The Baltimore Ravens currently hold a two-game edge in the AFC North over the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers, but with injuries laying waste to the Ravens defense it's only a matter of time before they fall back in the division.
That's just the reality of the situation.
That makes this Sunday night's matchup in Cincinnati between the Bengals and Steelers a huge game for both teams, especially with both squads also trying to rebound from losses that were as surprising as they were disheartening.
If you took a survey I'm confident that the majority of both pundits and fans would label the Steelers the more formidable challenge for the Ravens this season, but in the true spirit of taking the road less traveled here's a look at a few reasons why it could easily be the Bengals, and not the Steelers, who emerge as AFC North champions this season when all is said and done.
Cincinnati's Offense is Better
No really, it is.
Through six games this season the Bengals rank 10th in both total offense and scoring offense, while the Steelers check in at 16th and 21st respectively. Both teams have moved the ball effectively through the air, ranking in the top 10 in the NFL in that regard.
However, the Pittsburgh ground game has been an absolute nightmare, ranking next to last in the NFL and averaging fewer than 75 yards a game. The team was hopeful that the return of Rashard Mendenhall would bolster the rushing attack, but now both Mendenhall and Isaac Redman are nursing injuries, leaving only Jonathan Dwyer healthy and certain to play on Sunday night.
The one-dimensional nature of Pittsburgh's offense is starting to affect the passing game as well. The Tennessee Titans gave the Bengals an excellent blueprint for how to beat Pittsburgh.
Try to take away the underneath stuff to wide receiver Antonio Brown and Heath Miller, then come after quarterback Ben Roethlisberger while a suspect offensive front tries to buy him enough time to find Mike Wallace downfield.
Pittsburgh's Defense Doesn't Look Like Pittsburgh's Defense
Granted, at first glance the Steelers defense appears to be doing just fine, ranking in the top five in both total defense and pass defense and in the top 10 in scoring defense.
In all three of the Steelers' losses, however, that supposedly vaunted Pittsburgh defense allowed late scoring drives that cost the team the game, including against the likes of the Tennessee Titans and Oakland Raiders, who both rank in the bottom half of the NFL offensively.
These lapses haven't gone unnoticed in the Steel City, and even veteran linebacker Larry Foote, who leads the team in tackles, admitted that unease is growing in the locker room according to The Associated Press via FOX News.
"The panic button, we tapping on it," he said. "We ain't got two hands on it, but we're kind of nibbling on it a little bit. We can't lose no more, that's the approach," Foote said. "Five, six losses you ain't going to be in the playoffs."
You might think that if a player was going to decide this matter it would be a quarterback, and in that competition the edge has to go to Ben Roethlisberger, whose impressive resume includes a pair of Super Bowl rings.
However, second-year pro Andy Dalton hasn't exactly been terrible, throwing for over 1,700 yards and 12 touchdowns while posting a quarterback rating of over 90, and other than the fact that this youngster has thrown too many interceptions his numbers compare favorably with Roethlisberger's.
That means that it may come down to a non-quarterback as the deciding factor in the battle to catch Baltimore, and the best offensive player on either team who doesn't throw a football is wide receiver A.J. Green of the Bengals.
The second-year pro caught talk of a sophomore slump, raced down the sidelines with it, and then spiked it in the end zone along with one of his AFC-leading six touchdown passes. Green is also tied for third in the league in receptions and leads the NFL with 628 receiving yards, and his play this season has impressed his quarterback according to Jamison Hensley of ESPN.
“You think you’ve seen about everything A.J. can do,” quarterback Andy Dalton said, “and you’ve seen so much you don’t think twice about his ability, and then he’ll show you something new like that one.”
This prediction may draw more snickers than nods outside the Queen City, especially after the Bengals dropped their past two games, but not only is Cincinnati going to down the Steelers on Sunday night...
They're going to win the AFC North.