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AFC North Preview: Week 12

Detroit Lions v Cleveland Browns Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Week 11 in the NFL proved to be a wild one in many ways, not the least of which happened to be all the action that took place in the AFC North. This is a division that’s proving itself to be, if not the best in the league, the deepest on offer amongst the eight.

The Browns grounded out a win against the hapless Lions to steer their admittedly crippled ship to a 6-5 record, while the Bengals did the same over the equally shipwrecked Raiders in Vegas to make their mark 6-4 on the year. That put Cincinnati in second place in the division as Pittsburgh’s late rally in Los Angeles wasn’t enough to push them past the Chargers last Sunday Night. The Steelers are now at a bizarre 5-4-1 ahead of a crucial clash with the aforementioned Bengals this coming Sunday.

As we all well know, the Ravens got it done in their matchup against the Bears in Chicago despite the late change at quarterback they had to endure. Thanks to Tyler Huntley’s late-game heroics, Baltimore enters another divisional game against Cleveland this coming Sunday night at 7-3. They have a big chance to gain more ground on a division that figures to continue to beat itself up over the next several weeks.

That starts this Sunday as all four teams meet across two different games. Without further ado, let’s take a look at them.

Pittsburgh Steelers @ Cincinnati Bengals (-3.5), 1:00 PM

Cincinnati Bengals v Las Vegas Raiders Photo by Chris Unger/Getty Images

This feels like a meeting of old and new to an extent that we haven’t always been afforded in the AFC North, as at least two of the franchises within the division have been the picture of consistency. In the case of Pittsburgh, though, they may be the face of rigidity when it comes to their quarterback situation — especially when you look around at the rest of the teams in this group.

That’s probably about as true as Joe Burrow as it is with the other two at this point, as his cerebral play and rugged self-belief have the Bengals in playoff contention for the first time since the heyday of Andy Dalton. It hasn’t been perfect, though. Early victories over this same Pittsburgh team as well as a big win in Baltimore have since given way to some ugly outings against teams such as the Jets and the Browns — who they dropped a home game to.

The Bengals’ win over Las Vegas wasn’t exactly pretty but showed their extra dimension in Joe Mixon’s exceptional day on the ground (123 yards, two touchdowns), which is a nice tool to have in the bag considering they’ve at times seemed over-reliant on their passing attack. Still though, they rank 23rd in offensive DVOA across the league, which would seem to be more of a concern if Pittsburgh’s defense was any better than 25th in the same category.

The Steelers were impressive in the second half against the Chargers, and there may be something to the fact that their offense (stagnant at times for much of this season) looked much more effective when moving quickly and not trying to force the issue with Najee Harris and their inefficient rushing attack (No. 26 in DVOA). Even so, the precedent is there for the Bengals to win this one and march forward in the race for the division.

It’s their defense that stands out in this group in terms of efficiency (No. 15 in DVOA) and their offense, while strugglers at times, have shown themselves to be much more dynamic than what the Steelers have to offer. That includes in the first matchup between these two, when the Bengals went into Heinz Field and won comfortably on the strength of three touchdown passes from Joe Burrow. These aren’t the exact same teams that played on that day but with the numbers shaking out the way they are (and the fact that the Bengals are at home here), logic dictates that Cincy gets it done.

Cleveland Browns @ Baltimore Ravens (-3.5), 8:25 PM

Baltimore Ravens v Chicago Bears Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

I’ll preface this comment with the fact that I’m at least slightly biased, but it’s hard not to get the feeling that these two teams (in spite of similar records) are heading in opposite directions. The Ravens rode a momentous drive from their second-year undrafted backup quarterback to a road victory in the face of a crushing defeat last week. Meanwhile, the Browns’ starting quarterback continues to play injured and take (potentially justified, but still ugly) potshots at fans who booed their ineptitude on offense against Detroit.

At 6-5, the mood is surly surrounding the Browns, especially considering this is a franchise that won just one game in over two years relatively recently. Baker Mayfield has been the face of the fairly remarkable turnaround since then. However, it’s his inconsistent play that’s partially contributing to the aforementioned saltiness emanating from this fanbase and organization. In that sense, a victory this Sunday Night in Baltimore would do a lot to lighten to mood.

As far as the numerical breakdown, Cleveland actually has the edge on both sides of the ball as far as DVOA goes, with their offense (No. 12) edging Baltimore’s (No. 14), and their defense having a similar edge (No. 24 vs. No. 27). Part of the Browns’ offensive advantage in this category likely comes from the fact that they’re much more dynamic, clocking in as the first overall team in the league in rushing DVOA and No. 18 in passing. Baltimore ranks sixth and 17th in these respective categories.

The Ravens offense is strange to quantify though, as they’ve recently played a game without Lamar Jackson, as well as one where they may as well not have even had him as they produced their worst offensive effort of his career against the Dolphins. This matchup seems to come down to one specific player: Myles Garrett, and how he’s deployed against the Ravens makeshift offensive line. No matter what the numbers say, he’s capable of wrecking games, and could certainly be a threat to do so against Alejandro Villanueva or Patrick Mekari.

On the other side of the ball, Mayfield has actually aired the ball out at a good clip this season, clocking in amongst the top handful of starters in the league with 9.13 Average Depth of Target. One of his top weapons in this respect, Donovan Peoples-Jones, is questionable with a groin injury, which could potentially keep Cleveland focus on the run game and short passing attack.

This may not be much of a hindrance though, as Jack Conklin and Kareem Hunt return at right tackle and running back, two big pieces that should open things up in the trenches, and in the short passing game. Despite their struggles this year, Cleveland’s talent suggests Don “Wink” Martindale’s unit (strugglers pretty much all year) may just have their hands full in this one.

Ultimately, as cliché as it sounds, this game may just come down to Mayfield. He’s an inconsistent quarterback in the best of times. With all that’s gone on with his health (and mental state) recently, it stands to reason to wonder if he’s ready to go into a hostile environment and pull out a win against a team that seems to be in a much better headspace.

The line has crept closer to Cleveland’s favor as we approach this one, but Baltimore is still more than a field goal’s favorite to emerge victorious. If Jackson returns to the lineup with a bang as many are expecting, there’s no reason why they can’t pull out another win at home, even if it proves closer than some may think.