Each week during the regular season, our crew of AFC North writers will tackle the division’s biggest storylines, most important games, top players and other headlines in a roundtable format. It’s time for Week 17.
It was a big weekend in the AFC North. The Ravens, Browns and Steelers flexed their muscles. The Bengals’ playoff hopes, and Jake Browning’s Cinderella story, took a major hit. What performance, good or bad, individual or team-wide, was most notable to you?
Jeff Zrebiec (Ravens): I’ll cheat a bit here and say a team and individual. The Ravens are that team. It wasn’t just about them winning on the 49ers’ home field — it was how they did it. They took it to San Francisco physically, and that’s especially notable given the belief that the 49ers were the best and one of the most physical teams in football. To their credit, the Browns keep putting pressure on the Ravens to hold serve, and Baltimore keeps doing it. The individual is Cleveland’s Amari Cooper. How do you ignore 265 yards receiving and two touchdowns? Cooper has been a damn good player in this league for a long time, and you rarely hear his name mentioned when people start talking about the better receivers in the NFL. Kudos to him for being such a consistent force.
With physicality and playmaking, Ravens send message in dominant victory over 49ers
Zac Jackson (Browns): Given how dominant the 49ers had been over the previous six weeks, I have to say the Ravens bullying them in Santa Clara, Calif., was most notable. But I also think the Browns scored their most impressive win since Week 10 in Baltimore. With the way Joe Flacco is just launching passes to every inch of the field, he and the Browns are not just a feel-good story of surprise and redemption — they’re a really good team, and peaking at the right time. A three-game December win streak in most cases is good enough to win a division, and it looks like the Ravens will keep the Browns from doing that. But I think this division has mostly lived up to its billing as the league’s best and deepest. To paraphrase another great Akron-born philosopher, everything these AFC North teams that make the postseason get will have been earned.
Mark Kaboly (Steelers): I can’t dismiss what the Ravens did to the 49ers on the road or how Flacco has continued to impress, but I will stay close to home with this one. What Mason Rudolph was able to do against the Bengals after two years of inactivity and only three starts removed from the Myles Garrett game was phenomenal. Out of all the backup quarterbacks who have played this year (and there have been plenty), nobody would’ve thought Rudolph would’ve been a part of that. If you think Rudolph was a punchline to a joke nationally, it was even worse in Pittsburgh. But his 290-yard, two-touchdown performance against Cincinnati not only has kept the Steelers’ playoff hopes alive, but it gave them a real shot to sneak in if they win their final two games at Seattle and Baltimore. It also turned the city into a pro-Rudolph town, which seemed impossible a week ago.
Playing not just for a win but for his career, Mason Rudolph delivered with flying colors
Paul Dehner Jr. (Bengals): Has to be the Ravens, with the Browns just slightly behind. Baltimore has separated itself all season, but the doubt remained about playing up to the level of the streaking 49ers. To not just win but do so in a convincing fashion in Santa Clara sends a message about their capability to win the whole thing. The Browns and Steelers statements along with the Bengals’ return to Earth are merely jockeying for position as to place or show, instead of win. This weekend was about the Ravens hitting turbo boost on their trajectory that might end in the first title for this division since Flacco led them to a Lombardi Trophy in 2012.
I hope you all have had some time this week to return the gifts you didn’t want. This is the final opportunity in 2023 for a cheesy holiday-themed question, so here goes: What offseason decision or non-decision should the general manager of the team you cover have buyer’s or receiver’s remorse on?
Zrebiec: Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta was in his bag this offseason, as the kids like to say. The offseason was a major win for the Ravens the second they signed Lamar Jackson to a contract extension. However, DeCosta also drafted Zay Flowers and continued to add solid veterans at cheap prices. The Ravens aren’t where they are without guys like Jadeveon Clowney, Kyle Van Noy, Ronald Darby, Nelson Agholor and Arthur Maulet. Yes, Odell Beckham Jr. was an overpay, but if it helped get Jackson to the bargaining table, that’s a win. Beckham has had his moments and has been a good locker room presence, too. DeCosta’s one clear miss was signing veteran corner Rock Ya-Sin to a one-year, $4 million contract. But that’s small potatoes, and getting Darby on the cheap made up for it. If there’s one thing you can isolate, it probably would be not getting defensive lineman Justin Madubuike signed to a contract extension. A pending free agent, Madubuike wanted to bet on himself, and he’ll be rewarded handsomely for that decision with 12 sacks and counting.
Jackson: This is a tricky one, but the Browns probably didn’t need to guarantee Juan Thornhill $14 million throughout his contract if they were going to eventually extend safety Grant Delpit, too, which they recently did. But we’ll see how things play out, and any critique of this Cleveland defense right now is a nitpick. The Browns had a great offseason in loading new coordinator Jim Schwartz’s defense with experienced players and near-perfect fits. They probably wish they’d handled things a little differently at wide receiver, but that’s also not the strongest argument in light of Cooper continuing to play like it’s still 2019. No general manager is perfect, no offseason is perfect and no player is perfect (though Garrett is close). The Browns built a good team, and 37 or so detours later, the proof is in how they’re playing.
Kaboly: With the Steelers down to their fifth and sixth safeties, and fourth and fifth inside linebackers, you could criticize general manager Omar Khan for a lack of depth at those positions. That would be kind of harsh, though, considering he loaded up those positions with veteran depth in the offseason just to see the Steelers go through them like a duck in water. You can’t anticipate losing Cole Holcomb, Kwon Alexander and Elandon Roberts at inside linebacker, and Minkah Fitzpatrick, Damontae Kazee, Keanu Neal and Trenton Thompson at safety, all within a couple of months. If I had to name one decision that looks questionable, it’s Khan giving Larry Ogunjobi a three-year, $28.75 million deal with $17 million guaranteed. Ogunjobi hasn’t come close to living up to that contract so far.
Dehner: Safety Nick Scott. The Bengals hoped Scott would be a serviceable answer alongside 2022 first-round pick Dax Hill in replacing Jessie Bates III and Vonn Bell. He didn’t receive a huge deal, but at three years, $12 million, there were real expectations. Scott’s an asset in the locker room and a better fit as a depth piece at safety, but his failure to adequately fill the large void at safety and the turn to third-round pick Jordan Battle earlier than hoped caused a major malfunction for Cincinnati’s defense. Leading the league in explosive plays allowed was hardly all on Scott, but the ripple effect of that decision had the most influence on the fatal flaw.
With three straight wins, the Browns deserve their own question: Is this a feel-good story destined to end early in the playoffs, or are they a legitimate threat to make a postseason run?
Zrebiec: I’ve witnessed the “January Joe” phenomenon firsthand, and it’s legitimate. I’m not about to dismiss the Browns’ chances with the way Flacco is slinging it and the way that defense is playing. If you have a really good defense, you have a chance in the playoffs against anybody. And the weather and stage won’t faze Flacco one bit. I don’t think any postseason contender is champing at the bit to face Cleveland. If the Browns stay where they are and finish as the fifth seed, they very well could be a road favorite in the first round against whatever underwhelming team wins the AFC South. And if you win the first one, anything can happen from there.
Jackson: They’re a legitimate threat to at least win a game, and regardless of how the bracket shakes out on either of the first two weekends, no home team is going to be excited to see the Browns. The defense is elite despite some key personnel losses, and Flacco has changed everything about the offense. They’re struggling to run the ball and continually plugging in some inexperienced or previously dismissed players at key spots, but the reintroduction of the vertical pass has energized Cooper and David Njoku — and it’s also rewarded the defense’s consistently strong efforts.
Kaboly: It’s a hell of a story, I’ll tell you that. I’ve been sitting back and waiting for Flacco to turn into the old man that he is, but that sure doesn’t seem like it’s going to happen. Now, does that mean they can make a legitimate postseason push? I’m not ruling that out because of their defense, but all it takes is one team to be able to find a way to pressure Flacco consistently and I think he might struggle. That might be in the first round of the playoffs or the AFC Championship Game, but the odds say it will eventually happen. Regardless, good for Flacco. Good for all the old-ass pocket quarterbacks of my day that the experts say can’t play in this NFL anymore.
Dehner: The Flacco story is legitimately fun to watch, and that fan base deserves this considering what the organization has put it through. I just have a hard time with seven interceptions in four games. For all the yards, Cooper’s record-breaking and dominance from the defense, it sure feels like turnovers will eventually be their downfall against the top tier of the league. The silver lining for the Browns is the Ravens (and maybe Dolphins after this coming weekend) are the clear top two teams in the conference, and Cleveland already owns a win in Baltimore. Getting two AFC North teams together in the second or third weekend feels fitting considering how this division has dominated.
The Browns will get AFC North play started early this week with a Thursday night game against the New York Jets. Does Flacco continue his roll against a team that should have re-signed him when Aaron Rodgers went down? Three other compelling games with the Ravens playing host to the Dolphins, the Steelers heading out to Seattle and the Bengals visiting Arrowhead to face the reeling Chiefs. Who you got, and why?
Zrebiec: Good luck, Trevor Siemian. I can’t see the Browns losing with a playoff spot on the line against an offensively-challenged Jets team. There probably will be some typical Thursday sloppiness, but Cleveland should win by double digits. I heard from some Steelers fans last week about picking the Bengals. It’s funny. Those same folks didn’t mention it when I picked the Steelers to beat the Cardinals, Patriots and Colts in succession and they lost all three. I’m going to say Pittsburgh wins this week in Seattle. A: I’m not all that impressed with the Seahawks. And B: it would be great theater for the Steelers to come into Baltimore in Week 18 and have a lot at stake. Because of the Patrick Mahomes factor alone, the Chiefs will respond and beat the Bengals in a relatively close one. And I’m taking the Ravens to outlast the Dolphins in a wild 27-24 type of game. On a short week, it will be hard for the Ravens to match the intensity and physicality they showed in Santa Clara, but this Baltimore team has answered the bell at pretty much every key juncture of the season so far.
Jackson: Flacco isn’t losing to the Jets, and the Browns aren’t losing at home. So it won’t be a work of art, but it should be something like 17-3. I think Seattle wins big, something like 31-14. I think Kansas City stinks, so I’m curious to see what kind of effort the Bengals bring to Arrowhead. The schedule makers thought they had a home run here, and I still think they’ll get a close game won by the Chiefs, 20-17. Ravens-Dolphins should be a good one, but I can’t go against Baltimore’s defense right now. I’ll take the Ravens, 24-16.
Lloyd: Joe Flacco is finally receiving his due. But he can’t return to Browns next year
Kaboly: I’m done picking against the Ravens, even if I’m a big Dolphins fan. They can play the 1972 Dolphins and I would still pick Baltimore at this point. Ravens, 30-24. There is no logical explanation for what they are doing, especially when you take into account their injuries and unfair road schedule. I’m also at the point where I’m not picking against Flacco anymore. If only the Jets had a quarterback like Flacco. Browns, 20-6. The Steelers can beat the Seahawks, but they just don’t play well in Seattle — ever. Rudolph will play well, but the Steelers lose, 27-23. I’m so old that I remember when the Chiefs and Bengals were good. What happened there? Chiefs, 30-7.
Dehner: I finally feel like part of the team when all the Steelers fans started trashing me after picking against them last weekend. I will prepare for the slings and arrows again because I think Seattle ends their playoff hopes and brings Rudolph back to reality. The Browns at home on a short week against whatever warm body the Jets trot out at quarterback should be against NFL bylaws. Browns cruise. The Ravens are the best team in football, and I’m not sold to that point on the Dolphins despite being hooked on “Hard Knocks.” The Bengals as seven-point underdogs at Kansas City is the goofiest line of the week. Cincinnati has played extremely well outside of the division and, yes, Browning turned into a pumpkin against the Steelers, but the Chiefs are quite beatable and the Bengals know how to do so. I say they cover but lose on a field goal at the gun, again, just to pour salt on the wounds of this season.
(Top photo: Thomas Shea / USA Today)