This past offseason, I wrote a column predicting that the AFC North would prove to be the most topsy-turvy and impossible division to forecast in 2014. Well, it has lived up to that billing -- and then some.
The AFC North is clearly the best division in the NFL. Adding to the intrigue: Ten weeks into the season, there is zero clarity. It's a muddled, chaotic picture. Just like I did back in July, you can make a very intelligent case as to why every team in this division can finish anywhere from first to last. In fact, the AFC North is the first division in which every team is at least two games above .500 since the 1935 NFL Western Division.
Thus, it's high time to take stock of things once again in this wacky -- and highly competitive -- division. Allow me to take a look at all four teams, in order of the current division standings, and provide best/worst-case scenarios, as well as my projected outcome.
Cleveland Browns (6-3)
Reasons for hope: The Browns are in first place! This is not a drill, folks -- the Browns are in first place! Brian Hoyer has been clutch all year and is fresh off a fine performance in the prime-time spotlight; the 29-year-old signal-caller deftly guided Cleveland to a 24-3 statement win at Cincinnati, snapping the Browns' 17-game divisional road losing streak. Oh, and Josh Gordon is coming back in Week 12! Even if he's not in game shape right off the bat, defenses must account for the All-Pro receiver, and that will help Hoyer, Travis Benjamin and Co. Cleveland's three-headed monster at running back is working. The Browns' defense is peaking, having given up 33 points combined over the past three weeks. Joe Haden put a blanket on A.J. Green on Thursday night, as the Pro Bowl wideout recorded just three catches for 23 yards. Veteran free-agent pickups Karlos Dansby and Donte Whitner are turning in great years, helping change the culture. Paul Kruger, Phil Taylor and the rest of the front seven is clicking. And finally, Mike Pettine is proving himself to be a fantastic head coach.
Reasons for nope: The Alex Mack injury still looms very large. Cleveland lost the best center in the league for the season -- this is no small deal. Johnny Manziel still feels like the quarterback of choice for the owner and general manager, and this casts a shadow. Also, although the team has won five of its past six games, the lone loss came to Jacksonville -- an 18-point defeat that remains the Jaguars' only win of the season. That was gruesome.
Crystal ball: Who needs LeBron? Cleveland has a playoff football team! I picked the Browns over the Bengals on Thursday because ... well ... Cleveland is better. I said the Browns would finish ahead of the Steelers back in April for the same reason. This week, Cleveland hosts the Ryan Mallett-led Texans. That has to be a win. Then, Cleveland hits the road with a highly winnable game at Atlanta, followed by a winnable game in Buffalo. If the Browns take care of business in that stretch, they'll be in fine position entering a relatively challenging December slate: vs. Indianapolis, vs. Cincinnati, at Carolina, at Baltimore. Like I said before ... Cleveland has a playoff football team!
Cincinnati Bengals (5-3-1)
Reasons for hope: This Bengals' core has experience with the playoff push, having made three straight postseason appearances. A.J. Green is back in the fold, Giovani Bernard should be back soon, and this roster is filled with offensive weapons, with guys like Mohamed Sanu and Jeremy Hill as complementary pieces.
Reasons for nope: This Bengals' core also has experience with flaming out in the playoffs, having made three straight first-round exits. Marvin Lewis is not a good in-game coach. I've written countless articles about how Andy Dalton cannot be trusted in a big spot. In last Thursday night's prime-time bout, Dalton was absolutely brutal in front of his home fans, throwing three picks and recording an unfathomable 2.0 passer rating. And the Cincy defense didn't look strong at all, especially after Geno Atkins got hurt. Over the past six weeks, the Bengals have given up nearly 29.7 points per game. Not coincidentally, Cincinnati's 2-3-1 in this span.
Crystal ball: Cincy has to travel to New Orleans this week to face a Saints team coming off of a devastating loss to San Francisco. That won't be fun. The road trip continues with games at Houston and Tampa Bay. December looks brutal: vs. Pittsburgh, at Cleveland, vs. Denver, at Pittsburgh. Ouch. The Bengals will win three or four games down the stretch.
Pittsburgh Steelers (6-4)
Reasons for hope:Mike Tomlin has a championship on his head-coaching résumé. Ben Roethlisberger, who has two rings to his name, is enjoying a career year, and continues to develop and rely on the young receivers around Antonio Brown. Le'Veon Bell continues to pound the ball, ranking third in the league in rushing through Sunday. James Harrison apparently drank from the fountain of youth, and the defense showed a knack for making splash plays during a three-game winning streak over the Texans, Colts and Ravens.
Reasons for nope: Pittsburgh just isn't a consistently great team. The Steelers are 6-4, yet they handed the Bucs their only win of the season (in Pittsburgh, to boot) and just gave the Jets victory No. 2 in a pathetic display Sunday. Gang Green was in a downward spiral entering that game, with talk of firing everyone omnipresent in New York. And Pittsburgh choked, after three straight sizzling weeks. That can't happen. Blame Justin Bieber for showing up at the Steelers' hotel Saturday night? OK, there are serious questions, too. ... What if Ryan Shazier and Troy Polamalu can't get healthy and play up to capabilities? Can Harrison keep it going? The dude's 36 years old -- chances are, he can't.
Crystal ball: Next, Pittsburgh visits Tennessee for "Monday Night Football." You would assume that'll be a bounceback win, but, well, I thought they would hammer the Jets. Then, after a Week 12 bye, the schedule down the stretch looks imposing. They host the Saints and visit Cincy before drawing their one "easy" game (in Atlanta). The Steelershost the Chiefsand Bengals to close out the year. I think they win two or three games down the stretch and finish last in this brutal division.
Baltimore Ravens (6-4)
Reasons for nope: It feels like Flacco's magical Super Bowl run, quite frankly, came ages ago. The back end of the defense is nightmarish, especially with Jimmy Smith on the shelf for the rest of the season. As mentioned, Forsett's been a revelation, but can he really keep this up? And how trustworthy is the offensive line?
Crystal ball:I picked Baltimore to win the division in the preseason, but I'm not quite sure the Ravens will get there. The schedule is tough after this week's bye, with remaining road games at New Orleans and Miami, as well as home contests against San Diego and Cleveland (in Week 17). The Ravens have already played five of six division games and their record is 2-3. That can hurt for tiebreakers. I think Baltimore finishes 9-7.