Tom Williams: AFC North race looks entertaining

NFL fans in the Mahoning Valley are celebrating an AFC North race for the ages. With Week 11 approaching, one game separates first place from last. Who saw that coming?

Now that the Cleveland Browns control their playoff destiny for the first time in 20 years, their backers can only hope that their team handles it better than the Cincinnati Bengals or Pittsburgh Steelers did.

Thanks to a 37-37 tie with the Panthers, the Bengals were alone in first place heading into Week 10. Then the Bengals were humiliated in front of their home fans by the Browns, losing 24-3.

Cleveland’s win vaulted the Browns (6-3) and Steelers ahead of the Bengals (5-3-1) to the top of the AFC North standings. Because of a better conference record, the Steelers owned the tiebreaker over the Browns.

Not for long. Pittsburgh promptly flushed its lead away, losing 20-13 last Sunday to the lowly Jets (2-8). The Steelers (6-4), who had blasted the Colts (51-34) and Ravens (43-23) to climb into first, walked off the ledge with an inexplicably horrible performance against one of the NFL’s worst teams.

Another Steelers loss was to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-8) in late September. When you lose to teams with a combined record of 3-16, you probably don’t deserve a home playoff game. But they still might get one.

It helps that the NFC South (by far the NFL’s worst) is the division that the AFC North plays this year. The Saints (the Steelers’ opponent on Nov. 30) lead the division with a 4-5 record. No wonder that every AFC North team is above .500.

With seven games to play, the Browns have a legitimate shot to remain in contention to the end for their first division crown since 1989. Their November opponents are the Houston Texans (4-5), the Atlanta Falcons (3-6) and the Buffalo Bills (5-5). Sports Illustrated is helping by putting Texans superstar J.J. Watt on the cover of this week’s issue.

The AFC North race should be fun in December. The Browns’ final home games are against the Indianapolis Colts (6-3) and Bengals. Their season finale will be in Baltimore against the Ravens (6-4).

The Bengals and Steelers will play each other twice in December, including the season finale at Heinz Field on Dec. 28. The Bengals also have a Dec. 22 date with the Denver Broncos (7-2).

The Ravens have the easiest remaining schedule — their December opponents include the Jacksonville Jaguars (1-9) and the Texans.

If the Browns remain in the chase, head coach Mike Pettine should be a shoo-in for NFL Coach of the Year. Pettine’s handling of the Johnny Manziel sideshow has been brilliant. Quarterback Brian Hoyer may never be considered elite like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning or Aaron Rodgers, but he’s done so well that Johnny Football (for now) is Johnny Bench.

The Steelers, Bengals and Ravens carry baggage of high expectations built on recent successes. The Browns are feeling a different kind of pressure, the one that comes with a view from the top.

Tom Williams is a sportswriter at The Vindicator. Write him at and follow him on Twitter, @Williams_Vindy.

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