Who Will Be King of the AFC North?

The Browns are an unlikely division leader, but the Steelers and Ravens might be the better teams.

After Week 7 I discussed how good the Ravens had looked and could turn the corner to take over the division. Three weeks later, each team in the AFC North is two games above .500, and it’s been a weird journey for each team. The Ravens have also gone from first-to-last in five weeks but are by no means out of the division race.

Down the stretch, each team has some questions to answer, making this division race one of the most exciting in football.

Can the Ravens reclaim the division? They're in last place right now.

Can the Browns maintain their pace after going 4-1 the last five weeks? Wins against the Raider and Buccaneers aren't that impressive, and they lost to the Jaguars too.

Do the Bengals even have a prayer? Having the worst rush defense according to numberFire's power rankings may be their downfall.

And which Ben Roethlisberger will the Steelers get for the rest of the season? The Steelers will be leaning heavily on him the rest of the way if the running game doesn't take shape.

So who will top the division in a few more weeks? Let’s dig into numberFire’s Net Expected Points and find out!

Offensive Conundrum

You did not misread that above – the Browns have gone 4-1 in the last five weeks and have won three in a row. They are by no means an offensive juggernaut, but let’s see how they compare to the rest of the division.

Weeks 8-10Adj. NEPAdj. Pass NEPAdj. Rush NEP

The Browns are just not that great on the offensive side of the ball despite their recent success. The passing offense has a positive Adjusted Pass NEP over the last three weeks, but as Jason Schandl points out, they are fairly inept right now, and their record might be a fluke.

What stands out here is the Steelers ineptitude in the running game themselves, which has actually been worse than the Browns' run game. Not that they needed any extra points in Weeks 8 and 9, but losing what is basically a touchdown per game from the running game is never good. It would have been extremely useful to have a better running game against the Jets in Week 10 as well.

But the saving grace for the Steelers has been the passing offense. Three-fourths of the passing offenses in the league haven’t contributed as many points all season than the Steelers passing offense has contributed in the last three weeks. That's not hyperbole, either. Their Adjusted Passing NEP from Week 8 to Week 10 (60.53) would rank eighth in the NFL if it was its own team.

13 passing touchdowns in three weeks will do that for a team.

The Bengals may not have the talent in the passing game the Steelers have, but they could still use some help for A.J. Green. The Bengals passing offense has lost nearly a field goal per game over the last three weeks and Andy Dalton’s tripling his interception total over the last three weeks doesn’t help. But if Jeremy Hill keeps running with a purpose and can replace Giovani Bernard until he returns - or even after - all might not be lost.

The Ravens have probably the most boring offense the last three weeks. They haven’t shot themselves in the foot but they haven’t done anything extraordinary either. Like the Browns, the timeshare at running back between Justin Forsett and Lorenzo Taliaferro may not help the team long-term, but both the rushing and passing offenses are playing about as average as you can get.

Defensive Dangers

With the Steelers speeding down the fast lane offensively two of the last three weeks and the Ravens just keeping pace in the right lane are they doing the same defensively? Enter numberFire’s Adjusted Defensive NEP metrics – where negative numbers are actually a plus! A negative NEP score indicates how many points a team has denied its opponents compared to expectation.

Weeks 8-10Adj. Def. NEPAdj. Def. Pass NEPAdj. Def. Rush NEP

Over the last three weeks, we’ve seen two stellar run defenses and two run defenses that are finally starting to hold their own. The same could be said about each pass defense unless you’re a Baltimore Raven.

It doesn’t help that the Ravens were one of two victims of Roethlishberger's touchdown assault, but allowing 27 points to a Bengals team that couldn’t muster anything against the Browns is worth taking note of.

The Ravens and Browns have performed the best as a run defense, not allowing 3.86 and 6.28 points on the ground, respectively. But again, neither team was facing a stout running game to begin with as the Bengals have the only top-10 rushing offense either team faced, and the remaining opponents are all in the bottom half of the league in rushing.

The Bengals have performed the worst defensively the last three weeks but still managed to go 2-1 over this stretch. The Bengals defense came up with a big stand at the end of the game against the Ravens and a matchup against the Jaguars will make almost any defense look good.

If we call the Ravens boring on offense, than the Steelers have been boring on defense. When you average their performances over the last three weeks, they are looking fairly average. Although, when their offense is scoring in bunches, an average defense is all you need.

Rest of Season Outlook

Over the next seven weeks we could see the division leader change nearly every week. Except for the Ravens, there are plenty of divisional games yet to be played. This will likely decide the fate of the Bengals as they face the Steelers twice in the last four weeks of the season.

The Bengals don’t have the easiest schedule as they face the Saints in Week 11 and draw the Broncos in Week 16, but the rest of the matchups offer opportunities to stay alive in the division or playoff race in the AFC. The toughest schedule belongs to the Browns. They face the Colts in Week 14 and will meet the Ravens in Week 17. The Bills and Texans won’t be easy games for them either if their offense stays stuck in neutral.

The division could very well come down to the Ravens and Steelers right now. Both are neck and neck for chances to win the division at 34% and 32%, respectively. Both teams are closer to a complete team at the moment, and both have easier schedules the rest of the way. The Ravens will take on the Saints after their bye week and have a date with the Dolphins in Week 14. The Steelers have it even easier as the Saints and Chiefs are the only two teams not 20th or worse in our power rankings that they have to face.

The Browns may lead the division, but they rank 19th overall in our power rankings. The Ravens, while last in the division, rank fifth on our list. Given the Ravens schedule and their high ranking from the numberFire metrics, it’s their division to lose. However, it’s too close to call right now and each game, especially between divisional rivals, will be pivotal for each team.