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Power Rankings: AFC North plants its flag as best in the NFL

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Sorry, Pittsburgh Steelers fans, but we’re about to get into a lot to talk about with the hierarchy of the AFC North and it’s best to get this out of the way: Your team isn’t going to maintain this.

The Steelers have one of the weirdest streaks you’ll find in the NFL. They’ve been out-gained nine straight games and somehow are 6-3. It happened again Sunday. The Packers had more yards and the Steelers won 23-19. It’s great for the Steelers to have six wins but this is beyond unsustainable. But good luck to you the rest of the way.

Now we can get to the real question, and it doesn’t include Pittsburgh: How do you rank the race in the AFC North, which is clearly the best division in the NFL this season?

We thought it would be the Baltimore Ravens in the top spot, but then Sunday’s loss to the Cleveland Browns happened. We thought the Cincinnati Bengals were the hottest team that could make a run, but they dropped a game at home to the Houston Texans. It was a reminder that all NFL teams are playing 17 one-game seasons and everything changes constantly.

The big revelation on Sunday was the Browns. They trailed most of the game, then a fluky pick 6 turned the momentum of the game and they won on the final play. Cleveland is 6-3. The Ravens still lead the division at 7-3 but it’s a lot closer now. The Bengals loom at 5-4. And fine, Steelers fans, they’re still around at 6-3.

How can you decipher who ends up on top?

What will make the race even more interesting is the Ravens and Bengals have two of the four toughest schedules remaining, according to Tankathon. The Bengals have the toughest remaining schedule in the NFL. The Ravens are fourth. The Browns are all the way down at 22nd. That’s a huge edge to the Browns.

It’s also important to note the Bengals are 0-2 in the division. Every other AFC North team has two division wins. There’s plenty of time for tiebreakers to be sorted out, if it even comes down to that, but having two fewer wins in division play than any of the other three teams is not good.

Then comes the most important factor, and that’s which AFC North team is playing the best. The Ravens looked like the best team in football last week so it’s hard to dismiss Baltimore after one loss, but the Browns’ win on Sunday will change the perception of them. The Browns are 5-1 in Deshaun Watson‘s starts. In one of those games he was knocked out of early against the Colts, but 4-1 is still telling. Watson had a great second half Sunday. It was easily his best half with the Browns. Cleveland was down after Watson struggled in the first half, and then it changed against one of the best pass defenses in the NFL. Regardless of whether anyone believes the Browns made the right move by trading for Watson and giving him a massive contract, they’re obviously better when he’s playing. If he’s finally healthy from a shoulder injury and can look like the player we just saw leading a second-half comeback at Baltimore, there’s plenty of time for the Browns to win the division.

One last-second loss shouldn’t entirely change the way we view the Ravens. They were off to a phenomenal start before Sunday, with two of the most impressive wins of the season in blowouts against the Seahawks and Lions. They still deserve to be ranked first among the AFC North teams, for now. But the Browns have by far the easiest schedule and could be the team on the rise. The Bengals might need a win against Baltimore on Thursday night to remain a factor in the conversation.

Like everything else in the NFL this season, things are much murkier in the AFC North than they seemed to be before Sunday’s games.

Cleveland Browns cornerback Greg Newsome II returns an interception for a touchdown against the Ravens on Sunday. (AP Photo/Terrance Williams)

Here are the power rankings after Week 10 of the NFL season:

Giants quarterback Tommy DeVito had 44 yards passing before New York had a meaningless final drive in a blowout loss. Meanwhile, the Giants allowed more than 600 yards to Dallas. It was not NFL football. The Giants have plenty of injury issues but other teams do too and they don’t look this terrible.

It would be OK if the Panthers decided to sit down Bryce Young and start Andy Dalton. Young is struggling as a rookie and in a bad situation, there has to be concern about ruining his confidence. Playing Dalton would let Young take a breath. Carolina hasn’t given any indication it’s considering the move, but that might change if Young continues to struggle.

A wild stat went viral on Monday. The Patriots rushed for 167 yards, allowed 10 points and still lost to the Colts. According to @bostonsportsinf, that broke a streak of 266 straight wins for NFL teams that rushed for at least 150 yards and gave up 10 or fewer points. If you wanted any more proof of how awful that loss in Germany was for the Patriots.

Kyler Murray made a big difference. It was surprising to see him moving as well as he did in his first game back from a torn ACL. The Cardinals still might not be great the rest of the season but they’re not unwatchable anymore.

The Bears were not ready to say on Monday if Justin Fields will make his return from a thumb injury this week. They’ll determine that in the next few days. It’s smart; the Bears have been OK without Fields and when he returns it should be at full health, so they can get a fair evaluation of him before the end of the season.

It looks like Matthew Stafford will return from a thumb injury this week, after the Rams’ bye week. That’s probably for the best, but it might have been fun to see Carson Wentz play again.

Jordan Love is playing better. That might be a backhanded compliment because he struggled so much earlier in the season, but there is improvement. He had 289 yards against a tough Steelers defense on Sunday, though he also threw two late interceptions in the loss. It’s not like the Packers are going to bench him; he’ll get the rest of the season to show if he can be the starter in 2024.

Will Levis was under constant pressure on Sunday, largely because the Titans couldn’t run the ball and keep the Buccaneers’ defense honest. Sunday was a big step back for Levis but that’s not unexpected. There will be plenty of ups and downs the rest of the way, and the Titans just have to hope he does enough to become a viable 2024 starting quarterback candidate.

Sam Howell has three 300-yard games in a row. He took at least four sacks in each of his first six starts, and hasn’t taken more than three sacks in his past three games. He didn’t throw an interception Sunday and led the Commanders on a game-tying drive in the final minute. Howell leads the NFL in passing yards. Howell’s steady improvement is a very cool story that probably isn’t getting enough attention.

At least the Falcons’ Week 10 loss didn’t happen because Bijan Robinson was still being used as a decoy. Maybe that’s even worse. The Falcons featured Robinson, as they should, and they still fell short to a Cardinals team that had just one win coming in. This team should be winning the NFC South, given their schedule. They’re just not good enough to take advantage.

Linebacker Robert Spillane, who was undrafted out of Western Michigan in 2018, never got a chance to be a regular starter with the Titans or Steelers. He joined the Raiders, got a shot at a full-time starting job at age 28 and is having a fine season. His interception in the final two minutes on Sunday was a crucial play in Las Vegas’ win. He might get some Pro Bowl consideration.

The Buccaneers had a nice rebound on defense after getting shredded by C.J. Stroud in Week 9. On Sunday, the Bucs shut down the Titans against the run and pass. In an NFC South that’s again the worst division in the NFL, maybe it’s the Buccaneers who will steal it. Nobody else seems to want it.

The Colts took care of business against a bad Patriots team. It wasn’t pretty but at least they didn’t lose, which they would have if Mac Jones didn’t blow a potential touchdown pass to Mike Gesicki in the fourth quarter. The Colts probably aren’t a playoff-quality team but they’re still in the race.

The Saints lost a game in which they were favored, Derek Carr suffered a concussion, and receiver Michael Thomas and cornerback Marshon Lattimore suffered injuries that could cost them some time. The frustrating, disappointing Saints are blowing a winnable division and their path won’t get easier with those injuries.

The Jets have a pattern. They struggle badly on offense on Sunday, then on Monday head coach Robert Saleh defends quarterback Zach Wilson. The Jets haven’t scored a touchdown in 36 straight possessions and yet Saleh said Monday that he thinks Wilson played a good game. Sure. Saleh has to say that because the Jets don’t have many options, but nobody is buying it. Probably not the Jets’ players either.

Do you like constant change, which often has no connection to anything you previously watched or knew? I have the football league just for you. The Broncos were 1-5 and were legitimately bad. They’ve won three in a row since then, and have back-to-back wins against the Chiefs and Bills. Go figure that out. Or figure anything out in this weird NFL season.

The Chargers have given up the second-most yards in the NFL, the most passing yards and the third-most net yards per pass attempt via Pro Football Reference. This is not the defense the Chargers signed up for when they hired Brandon Staley, who was previously the Rams’ defensive coordinator. If the defense doesn’t turn around, that’s what will cost Staley his head coaching job.

The Steelers might become a full ground-and-pound team the rest of the way. Jaylen Warren had 101 rushing yards Sunday and Najee Harris had 82 in a win. Kenny Pickett might get there as a top quarterback, maybe he won’t, but he’s definitely not there in Year 2. The weather is getting worse and we might see Pittsburgh go full old-school football.

Twelve men on the field? Really? Nothing sums up the sloppy Bills this season better than that inexcusable penalty on a Broncos field-goal miss, which gave Denver another shot and handed Buffalo a loss. This is turning out to be a nightmare for the Bills.

The Vikings haven’t lost a game by more than seven points all season. They could easily be better than 6-4. It’s hard to know if all this is sustainable. But as the weeks go on, it’s clear that Kevin O’Connell is a prime Coach of the Year candidate and the Vikings are in great position to make the playoffs in a top-heavy NFC.

The Bengals looked like a team that was looking ahead. They face the Ravens on Thursday in a massive AFC North showdown. The problem is that the Bengals’ surprising home loss to the Texans in Week 10 puts them in a much more desperate spot for Thursday’s game.

The Texans have the fourth-easiest remaining schedule in the NFL and the easiest in the AFC according to Tankathon. Everyone has seemingly caught on to C.J. Stroud being an MVP candidate but for him to have any real chance, Houston needs to make the playoffs. There hasn’t been an MVP from a non-playoff team since 1973. With the Texans’ soft schedule, they have a shot at the postseason.

Geno Smith looked as good as he has all season. He threw for 369 yards and more important, he didn’t turn the ball over. The Seahawks probably should have put the Commanders away much earlier than they did, but it was a win and Smith’s big game is a good sign.

The Jaguars are still a good team. Just not great. Definitely not good enough at home. They need more out of Trevor Lawrence. He has nine touchdowns and six interceptions, with a middling 89.3 passer rating. The Jaguars are still good enough to win the AFC South but if they’re going to be more than a mediocre division winner then they need more out of the passing offense.

Another positive sign for Cleveland on Sunday was seeing Jerome Ford reemerge. He had 107 rushing yards on 17 carries. It looked like he was over an ankle injury that had limited him. The Browns still miss Nick Chubb but Ford should be an asset to the offense going forward.

When you put up 640 yards against a bad team like Dallas did Sunday, everyone should put up big numbers. Yet, Tony Pollard had 55 yards on 15 carries. Backup Rico Dowdle had a better day (79 yards and a touchdown). For the season Pollard has 529 rushing yards, two touchdowns and a 3.9-yard average. And if he didn’t do much Sunday against the Giants, it’s probably not happening this season.

The Dolphins should get rookie running back De’Von Achane back this week, or soon after. He has returned to practice. If he looks like he did before his injury, that adds another big-time playmaker for Dolphins opponents to worry about.

I wonder if getting Keaton Mitchell involved more will help the offense. He had a big game in Week 9, then in Week 10 he turned four touches into 66 yards. That included an impressive 39-yard touchdown run. Home run ability like he’s showing is unique, and the Ravens might benefit from seeing him in an expanded role.

Sometimes there’s a difference between these power rankings and what I think will happen by the end of the season. I don’t think it’s right to have the 49ers first in the power rankings right now. They did have a three-game losing streak. But after watching the 49ers destroy a good Jaguars team on Sunday, I’m back to believing that’s the best team in football and that they’re going to win a Super Bowl. They’ll be back to No. 1 before long.

This is how you know the Lions are rolling on offense: They had a pass play called on Sunday but the wrong personnel was on the field. They needed two tight ends for the called play but somehow they had only one on the field. So Jared Goff changed the play at the line to a run, and David Montgomery went for a 75-yard touchdown.

“We were laughing about it,” Goff said, via MLive.com. “You do all this planning through the week — Monday to Saturday — of what you want to do, and make everything perfect. Then we basically mess it up, and it’s a 75-yard touchdown. But that’s a credit to a good team.”

Nobody should care what players do on their bye weeks, and Travis Kelce going to Argentina to see some Taylor Swift shows isn’t a big deal. But if Kelce struggles after the bye, you’re going to hear a lot about that vacation. It’s inevitable.

The Eagles take back the top spot but it might not last long. Their next five games are at Chiefs, vs. Bills, vs. 49ers, at Cowboys, at Seahawks. On the other hand, if they win four or five of those games there will be little doubt over who’s the best team in the NFL.

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