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State of the AFC North: Week 8

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The Ravens and Browns suffer back-to-back losses while the Bengals and Steelers gain ground in the division.

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Carolina Panthers Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Now officially at the halfway point of the season, the AFC North is slowly beginning to take shape. After a third consecutive victory, the Steelers are currently the hottest team in the division and occupy first place with a 4-2-1 record.

The Bengals bounced back after a blowout loss to Kansas City, improving to 5-3 after a narrow victory against the Buccaneers. Baltimore suffered a blowout loss of their own to the Panthers, dropping them to 4-4 and third place in the division.

After their defeat to the Steelers, the Browns remain in fourth place with a 2-5-1 record. The next divisional matchup takes place next week, when the Steelers travel to Baltimore to take on the Ravens.

Panthers defeat Ravens: 36-21

Baltimore crumbles in a big moment

In what was almost a must-win game, the Ravens put forth one of their worst overall performances in recent memory. On both sides of the ball, Baltimore was significantly outplayed and had no answers.

A top-ranked defense was shredded all afternoon by Cam Newton, just a week after the Saints had their way with Baltimore in the fourth quarter of Week 7. Newton and the Panthers offense picked apart the Ravens early and often.

It wasn’t any prettier on offense, either. Dropped passes, turnovers, and pass interference penalties proved costly. The Ravens never got into a rhythm after scoring on the opening drive and were outscored 17-0 in the second quarter.

Is the Lamar Jackson era near?

When the Ravens selected Lamar Jackson in the draft, people immediately began speculating how long it would be until he took over as the starting quarterback in Baltimore. It’s too early to jump the gun just yet, but that moment could be on the horizon.

In the big picture, Joe Flacco has not had a bad season, especially compared to recent years. However, he’s certainly cooled off after a hot start and his performance against the Panthers on Sunday was simply brutal.

If the Ravens lose to Pittsburgh in Week 8, they'll head into the bye week multiple games back in the division with a 4-5 record. In this scenario, the coaching staff would probably stick with Flacco for at least the next several games with the hopes of a turnaround.

However, should the Ravens playoff hopes appear dire, they should consider turning the reins over to Jackson and allow him to further develop with the offense. Depending on how the next few weeks go, we could see the beginning of a new era in Baltimore.

Steelers defeat Browns: 33-18

Remarkable turnaround continues

Since Pittsburgh’s loss to Baltimore in Week 4, the Steelers are 3-0 with victories against the Falcons, Bengals, and Browns. It’s an impressive stretch and turn of events after the first quarter of the season, which was filled with drama and locker room dysfunction.

Over this stretch, the Steelers have outscored their opponents 102-56. Their defense is still a work in progress, but they’ve certainly improved as the season has gone along. Pittsburgh is giving up just 18.6 points during their 3-0 run.

The schedule is no cakewalk from here on out with upcoming matchups against the Ravens, Panthers and Jaguars. However, the Steelers demise was clearly greatly exaggerated and Pittsburgh is alone atop the division at the halfway mark.

No Bell, No Problem

All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell was expected to return to the team after the Week 7 bye, marking an end to his contract-related holdout. However, he has still yet to report to the team and Pittsburgh has reportedly not been in contact with him.

Obviously, having Bell back in the fold would be a big boost to the Steelers offense and playoff aspirations. However, they’re doing just fine without him thanks to the continued emergence of James Conner.

Conner, one of the leading rushers in the NFL this season, had another big game on Sunday. He rushed for 146 yards and two touchdowns, adding another 66 yards through the air and five receptions.

Browns fall to Steelers: 18-33

Cleveland’s descent continues

After the Browns victory over the Ravens in Week 5, it appeared they could potentially make some noise in the AFC North this season. Baker Mayfield was progressing, the defense was clicking and they were 2-2-1 on the season.

Since then, however, things have taken a downward spiral. Cleveland has lost three games in a row, two of which were double-digit defeats. The Browns have not been particularly impressive on either side of the ball, and it shows in their lack of success.

After winning zero games last season, the expectations for Cleveland this year were not very high to begin with. However, it’s been discouraging to see them take a step backward after a promising start.

Offense lacks explosion

The Browns offense has shown promise at points throughout the season, but Sunday’s performance against the Steelers was certainly a forgettable one. Cleveland’s offense could simply not get anything going.

Baker Mayfield threw for two touchdowns, but he also tossed an interception and threw for just 5.0 yards per attempt. Jarvis Landry was the leading receiver on the day, but his gained just 39 yards on eight receptions.

Second-year tight end David Njoku, who had come on strong in recent weeks, was surprisingly not targeted on Sunday. The Browns totaled just 237 yards of total offense which will simply not win you many, if any, games in today’s NFL.

New head coach

Early Monday morning, the Cleveland Browns have announced that Hue Jackson has been relieved of his duties. Jackson was 3-36-1 during his tenure in Cleveland. Interestingly enough, the last six Browns head coaches were fired following the Browns’ second game against the Steelers.

Bengals defeat Buccaneers: 37-34

Cincinnati avoids a disaster

The Bengals jumped out to an early lead and outplayed Tampa Bay for nearly the entire contest. However, despite holding a 27-9 advantage at halftime, Cincinnati nearly let the game slip away late.

After intercepting Jameis Winston for a fourth time, Ryan Fitzpatrick took over at quarterback and provided an instant spark for the Buccaneers. Fitzpatrick led Tampa Bay to score 18 unanswered points in the fourth quarter, tying the game at 34 with a minute left.

Andy Dalton and A.J. Green ultimately put the Bengals in position to hit a game-winning field goal and escape with a victory, but it was not exactly an encouraging victory. However, a win is a win, and the Bengals now occupy sole possession of 2nd place in the division.

Mixon, Boyd have arrived

For years, the Bengals have been searching for offensive playmakers to assist Andy Dalton and take some pressure off All-Pro wide receiver A.J. Green. Outside of Green, the Bengals offense has lacked consistency from its skill positions.

However, based on the performances of Tyler Boyd and Joe Mixon thus far this season, it appears they’ve found two long-term fixtures at wide receiver and running back. Boyd and Mixon continue to emerge as every-down contributors.

Against the Buccaneers, Boyd caught 9 receptions for 138 yards and a touchdown. Mixon had arguably his best game of the season, rushing 21 times for 123 yards and two touchdowns.