In a league that stands for “Not For Long,” you would think that we as fans would be accustomed to a little bit of uncertainty. That may be the case to an extent, but those limits are being pushed to their breaking points in the 2021 NFL, especially as it pertains to the AFC.
In the past few weeks and months, we’ve seen the presumed powerhouse Chiefs scratch and claw to stay above .500, the Bills drop a game to the Urban Meyer-led clown car in Jacksonville, and the Ravens do the same to a rudderless Dolphins team that seemed to have already packed it in this year.
Baltimore’s loss was certainly bad, but they remain atop the AFC North after a weekend that saw Cleveland suffer a psyche-shattering beatdown at the hands of Mac Jones and the Patriots; and the Ben Roethlisberger-less Steelers somehow earn negative style points in a bizarre 16-16 tie with the Lions. With the Bengals on a bye week, no one was able to take the proverbial leap to the top, leaving the standings looking like this:
- Ravens 6-3
- Steelers 5-3-1
- Bengals 5-4
- Browns 5-5
While each fanbase has had their own gripes with their teams, this is objectively the picture of a very competitive group. All of these teams are talented and (for the most part) very well-coached outfits that are capable of winning week in and week out. As a result, the Ravens will need to buckle down and keep their head on a swivel as we head into the second half of the year if they’d like to keep the crown they currently possess.
With that in mind, let’s take a look around the division to see what’s taking place this weekend in AFC North action.
Cincinnati Bengals (-1) @ Las Vegas Raiders, 4:05PM
The Bengals are an interesting test case in the “cart getting ahead of the horse” as it relates to young, talented teams. Their win in Baltimore feels like a lifetime ago at this point and at 5-4, it’s quite obvious that at this point they’ll be more worried about keeping their heads above water than where they rank amongst the AFC’s elite. If there’s a “get-right” game to be had on a schedule right now though, Las Vegas might just be the perfect pick.
After an extremely promising start to the season for the Raiders, they’ve gone in a tailspin following the fallout of the Jon Gruden firing and the tragedy surrounding Henry Ruggs II. Despite all of this, the efficiency numbers point to this not being a cakewalk for Cincinnati.
Football Outsider’s DVOA rating has the Bengals offense as the 23rd most efficient in the NFL, and their defense as the 20th in that category; conversely, the Raiders offense is 21st in DVOA, and their defense is 23rd. By the sound of it, we’re looking at two evenly matched teams, and the fact that the game is being played on west coast time in a home setting for the Raiders should give the Bengals plenty to think about, especially given their recent two game skid.
Against a pass defense that’s No. 22 in DVOA, this might be the perfect spot for Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase to get back on the historic tear they were on together. If they don’t though, they’ll be kicking themselves; 5-5 with half of a football season left to play in this division simply isn’t where you want to be.
Pittsburgh Steelers @ Los Angeles Chargers (-6.5), 8:20PM (SNF)
If the Bengals are the poster boys for a young team getting too far out over their skis, the Steelers are that for the case of a veteran team that has every excuse to go into the tank — but refuses to because of excellent coaching and organizational philosophy.
Unfortunately for them, that only gets you so far. The wear and tear on Ben Roethlisberger finally seems to be catching up with the franchise that’s been so dependent on his right arm for the past 15 years. Speaking of which, as of Thursday we don’t know whether or not he’ll be suiting up in this game. The word out of the Steelers camp seeming to indicate that both he and Mason Rudolph are being prepped as if they’ll get the nod at quarterback.
It’s honestly hard to tell how much of a difference it makes at this point. Roethlisberger is a competent enough game manager, but simply doesn’t push the ball like he used to. For context, his average depth of target sits at 6.7 yards, below the likes of Jimmy Garoppolo, Sam Darnold, Mac Jones, and plenty of other starters. It would make sense then that Pittsburgh’s offense stands out like a bit of a sore thumb in the DVOA matchup, ranking 22nd in the league vs their 14th ranked defense. For context, Los Angeles is 18th in defensive efficiency, and No. 6 on the offensive side of the ball. That is what you call a mismatch.
Despite all of the numbers pointing one way or the other, I’ll always have faith that Mike Tomlin can keep a game (especially one like this featuring a young quarterback) to within a touchdown. That would constitute a cover in this case, and that would be admirable considering it’s a west coast game that’s taking place after all the strangeness the Steelers have endured for the past few weeks. They likely wouldn’t be satisfied, but as we’ve already noted, they’re playing a conference where just about anything can happen.
If god forbid they can somehow win this, it would be huge for their prospects moving forward.
Cleveland Browns (-11.5) vs. Detroit Lions, 1PM
Speaking of a “get-right” game, this is just what the doctor ordered for 5-5 Cleveland. A tie technically constituted getting off the schneid for winless Detroit last week, but it was a small comfort given they couldn’t get it done over Mason Rudolph in nearly 5 quarters with multiple chances to steal a win.
This one should be fairly simple. Regardless of the numbers, the Browns better hope they can get it done at home vs. an outfit like this, or they can more or less kiss any hopes of a postseason berth in 2021 goodbye. That’s whether it’s Baker Mayfield, Case Keenum, or whoever is pulling the trigger; a win here keeps them (somewhat) in the mix and that’s all they should be focused on. Just like the Ravens (and the other two teams in question), their mind should be on one thing: surviving and advancing in the AFC North.