Resetting AFC North: Browns contenders? Bengals the favorite?

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Updated: October 10, 2018

The Cincinnati Bengals are in first place with four wins in their first five games. The Pittsburgh Steelers are a weekly drama show with a 45.8 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to ESPN’s FPI. Joe Flacco is averaging almost 50 pass attempts per game for the 3-2 Baltimore Ravens. And the Cleveland Browns have not only won a game (or two), but you could also make a compelling case for how they could be 5-0.

What to make of the wild AFC North through five games? Our division reporters weigh in on the surprises, an X factor for the rest of the way and whether the Browns are a threat to win the AFC North.

Who or what is the biggest surprise in the division?

Jeremy Fowler, Steelers reporter: The league’s fourth-ranked scoring offense coming from southwest Ohio. The Bengals are 4-1, Andy Dalton is back to his 2015 form, and a once-maligned offensive line has perked up. Watching the Cincinnati offense carve up opponents has changed the dynamic in a much-improved division. The lack of sustained excellence under Marvin Lewis makes the Bengals easy to write off as talented but erratic. It looks like they are replacing that last part with more consistency and two really good running backs.

Jamison Hensley, Ravens reporter: Le’Veon Bell‘s no-show. Everyone expected Bell to skip training camp and preseason because of the franchise tag, but the Steelers and the rest of the football world were caught off-guard when Bell failed to report at the start of the regular season. It’s been a lose-lose situation. Bell’s absence has cost him $855,000 per week and perhaps the respect of his teammates (judging by the initial comments from the Pittsburgh locker room). Without Bell, the Steelers have fallen to 27th in the NFL in rushing and to the bottom of the division. The consensus favorite to win the AFC North, Pittsburgh is 2-2-1, which includes going winless in both of its division games.

Pat McManamon, Browns reporter: The easy answer is to say the Browns being 2-2-1 and on the verge of contending, but the best answer is the play of Dalton and the Bengals. Did anyone outside of southern Ohio pick the Bengals to win the division in preseason? Dalton is playing at a high level; his 94.9 rating is obscured only because so many quarterbacks are off to strong starts. A.J. Green looks like his old self, and Joe Mixon has backed up the faith the team showed in drafting him. Geno Atkins is also back at an elite level. He is tied for the league lead in sacks and is making plays all over the field. Few gave the Bengals much of a chance when making preseason picks. The retaining of Lewis was given shrugs. But Cincinnati has started by winning four of five and has Green saying: “This team is different.” We’ll learn more on Sunday, when the Bengals play Pittsburgh.

Katherine Terrell, Bengals reporter: The Bengals. It was expected that the Browns would be better this year after they appeared to have a successful offseason, but the Bengals’ turnaround has surprised a lot of people after it was assumed that Lewis would be out at the end of last season. The Bengals’ offense has done a 180 from last year, when the team fired its offensive coordinator after just two games, and Andy Dalton is playing some of his best football in years. The Bengals have a lot of young talent that has come along more quickly than anyone expected.

Are the Browns legitimate contenders to win the division?

Fowler: Not quite yet. The Browns are trending upward because they are more talented — and mentally tougher — than in years past. They are a nice story and one the people of Cleveland deserve! But leaping to the stratosphere of double-digit-win seasons is premature. The 28th-ranked total defense has work to do, the offensive line isn’t completely repaired, and Baker Mayfield will experience enough freshman moments to offset the brilliance.

Hensley: Not this year, even though you can make a case for the Browns being undefeated at this point. Cleveland is still going through growing pains with a young roster. That has shown up in penalties (the Browns rank ninth in the NFL) and late mistakes (four turnovers in fourth quarter or overtime). The Browns have the look of a six- to seven-win team. The arrow, though, is pointing up. Cleveland has found its franchise quarterback in Baker Mayfield and has the best rookie defender in the NFL in cornerback Denzel Ward. For once, the Browns have more than talent. They have the confidence that they can win.

McManamon: Not yet, but it’s getting close. The Browns have two elements that should keep them in all games. The first is the quarterback play. Mayfield has elevated the entire team with improved play from the most important position on the team. It’s something the Browns have lacked, and now that Mayfield is doing it, it’s clear why the position is so important and why it has been such a drag on the team for so many years. The second is an attacking, turnover-forcing defense that is legitimate. With Myles Garrett and Larry Ogunjobi up front and Ward and his cohorts in the secondary, the Browns will be in every game. As for contending, don’t despair. It’s close. But let’s see them get over .500 before starting the contenders chatter.

Terrell: Maybe, but it’s unlikely. The Browns are certainly a better and more talented team than the one that went winless last season. They have a good defense and a talented quarterback in Mayfield. But it would be quite the leap to assume that they’re going to be contenders for a division title this year. The Browns have gone to overtime three times this season, and they’ve had to fight hard for their 2-2-1 record. But it’s clear that this is a different Browns team that can’t be counted out completely.

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Tim Hasselbeck predicts that the Cincinnati Bengals may be the surprise team this season, rising in this week’s Power Rankings.

_____ is the biggest X factor for the rest of the season in the AFC North race.

Fowler: Flacco’s fluctuation along the quarterback spectrum is well-worn terrain. He has been good enough to win a Super Bowl and bad enough for the Ravens to draft Lamar Jackson. But right now, he’s pacing for 4,960 yards over 16 games, and his defense is good enough to handle the rest. A mildly hot, occasionally mistake-free Flacco might just be a 12-win Flacco under the current setup.

Hensley: Dalton. Cincinnati is the AFC North’s best team through five weeks. Whether the Bengals stay atop the division depends on Dalton. He has been the best barometer of success for Cincinnati. Over the past five seasons, Dalton has produced a 104.5 passer rating in 37 wins, throwing 69 touchdowns and 22 interceptions. In 27 losses, he has a 75.7 rating with 27 touchdowns and 26 interceptions. Dalton is surrounded by talented skill players and an aggressive defense. But his accuracy and decision-making are the biggest factors. The last time the Bengals won the AFC North was 2015, when Dalton delivered his career-best 106.2 passer rating.

McManamon: Mayfield. Pick a word. Fire. Gumption. Chutzpah. Moxie. Mayfield has shown all of them. To step in as a rookie and start guiding the offense the way he has has been more than impressive. He shows the vital importance of the quarterback position and how not finding the guy has held the Browns back. There will be hurdles. Teams are gaining film on Mayfield, and they will start to adjust to what he likes to do. At that point, Mayfield and the coaches will have to adjust as well. If Mayfield sustains what he has started — and what he has started is more than impressive — the Browns can say they are back as a legitimate NFL team.

Terrell: It might be cliché, but it’s often the healthiest team that’s the last one left standing at the end of the season. That can’t be overstated enough in the physical AFC North. This is a division in which the teams tend to beat each other down, especially in rivalry games such as Steelers vs. Bengals and Steelers vs. Ravens. Injuries might have already knocked teams such as the Falcons out of contention, while the Bengals were able to win two games after losing tight end Tyler Eifert. The health situation of each team likely will turn out to be the deciding factor come January.

Article source: http://www.espn.com/blog/nflnation/post/_/id/284093/resetting-the-afc-north-browns-chances-biggest-surprises-more