over either of those teams. We all know by now that anything is possible, though. All you have to do is reach the tournament. Just ask the ’05 Steelers or the ’12 Ravens.

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