The Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers form one of two divisions in the NFL to not have a team under .500 this season, which means the race for the AFC North crown will likely come down to the wire.
After eight weeks, Baltimore (5-2) leads the way with Cincinnati (5-3), Pittsburgh (4-3) and Cleveland (4-4) nipping at its heels. The Ravens are 47.4% favorites to win the division, followed by the Bengals (27.3%), Steelers (14.1%) and Browns (11.1%).
The Browns have been the newsmakers in the division this week, waiving wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. after his father posted a video on Instagram highlighting times when quarterback Baker Mayfield either didn’t throw the ball to Beckham or missed him when he was open. Beckham’s release was granted Friday and he will go on waivers next week.
We asked Baltimore Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley, Cincinnati Bengals reporter Ben Baby, Pittsburgh Steelers reporter Brooke Pryor and Cleveland Browns reporter Jake Trotter to assess the season thus far and also look ahead.
Hensley: Quarterback Lamar Jackson’s downfield passing. The hope was for Jackson to take the next step in his development as a passer. Instead, it’s been a leap. Jackson has completed 14 passes of 20 yards or more in seven games, which nearly matches his total from all of last season (17). With Baltimore not getting much from its patched-up backfield, the Ravens are going to rely on Jackson’s arm more than ever to win the division.
Baby: The play of wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase. The fifth overall pick has blown through all rookie expectations and is one of the most explosive receivers in the NFL. He and quarterback Joe Burrow have the second-highest yardage total of any quarterback-wide receiver tandem, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. Chase has 786 receiving yards, good for third in the NFL.
Pryor: The Steelers’ defense has been good, not great. Partially because of game circumstances, the pass rush hasn’t been as consistent — Pittsburgh is tied for sixth in the league with 19 sacks — and the defense isn’t generating turnovers at the same clip as in previous seasons. The Steelers have only two interceptions, tied for second worst in the NFL, and six total takeaways. As a group, though, they haven’t been at full strength, with defensive end Stephon Tuitt going on injured reserve after roster cut-downs. The closest they got was the impressive Week 1 win in Buffalo, but the next week, nose tackle Tyson Alualu went down with a fractured ankle.
Trotter: The Baker Mayfield–Odell Beckham Jr. partnership is over. It shouldn’t be too surprising that the two still were unable to put it together this season. But that it came to a head in the middle of the season, with the Browns cutting Beckham Friday, is stunning. Cleveland’s season, which once held so much promise, is spiraling.
Biggest storyline to watch
Hensley: Ravens’ pass defense. Baltimore ranks last in the NFL against the pass after becoming the third team in NFL history to allow three 400-yard passers in the first seven games of a season. This is a prideful defense with plenty of tradition. Let’s see if the Ravens can regroup while facing the likes of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, Los Angeles Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford and Burrow.
Baby: Can the Bengals really make a run at a division title? If Cincinnati beats Cleveland in Week 9, the Bengals will have won their first three divisional games for the first time since 2015 — the last time they reached the playoffs. Cincinnati will not have it easy, though. The Bengals are projected to be the underdog in their final four games (at Denver, vs. Baltimore, vs. Kansas City, at Cleveland) according to ESPN analytics.
Pryor: With a new coordinator, a rookie running back and an overhauled offensive line, the offense was always going to be a work in progress, especially early. But how it continues to develop is something to monitor the rest of the season. The Steelers played their most balanced football against the Browns, building on an identity that started to form against the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks. Ben Roethlisberger threw the ball 35 times, while Najee Harris carried it 26. Harris is a true lead back, but the Steelers must keep an eye on his durability, as well as that of the 39-year-old quarterback, with an extra game on the schedule. Roethlisberger isn’t playing like his old self, but if the Steelers can maintain a balanced attack and the line limits hits on Roethlisberger, the offense will continue to trend in the right direction.
Trotter: How Mayfield responds without Beckham. Last year, following Beckham’s season-ending knee injury, Mayfield immediately exploded, ranking No. 3 in the NFL in QBR from Week 7 to 15 while guiding the Browns to their first playoff appearance since 2002. Can Mayfield overcome the drama to produce an encore? It won’t be easy, especially with that ailing non-throwing left shoulder.
Most pivotal remaining game
Hensley: Week 16 at the Bengals. This has the makings of the AFC North title game. The Ravens will have plenty of motivation after being embarrassed on Oct. 24, when Cincinnati routed Baltimore 41-17 — the worst margin of defeat in the Lamar Jackson era. The last time Baltimore was swept by Cincinnati was 2015.
Baby: Week 16 vs. Baltimore. The Ravens will be out for revenge after getting dismantled at home on Week 7. Cincinnati will need a repeat performance to beat them again. Depending on how things shake out the rest of the season, the winner of that Bengals-Ravens game could have the upper hand in the race for the AFC North title.
Pryor: Given the wide-open race in both the AFC and AFC North, it’s more about pivotal games than a singular game. After fizzling down the stretch a year ago, the Steelers have to finish strong in their season-ending four-game gantlet — vs. Tennessee, at Kansas City, vs. Cleveland, at Baltimore — to have any hope of making the playoffs.
Trotter: It might very well be this weekend at Cincinnati. How the Browns respond amid the OBJ turmoil figures to portend what the rest of the season might hold. Cleveland’s season is already on the brink, following three losses in the past four games. Another divisional defeat would all but put Cleveland’s playoff hopes on life support.
Pittsburgh Steelers activate safety Minkah Fitzpatrick from COVID-19 list
The team activated safety Minkah Fitzpatrick off the reserve/COVID-19 list Thursday morning.
“He looks like he’s 100 percent out there to me,” defensive coordinator Keith Butler said. “He’ll practice today and see how he feels, stuff like that.”
Fitzpatrick tested positive for the virus Nov. 15 and was activated to the active roster after a mandated 10-day stay in COVID-19 protocols.
Without Fitzpatrick — and two other significant contributors in pass-rusher T.J. Watt and cornerback Joe Haden — the Steelers’ defense struggled to keep the high-powered Los Angeles Chargers‘ offense in check. In Fitzpatrick’s absence, rookie safety Tre Norwood wound up playing every snap.
Fitzpatrick isn’t the only defensive player the Steelers hope to have back against the Bengals. Watt, who injured his hip and knee in a fourth-quarter sack against the Detroit Lions, returned to practice Wednesday as a limited participant. Watt missed the first meeting against the Bengals after sustaining a groin injury a week earlier, and fellow outside linebacker Alex Highsmith also was out of that game with a groin injury of his own.
Haden, who suffered a mid-foot sprain in the same game, didn’t practice Wednesday, but coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday he anticipated his return to practice sometime this week, too.
“I’m real happy about it,” Butler said of getting Fitzpatrick back. “And the possibility of getting the other guys back, too, that always helps. Last time we played them we were down a couple people.
“Having those guys come back and being able to play means a lot to us, means a lot to everybody that’s out there on the field. They’re used to playing with each other. It will be better for us, no doubt.”
NFL Thanksgiving Day fantasy football inactives watch
Who should you start? Who should you sit? To help you set your fantasy football lineups and to avoid starting a player who won’t be playing, we’ll post fantasy-relevant updates and analysis here as NFL teams release their official inactives lists, typically about 90 minutes before kickoff. Any rankings cited in this column come from our ESPN Fantasy staff ranks.
Official inactives should begin coming in approximately 90 minutes prior to the scheduled kickoff time.
Refresh often for the latest information.
Allen Robinson II, WR, CHI: Hamstring — Doubtful
Impact: He hasn’t practiced this week, so odds are against a Thursday start.
Akiem Hicks, DT, CHI: Ankle — OUT
Eddie Jackson, S, CHI: Hamstring — Questionable
Tashaun Gipson Sr., S, CHI: Chest — Questionable
Jared Goff, QB, DET: Oblique — Questionable
Impact: He’s a game-time call, although leaning towards yes. Just leave him out of fantasy lineups and watch the parade in peace.
Jermar Jefferson, RB, DET: Ankle — Questionable
Impact: It’s looking like he will play, but isn’t worth the fantasy gamble.
Michael Brockers, DE, DET: Knee — Questionable
Trey Flowers, LB, DET: Knee — OUT
CeeDee Lamb, WR, DAL: Concussion — Questionable
Impact: Dallas expects Lamb to clear the league’s protocol in time to play.
Alvin Kamara, RB, NO: Knee — OUT
Impact: The lack of practice in this short week was never a good sign.
Marcus Davenport, DE, NO: Shoulder — OUT
New Orleans Saints’ Alvin Kamara, Cameron Jordan help surprise shoppers by picking up grocery tab
Kamara and Jordan joined New Orleans restaurateur/entrepreneur Larry Morrow, car dealership owner Matt Bowers and social media personality Supa Cent to pay the bills for everyone in the Save A Lot supermarket, mingle with fans — and even bag some groceries. The final tally came to about $21,000.
Saints RB @A_kamara6 and @larry_morrow bagging groceries and DE @camjordan94 mingling with fans as they joined @Matthew_Bowers_ and @WuzzamSupa to surprise shoppers at a local Save a Lot store to pay their bills before Thanksgiving. pic.twitter.com/2lDmAJMix8
— Mike Triplett (@MikeTriplett) November 25, 2021
“We’re blessed, so just being able to be a blessing is huge for us,” Kamara said. “Everybody here is definitely fortunate. This is something so simple, yet so meaningful.”
Kamara and Morrow had teamed up for Thanksgiving turkey giveaways in past years, though the tradition was interrupted by COVID-19 in 2020. This year they opted to start a new holiday tradition.
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