NFL division races aren't often settled by the end of September.
OK, maybe in the AFC East over the past decade. But when was the last time that was actually a race?
Still, it appears that as Week 3 comes to a close, the AFC North could all but be a wrap. Given what transpired across the division on Sunday, even head coach Marvin Lewis, quarterback Andy Dalton and the Cincinnati Bengals would be hard-pressed to mess this up.
It wasn't just a matter of the Bengals' wild 28-24 win over the Baltimore Ravens that boosted them to 3-0 for the second straight year and dropped the Ravens to 0-3 for the first time in franchise history.
The game, frankly, was a delightful microcosm for why many Bengals fans have a therapist on speed dial. In the first half, the Bengals raced out to a 14-0 lead. Their offense marched up and down the field at will, while their defense completely stymied the Ravens. Cincinnati appeared to be en route to a rout.
Then? Well—Bengals gotta Bengal.
Just before halftime, Lewis eschewed a chip-shot field goal that would have put the Bengals up three scores, instead deciding to go for it on fourth down. The attempt failed.
Then, after getting the ball back with about 40 seconds left, Lewis again made with the eschewing. With the Bengals at midfield and in possession of two timeouts, Lewis sat on his hands. Precious seconds ticked away and the team never got into position to even think about a long field-goal try, which led WKYT chief meteorologist Chris Bailey to bust out this zinger:
Maybe Lewis thought timeouts carried over to the second half? Maybe he just doesn't like field goals? Whatever the reason, when the Bengals should have been stepping on Baltimore's neck, they instead shot themselves in the foot.
Dalton did his part, too, tossing a red-zone interception on a poorly thrown pass intended for A.J. Green in the third quarter.
And it very nearly cost them. Thanks to a Dalton fumble that linebacker C.J. Mosley returned for a score and a huge afternoon (13 catches, 186 yards, two touchdowns) from ageless wide receiver Steve Smith, the Ravens took a pair of fourth-quarter leads in a game they never should have been in to begin with.
But thanks to Dalton's 383 yards and three passing touchdowns (including two to retake the lead late), the Bengals prevailed, all but sticking a fork in the Ravens in the process.
Both of those scoring passes went to Green. The first was an 80-yard thing of beauty:
The second was a pre-snap adjustment that drew praise from Dalton's head coach:
In fact, Lewis credited his entire team's resiliency, telling reporters, "Hats off to our guys for hanging in there, driving down the field twice to get back in control of the football game.
The Ravens aren't totally dead. Teams have overcome an 0-3 hole to make the postseason.
Five. In NFL history.
But it wasn't just what happened in Baltimore that put the Bengals in the cat-bird's seat in the division.
There's also the matter of a certain development in Steel City:
Granted, according to Schefter an MRI performed late Sunday (you know a team is freaking out when a player undergoes an MRI as soon as the plane hits the ground) revealed that Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's knee is still in one piece:
But this photo from earlier in the day sums up the overall mood in the Steel City pretty well:
And it's not hard to see why. The Steelers earned the dubious honor of being saddled with the NFL's hardest schedule (based on 2014 records) in 2015, and not one of the Steelers' next five games (Baltimore, at San Diego, Arizona, at Kansas City, and the Bengals on November 1) is exactly a "gimme."
The Steelers keeping pace with a Cincinnati team they already trail by a game over that span? That's about as likely as the Cleveland Browns entering this conversation.
And that leaves the Bengals. Despite their seeming intent to hand Sunday's game away, Dalton's dismal record in prime time, the team's record in the playoffs under Lewis, his clock management and decision-making skills and...OK, I could do that for a while.
Regardless, this is a team that has made the playoffs four years running. A veteran team with plenty of talent on both sides of the ball.
And a team that, after Sunday, appears to be on a collision course with its second AFC North title in three years.
Now if the Bengals could just win a playoff game.
Gary Davenport is an NFL analyst at Bleacher Report and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association and the Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Gary on Twitter @IDPSharks.