A month ago, experts were saying the Bengals -- having lost their first playoff game four seasons in a row -- were due for a major fall, because Andy Dalton still hadn't been able to shake his rep as an underwhelming game manager, and the team would grow discouraged with all its postseason setbacks.
Three weeks into the season, that evaluation looks foolish.
Last week, John Harbaugh called Cincinnati "the most talented team in the league," and the Bengals promptly went into Baltimore and supported that assertion, beating the Ravens in a gritty early-season test.
To start with an obvious point for the pundits who were predicting Cincinnati's demise: You have to be pretty decent to get to the playoffs four seasons in a row. The Bengals have built a strong nucleus around a young quarterback, a premier wide receiver and a stout defense. This might be the year they get over the playoff hump.
The Bengals have already seized the upper hand in the AFC North with their 3-0 start, while perennial rivals Pittsburgh and Baltimore are both in various stages of crisis. This division could still wind up being the NFL's toughest and, if the Ravens can rally, the North could send three teams to the playoffs, just as it did last season.
Here's how I see the division standings shaking out by season's end, with current records listed parenthetically:
1) Cincinnati Bengals (3-0)
Along with Green Bay, New England and Arizona, Cincinnati looks like one of the most dominant teams in the NFL. When it comes to the Patriots and Packers, we know what we're getting; they're perennial playoff teams with a history of finding a way to win even if something goes wrong. With the Bengals and the Cardinals, it's much harder to buy in; you half expect the wheels to drop off at any minute.
But really, the Bengals are built to last. What Cincinnati has needed to do -- besides getting stronger quarterback play from Andy Dalton come January -- is become more consistent. Last season, they went 10-5-1, with losses to the Patriots, Colts and Steelers. No shame in those setbacks. But how do you explain a team as talented as this falling to Cleveland -- by a 24-3 score? You can't.
I don't think the Bengals will suffer that kind of inexplicable loss this year. And they are getting better at big games. They now have defeated the Ravens five of the last six times, so they're starting to assert themselves against the best. The way they did it Sunday was impressive, coming from behind on two separate occasions in the fourth quarter. After fumbling in the fourth quarter (and seeing the Ravens take it back for a touchdown), Dalton put the team on his back and found A.J. Green for a pair of touchdowns, including the winning score. While Dalton has shown signs of being better, the Bengals are pointedly not asking him to do too much. He is attempting just over 30 passes per game while the Bengals are averaging nearly 33 rushing attempts. This commitment to the run is beneficial to the team as a whole, not just Dalton.
Barring a crucial injury -- to Dalton or Green -- the Bengals' only competition in the AFC North will be themselves.
2) Pittsburgh Steelers (2-1)
The overall talent on the offensive side of the ball is second to none, and I'm convinced that Le'Veon Bell is the best back in the entire NFL. The Steelers also have a solid backup running back in DeAngelo Williams, who averaged a healthy 5 yards per carry during the first two weeks of the season (when Bell was serving a suspension). Given Bell's versatility -- you can put him in motion and make him a slot receiver -- I won't be surprised if we see both of these backs on the field at the same time as the team transitions from Roethlisberger to Mike Vick for the next month or so.
I was extremely critical of the Steelers' defense after a Week 1 loss to the Patriots, but to that unit's credit, Pittsburgh only surrendered 28 points on that day. That looks pretty good in hindsight, considering the Pats have scored 40 and 51 in their two games since. Meanwhile, the Steelers have given up just 18 and 6 over the past two weeks. The talent of their linebacker corps is impressive -- and it should be, as they've spent their last three No. 1 draft choices (Jarvis Jones, Ryan Shazier and Bud Dupree) on that position group.
If the Steelers can go .500 in Big Ben's absence -- side note: three of the next four teams on the schedule currently have losing records -- they still will be very much in the thick of the playoff conversation. They'll hope that Roethlisberger is back at his best when they start a daunting four-game stretch beginning in Week 12 (at Seattle, vs. Indianapolis, at Cincinnati, vs. Denver) before closing out the regular season with two divisional games on the road.
3) Baltimore Ravens (0-3)
In the preseason, I picked the Ravens to win Super Bowl 50. I figured they would field dominant offensive and defensive lines -- and, of course, they have a Super Bowl MVP at quarterback. Sure, there were questions about the depth of the skill positions, particularly about who would complement the aging Steve Smith at wide receiver. The secondary -- the team's weakness last year -- remained suspect. But their personnel in the trenches was just so enticing. The offensive line returned all five starters, while Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil were the best pass-rushing duo in the league last year.
Unfortunately, with the season-ending injury to Suggs, and with left tackle Eugene Monroe missing the last two games while recovering from a concussion, the Ravens' strengths have been muted -- and their weaknesses highlighted. Without the pass-rush presence that Suggs provided, the defensive backs are incapable of playing matchup man on the outside. Need evidence? Oakland had two receivers go over 100 yards receiving in Week 2, and then A.J. Green (10 catches, 227 yards, two TDs) torched the secondary all by himself in Week 3.
Still, despite the 0-3 start, the Ravens' schedule sets up nicely for them to claw their way back into the playoff picture. In the last 10 weeks of the season, they go on the road just three times -- and two of those trips are at Cleveland in Week 12 and Miami in Week 13 (two 1-2 teams that could be facing coaching changes by that time).
4) Cleveland Browns (1-2)
Let's start by trying to be positive. Cleveland has devoted a number of top draft choices (two No. 1s and two No. 2s) to its starting offensive line, and it has shown. Furthermore, the Browns have put together a solid secondary around terrific corner Joe Haden, adding veteran free agents Donte Whitner and Tramon Williams over the last couple offseasons. The front seven on defense also shows some talent -- rookie NT Danny Shelton looks like a player.
The problem is, none of this will make a difference to Mike Pettine's future if Cleveland doesn't settle the quarterback situation. The Browns have made the playoffs only once this millennium -- in 2002 -- and that's not going to change this year. Which makes it harder to figure out why Pettine is doggedly sticking with Josh McCown at quarterback.
McCown is a serviceable, reliably competent quarterback whom coaches love (they know who he is), but he's still a 36-year-old career backup who's never really impressed when he's had more than a few games of legitimate starting time. If Pettine does not start Johnny Manziel soon, the Browns will get to the end of this season still not knowing any more than they do right now about whether Manziel is the team's future at the game's most important position.
* * * * *
So that's how I see this division stacking up at the outset of January. In the meantime, Thursday night's rivalry bout in Pittsburgh figures to be fascinating. The Steelers will be breaking in Vick and hoping they can keep their offensive juggernaut humming. The Ravens will be playing to save their season, knowing they can't afford to give any more ground to Cincy and Pittsburgh. Life in the AFC North offers little margin for error.
Follow Brian Billick on Twitter @coachbillick.