The AFC North Is Going to Have a Crazy Finish This Year
Over the last eight years, only once -- in 2013 -- has the AFC North had just one team qualify for the playoffs. In fact, since 2008, the division has accounted for both AFC Wild Card spots more times (twice -- 2014 and 2011) than they've sent only the division winner to the postseason.
The overall divisional success is due to the year-to-year winning of the Cincinnati Bengals, Pittsburgh Steelers, and Baltimore Ravens, who have become three of the NFL's most consistently competitive franchises in recent years. On a related note, let's send prayers up for the Cleveland Browns, an organization that hasn't been to the postseason since 2002. The Browns haven't been very good in recent seasons, but being saddled with six games each season against three of the NFL's better teams hasn't made things easier.
With the Bengals, Steelers, and Ravens yearly threats to make the playoffs, the race for the AFC North title is usually one of the best divisional races each season. That looks like it's going to be the case again this year, and while none of the teams appear to be a true Super Bowl contender -- at least by our metrics -- they do appear to be incredibly even.
Nip and Tuck
Baltimore and Pittsburgh are tied atop the standings with 4-4 records while Cincy is nipping at their heels, sitting at 3-4-1 thanks to a tie against Washington. Their win-loss records aren't the only place where the teams are in a dead heat.
Our team rankings -- which are based off our nERD metric -- have the Bengals 17th, with the Steelers (22nd) and Ravens (23rd) not too far behind. For those unfamiliar, nERD is our calculation of how good a team really is, based on expected point differential against a league average team. If the team's nERD rating is 10, they would be expected to win by 10 points against a league-average opponent.
We can take a closer look at each team using our in-house Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. NEP measures the value of each play on the field based on how an average team would be expected to perform, according to historical data, and for teams, we can adjust the numbers to account for strength of schedule.
|Team||Record||Offensive Rank||Defensive Rank||nERD (Rank)|
Cincinnati and Pittsburgh are extremely similar, fairly well-rounded teams. Offensively, the Bengals are 10th in schedule-adjusted NEP per play while the Steelers check in 13th. On the other side of the ball, both teams have struggled a bit. Cincy ranks 22nd in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play, and Pittsburgh is 26th.
Baltimore, on the other hand, is completely opposite of those two. Per our metrics, the Ravens have the league's worst offense -- yes, worse than the Los Angeles Rams -- but they boast the fourth-ranked defense.
While all three teams are pretty even, especially Pittsburgh and Baltimore, our metrics have the Bengals as the AFC North's best team through nine weeks.
Things continue to be tight when you look at our playoff odds. Our models give all three teams between a 28% and 37% chance of winning the division. That's good news for us as football fans, because we should get a divisional race that goes down to the wire.
There is some bad news for these three squads, though, as we don't give any of them much of a chance at a Wild Card berth -- not to mention a Super Bowl win.
|Team||Division Title Odds||Playoff Odds||Super Bowl Odds|
It's far from a significant margin, but the Ravens are bringing up the rear in terms of division odds and playoff odds. All of them rank outside our top 13 teams most likely to win the Super Bowl. In the AFC, the New England Patriots are clear frontrunners with a 24.3% chance to win it all. We give only one other AFC team -- the Denver Broncos at 7.9% -- better than a 5.0% chance of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.
Crunch Time Is Now
Every game is going to be pivotal the rest of the way, and that starts this weekend.
While the Ravens have a pretty cushy home game against the winless Browns -- Baltimore is a 10-point favorite and we have them winning 61% of the time -- Pittsburgh and Cincinnati have much tougher games.
The Bengals are on the road against the New York Giants, a game in which Cincinnati is a 2.5-point underdog. Pittsburgh gets a home meeting with the red-hot Dallas Cowboys, the best team in football, per our power rankings. The Steelers, especially the offense, have been very good at home, and Pittsburgh is installed as a 2.5-point favorite. Our models don't see eye-to-eye with Vegas on this one as we give Dallas a 57.5% chance to win.
This week is going to be a big swing game for both the Steelers and Bengals, especially because the Ravens will, in all likelihood, win their Week 10 matchup. Since 1995, teams who are 4-4 -- and this doesn't work perfectly for the Bengals because of their tie, but it's close enough -- make the postseason 30% of the time. Teams who are 5-4 have made the playoffs 47% of the time while 4-5 teams have made it a meager 14% of the time, so we're talking about a big chance in playoff odds based off the results in Week 10.
Obviously, in such a tight, three-team race, nothing will be set in stone after this week, but each win the rest of the way is going to be crucial for Cincinnati, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh. And the season should end with a bang as each of the final three weeks will feature a matchup between two of these three AFC North powers.
The Bengals host Pittsburgh in Week 15 while Baltimore closes out the season with games against the Steelers and Bengals in Weeks 16 and 17.