Each week in the course of the season, our AFC North writers collect for a roundtable dialogue on scorching matters, upcoming video games, key gamers and probably the most fascinating characters across the division. It’s time for Week 13.

If you wanted proof that the Ravens weren’t going to run away with the AFC North, you bought it with their Week 12 loss to the Jaguars and the Bengals’ victory over the Titans. The Ravens and Bengals are each 7-4. Make the decision: Who wins the North?

Jeff Zrebiec (Ravens): I’ve written because the starting that the Bengals have been the staff to beat within the division. And as we head into the house stretch, the Bengals stay simpler to belief than the Ravens. But you simply can’t dismiss the schedules and the Ravens having the early edge with the 2-0 division document, in comparison with 1-3 for the Bengals. In the following 5 video games earlier than the Week 18 rematch, the Ravens have the Broncos and Falcons at dwelling, the Steelers twice and the Browns on the highway. The Bengals have the Chiefs, Browns and Bills at dwelling and the Buccaneers and Patriots on the highway. Advantage, Ravens. There’s no such factor as a simple recreation with regards to the Ravens, however I’m giving them the nod simply based mostly on the schedules.

Jay Morrison (Bengals): I really feel fully totally different about each groups than I did just some weeks in the past. The Bengals haven’t solely gained three in a row with out Ja’Marr Chase, however they’ve additionally had no bother shifting the ball and scoring. And they not solely get Chase again this week, however they go into the Kansas City recreation and the beginning of this six-game stretch run with 21 of their 22 Week 1 starters wholesome. Meanwhile, the cracks are beginning to present in Baltimore, and it has nothing to do with the milquetoast performances in opposition to a few subpar groups within the Panthers and Jaguars. Lamar Jackson clapping again at followers on Twitter ought to stir some severe concern. I nonetheless assume the Ravens will win the division with that tender schedule, however I’m backpedaling massive time from my prediction a number of weeks in the past that it might be by three video games. I may see them each ending 11-6 and Baltimore profitable the tiebreaker as a result of higher division document.

Zac Jackson (Browns): The impartial observer wins! This ought to be enjoyable. The Ravens nonetheless in all probability win it, however their habits of blowing leads and dropping landing passes are greater than a bit regarding at this level. I’m nonetheless selecting them as a result of they’ve a better remaining schedule than the Bengals, and that could possibly be the distinction. The Ravens can proper themselves this week in opposition to the sad-sack Broncos, whereas the Bengals have two straight monster video games versus the Chiefs and the new-look Browns.

Mark Kaboly (Steelers): I’ve been saying this for some time now on this house, however the way in which the Ravens play scares me. Yet, nearly all of the individuals who touch upon this text name me loopy. It appears to me if Jackson performs something lower than a stellar recreation, they aren’t going to win. Unlike years previous, they don’t have a constant run recreation to fall again on. So, if Lamar turns into MVP Lamar for the remainder of the season, then sure, the Ravens will win the North. But I don’t see that occuring. The Bengals are getting Chase again, and they’re a unique offense with him. Their offensive line is beginning to present indicators of cohesion, and so they can fall again on the expertise they gained final 12 months coming down the stretch and into the playoffs. I’ll put my cash on that over needing to be excellent just like the Ravens need to be to win the division. (Comments are open, Ravens followers.)

You might need heard that Deshaun Watson is making his much-anticipated Browns debut Sunday in opposition to his former staff, the Texans. What are your short-term and long-term expectations for Watson?

Zrebiec: Short time period, I count on rust. There’s solely a lot you are able to do to simulate recreation motion, and past a number of sequence within the preseason, he hasn’t performed because the finish of the 2020 season. Not that it’ll matter Sunday in opposition to the pathetic Texans, however it is going to in all probability take a number of weeks for him to get his timing and really feel again. We’ll see the flashes, adopted by the reminders that he hasn’t performed in a very long time. Long time period, he’ll convey much-need stability to the place for the Browns. It will assist that so long as Nick Chubb is round, they gained’t want Watson to play Superman just like the Texans typically did. I don’t know that Watson can be a top-five NFL quarterback once more, lead the Browns to Super Bowls and outperform that contract they gave him, however there’s no motive to imagine that he gained’t nonetheless be a really dynamic quarterback who stresses defenses and offers Cleveland an opportunity to win each week.

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Morrison: I absolutely count on there to be substantial rust and shaky play this week — even in opposition to an atrocious Houston staff — and perhaps for the following few video games. Off the highest of my head, Michael Vick is the one quarterback I can consider with an extended absence than Watson’s 23 months, and Vick was capable of ease again into issues in a backup function and along with his transgressions absolutely behind him. Watson nonetheless has pending fits, the stress of a mammoth contract and an underperforming surrounding forged. Long time period, I believe he’s going to be tremendous. Better than tremendous, really. Same man he all the time was.

Jackson: What an extended, unusual journey this has been — by eight months of the Browns using Watson and 30 years of the Browns looking for a quarterback. My short-term expectations will not be excessive. The offense has not been the Browns’ drawback, and Watson goes to have some rust. But in the long run, I believe if Watson is correct mentally and bodily, he can finally assist make the Browns an actual AFC contender. They’re not that proper now.


Deshaun Watson sidesteps off-field questions, ‘excited’ for return

Kaboly: When you haven’t performed soccer, not to mention quarterback, in a recreation setting for 2 years, it isn’t going to return dashing again to Watson inside 1 / 4. It’s going to take time for him to even strategy what he did in Houston within the 2020 season. But that’s OK for the Browns. We are likely to neglect that Watson was an elite quarterback the final time he stepped on a soccer subject. Some (together with me) may say that Watson was and nonetheless is a top-five quarterback on this league. What I might fear about is that if the Browns can have persistence with him realizing that it isn’t going to be fairly early. With his checkered background, a poor recreation or two and the followers could be wishing for Johnny Manziel to return again. Seriously, he can be an excellent quarterback, however I wouldn’t count on that till Week 1 of the 2023 season.

It’s not simply Watson nowadays. From Joe Burrow getting scorching to Jackson going off on a Twitter commentator to the controversy about Kenny Pickett’s potential to grow to be a franchise quarterback, the AFC North sign callers are a subject of spirited dialogue. Which quarterback has probably the most to lose and which has probably the most to achieve over the following month-plus?

Zrebiec: I thought of saying Jackson for each, however I’ll decide on him having probably the most to lose and Pickett having probably the most to achieve. Jackson needs a completely assured contract. I simply don’t see the Ravens giving in on that until he leads an prolonged playoff run. He’s going to grow to be a really wealthy younger man both manner, and if the Ravens gained’t give him what he needs, someone else finally will. But if Baltimore’s offense continues to battle, if the staff makes the playoffs and Jackson and the offense provide up one other postseason stinker, I’m skeptical of whether or not the quarterback will get what he needs from the Ravens this offseason. He’s in all probability going to have to attend, and the franchise tag would grow to be much more doubtless. As for Pickett, he’ll doubtless be the Steelers’ beginning quarterback both manner subsequent season. However, a robust end to Pickett’s rookie season must be a significant confidence builder and strengthen the assumption the group and its followers have in him.

Morrison: Lamar has probably the most to lose, fingers down. Poor play or continued immaturity may price him tens of millions. Burrow must be the one with probably the most to achieve. Watson is ready for all times, and Pickett’s contract scenario is much down the highway. Plus, he’s carried out sufficient already to cement himself because the starter shifting ahead. The Bengals and Burrow in all probability have figures in thoughts for the contract he’s going to signal within the offseason, and so they’re already astronomical, so it actually doesn’t matter how properly he performs. But if he takes them again to the Super Bowl, you higher wager he’ll be capable to up the asking worth when it comes to general compensation and assured cash.

Jackson: Jackson is taking part in for Watson-type cash, so he in all probability has probably the most to lose. Nobody thinks the Ravens are an AFC favourite, however something in need of an AFC Championship Game look can be thought of no less than considerably of a disappointment. I believe Burrow, not Pickett, has probably the most to achieve. Burrow and the Bengals are nonetheless new on the scene, and so they’re definitely new to taking part in because the hunted. Last 12 months’s Bengals obtained scorching with home cash. Ahead of Burrow changing into extension-eligible, he may actually assist stamp the Bengals as something however a one-year marvel.

Kaboly: I don’t assume any of them have something to lose. Lamar goes to receives a commission and paid handsomely no matter how the remainder of this season seems. Burrow is coming off a Super Bowl look in his second 12 months. Watson was given $200-plus million, so he isn’t going anyplace. And right here in Pittsburgh, Pickett is a first-round decide and can get no less than two extra years to show himself. In that context, no person will lose. In the context of who could be put in a greater place for subsequent 12 months based mostly on how this season ends, it might be Pickett. He has to indicate that he generally is a QB1 regardless of not getting any No. 1 reps all through the spring and summer time. It’s been a sluggish course of, however he does want to indicate an upward trajectory heading into the offseason. It would do him and the staff wonders after they reconvene in April.

Other than win-loss document or place within the standings, what’s one statistic that finest explains the place the staff you cowl stands heading into December?

Zrebiec: In all 11 video games this season, the Ravens have held a multi-possession lead. They are one among solely 4 groups in NFL historical past to do this. The different three gained all 11. What does it imply? The Ravens have proven they are often dominant and so they’ve additionally proven they haven’t found a capability to take care of consistency in shut video games. That’s the distinction between them working away with the division and presently having 4 losses and being in a dogfight with the Bengals for the AFC North crown.

Morrison: Maybe it’s one I already talked about, having 21 of twenty-two opening-day starters wholesome. As far as true stats, there are loads of spectacular ones — second in pink zone offense, fourth in factors per drive, fifth in factors per recreation. But perhaps probably the most significant is a middling one. Since Week 3, the Bengals rank fifteenth in each fewest sacks and fewest quarterback hits allowed. They not solely ranked final within the league final 12 months, however they have been scratching historical past. And they nonetheless went to the Super Bowl. Taking their greatest weak spot from final within the league to the center of the pack is a big motive why they’ve gained seven of their final 9 heading into December.

Jackson: 33. Watson’s the thirty third beginning quarterback of the Browns’ new period. There are a number of causes he’s presupposed to be not simply the final one for some time, however one of the best one by a large margin. The Browns are making this variation 11 video games into the season and practically 9 months into this unusual odyssey. We gained’t know for years if that is the correct transfer and one well worth the wait and the chance, however the Browns have frankly been probably the most embarrassing franchises in all of sports activities for a very long time, and right here comes one other boom-or-bust transfer.

Kaboly: Here in Pittsburgh, they like to make use of the phrase “stacking wins.” Well, we’re in December already, and the Steelers haven’t stacked wins but. Hence why they’re 4-7. Dig deeper and there’s a motive for that: They simply haven’t been a constant soccer staff on offense, protection or particular groups. Inconsistencies normally imply, in soccer, not an excellent staff.

A giant one at Paycor Stadium on Sunday. Will the Bengals maintain the Chiefs once more? Do you count on the Ravens and Browns to have any issues with the Broncos and Texans? How concerning the Steelers at Atlanta?

Zrebiec: I don’t assume it’s an excellent follow to wager in opposition to Burrow in an announcement recreation, however I really feel even much less comfy betting in opposition to a motivated and offended Patrick Mahomes going through a staff that beat him twice final season. Mahomes is taking part in at such a excessive stage proper now, and I believe he and the Chiefs discover a option to win a shootout. Otherwise, I’m calling a 3-1 week for the AFC North.

Morrison: The Bengals are Kansas City and Andy Reid’s kryptonite. They’ve gained six of their final seven in opposition to the Chiefs, which works again to 2008, predating Reid’s arrival. But they’re 3-1 in opposition to the Chiefs with Reid. That .250 profitable proportion is Reid’s worst in opposition to any staff. The Bengals can’t be stopped within the pink zone (17 of their final 18 non-kneeldown journeys have been touchdowns), and the Chiefs can’t cease anybody down there (No. 32 within the league). Bengals 31, Chiefs 28. The Ravens and Browns will coast. If they don’t, they’ve severe points. Ravens 16, Broncos 3; Browns 27, Texans 10. And there’s no manner that Steelers staff is profitable back-to-back highway video games, even when they’re in opposition to Indy and Atlanta. Falcons 23, Steelers 20.



Bengals notes: Red zone domination; Chase, Mixon trending up; Chrisman crushing it

Jackson: I believe the Chiefs have been ready on this one. I believe the Texans, as unhealthy as they’re, can be up for this one. The Steelers can win in Atlanta — and they’re going to. The Ravens ought to cruise. I’ll take the Chiefs by seven and the Browns by three.

Kaboly: All 4 of these video games are going to be shut. There isn’t going to be a blowout. I do just like the Bengals to doubtlessly win by the biggest margin, the Ravens to eke one out in opposition to the Broncos and the Browns to beat the Texans on the legs of Chubb and Watson. The Steelers? Hell, who is aware of what you’ll get with them? Their protection has performed properly in two of the three video games since T.J. Watt has been again, so I can’t image the Falcons placing up loads of factors. In a snoozer, Steelers 17-14.

(Photo of Deshaun Watson: Nick Cammett / Getty Images)

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