(Eds: Will stand. With AP Photos.)|
By JOE KAY
AP Sports Writer
Only one team with a winning record? The Steelers and Ravens bringing up the bottom?
What's up with the AFC North?
The NFL's toughest division is having a tough year all-around. The mainstays are just trying to stay relevant at the midpoint of the season. The Bengals (6-3) are in control of a division that may send only one team to the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
''I've been used to seeing Pittsburgh and Baltimore so many years at the top of this division,'' Bengals safety Chris Crocker said. ''Things have really changed. Those teams have gone through transition and so have we.
''We got a lot of young talent and just been playing very well. When we do play well we play very, very well.''
The rest of the division? Not so well. Cincinnati has a two-game lead and can pretty much scuttle the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens (3-5) with a victory in Baltimore on Sunday.
The Browns (4-5) are having an encouraging season - encouraging simply because they're not bringing up the rear - while the Steelers (2-6) have taken over the bottom spot by playing as poorly as any Pittsburgh team in the last 25 years.
Five things to watch in the AFC North in the second half:
MORE THAN ONE? The division has sent 11 teams to the playoffs in the last five years, the most by any division. It's the only division that has sent at least two each season, including three in 2011. Cincinnati is in good shape to win its first division title since 2009. Can any of the other teams pull themselves together and make a strong run in the second half to give the North more than one playoff team? Last year, the Bengals were 3-5 at the midpoint and won a wild card with a strong finish, joining the Ravens in the postseason.
CAN THE BENGALS HOLD ON: The most encouraging part of the Bengals' resurgent season has been the play of third-year quarterback Andy Dalton, who has become a playmaker instead of just a caretaker of the offense. The biggest concern is a defense that's lost All-Pro tackle Geno Atkins and top cornerback Leon Hall for the rest of the season and middle linebacker Rey Maualuga indefinitely because of injuries.
''You've done enough to have a lead in the division, but to be honest, this isn't the end,'' left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. ''So we're really not where we want to be until 16 games are over and you're at the top of your division. We still have a lot to go get and a lot to prove.''
HOPEFUL BROWNS: They took a big step back toward relevance with a 24-18 win over the Ravens last Sunday in Cleveland, ending Baltimore's streak of 11 straight wins in the rivalry. Jason Campbell, the 20th starting quarterback since Cleveland returned as an expansion franchise in 1999, threw three touchdown passes as the Browns pulled into second place, a bit of a rush for a franchise that hasn't won more than five games in any of the past five seasons.
''We've been a kid brother in this division for a long time,'' first-year coach Rob Chudzinski said. ''You have to go play and if you want to change that, then you have to go do things to change it.''
RAVENS IN TROUBLE: Baltimore expected a transition season with Ray Lewis and Ed Reed among those gone from the Super Bowl championship team. Instead, they've gotten knocked around. They're averaging only 71.6 yards per game on the ground, 29th in the league. The offensive line has struggled, Ray Rice has only 259 yards while playing through a hip injury, and Joe Flacco has been hurried on many of his throws.
Baltimore needs a strong finish, beginning with its game Sunday against the Bengals, to reach the playoffs for the sixth season in a row.
''As far as we are concerned, as it stands, we're in a tough spot,'' coach John Harbaugh said.
CURTAINS FOR THE STEEL CURTAIN: Pittsburgh's offense has been sapped by injuries since training camp, making it reliant once again on Ben Roethlisberger's improvisation. The biggest surprise has been the decline of a defense that ranked No. 1 last season but seems to have gotten old quickly. Pittsburgh gave up a franchise-record in points during a 55-31 loss to the Patriots last Sunday.
The Steelers have reached the Super Bowl twice in the last five seasons. They're out of playoff contention halfway through this one, with their loyal fans wondering how low they'll go. Pittsburgh has had only five losing seasons in the past 25 years. They haven't won fewer than six games in a season since 1988, when they went 5-11 under Chuck Noll.
''We're here to win,'' coach Mike Tomlin said. ''That's our charge, that's our job, that's our passion. We're not getting it done consistently to this point. So, that's irritating and frustrating.''
PREDICTED WINNER: Bengals.
AP Sports Writers David Ginsburg in Owings Mills, Md., and Will Graves in Pittsburgh contributed to this report.
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