AFC North was considered the most exciting division in the NFL going into the season. This impression can only be confirmed after the first half of the season. So far, no team has managed to convince completely, everyone still has a chance to win the division crown – and they all meet several times. SPOX gives an overview of the Browns, Bengals, Steelers and Ravens and indicates who has the best cards in the battle for the top.
The initial situation:
Inconsistency. What characterizes almost every team this season is particularly noticeable among the Browns. The offense toppled the Chargers and Bengals, but imploded against the Patriots and Steelers. The defense dominated against the Vikings and Bears but was dismantled by the Chargers, Cardinals and Patriots. The current 5-5 record and the last place in the division are undoubtedly disappointing, but anything is possible for Kevin Stefanski’s side, including the division victory.
It goes well:
The offensive line is still strong, even though right tackle Jack Conklin has had to miss half the season due to injury. Along with Joel Bitonio and Wyatt Teller, Cleveland has the best guarding duo in the league and topples their opponents week after week in the running game. Pass blocking is not as strong as it was last year, but it is still at a high level.
The offensive floor remains high because of his own offensive line but also because of Stefanski’s pattern. The Browns have by far the most efficient running game in the league, so are capable of scoring points on the scoreboard even without a strong quarterback or an outstanding arsenal of weapons. The passing game can also be very dangerous on a good day thanks to deployments and playing action.
In defense, Myles Garrett has played absolutely outstandingly so far and is on track for Defensive Player of the Year. Thanks to its exceptional edge rushers, the defense can be dominant. After the return of Denzel Ward, the Browns proved against the Bengals the theoretical potential of this unit. This weekend, rookie Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah also celebrated his return after a month-long hiatus.
It goes wrong:
Baker Mayfield is nowhere near playing at the level hoped for – at least not consistently. Exceptional appearances like against the Texans, the Chargers or the Bengals are always followed by bad slips like against the Vikings or recently the Patriots. The former number one pick has made too many obvious mistakes – despite Stefanski’s plan help – and Mayfield has been sick for weeks. If your quarterback isn’t close to 100 percent, it weakens your own offense tremendously.
In addition, the Browns lack playmakers in the passing game. Odell Beckham Jr. never really found his way around Stefanski’s offense and now playing with the Rams, Jarvis Landry and Austin Hooper are solid options, but also no-difference players who can usurp a game. The Browns offense is going from a clear number one, the lack of compelling options individually becomes noticeable – especially when the running game can’t carry the offense.
The defense is also far too rarely able to use its potential, which arguably exists on paper. The inside defense line is a big deal, but also at the linebacker level and in the secondary it wobbles over and over again. Newcomer John Johnson III is still a long way from the hoped-for difference maker.
The biggest question mark:
Baker Mayfield. Is Mayfield a top 10 quarterback or is it the product of a very well-designed offense? This season was meant to bring clarity, but so far Mayfield’s performances have been like a roller coaster. In his current form, the 26-year-old is a small upgrade at best from Backup Case Keenum and therefore often not good enough to be able to implement the offense really well. It is doubtful whether the Browns’ defense can actually return to dominant form this season. The offense will therefore need at least a solid Mayfield, otherwise Cleveland could run out of air in the race for the play-offs.
The odds of the playoffs:
The Browns are currently in last place in the division, so reaching the playoffs will be anything but a picnic. A victory over the Lions is mandatory in the coming week, then you have to face the Ravens twice, then the Raiders, the Packers, the Steelers and the Bengals. The Browns need to score points within their own division or they face a season without making the playoffs.