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AFC North Emerging as League’s Best Division

With the AFC’s last undefeated team and two other talented squads, is the AFC North the NFL’s top division?

Michael Lombardo

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The NFC West is widely considered the toughest division in football. A claim could also by made by the AFC West, which is the only division to send three teams to last season’s playoffs. But through three weeks of action, the surprising AFC North is making a strong push for the title of the NFL’s premier division.

The numbers don’t lie: the AFC North has been dominant.

AFC North teams are 4-0 in inter-divison contests, doubling up their opponents by a combined score of 120-60. Leading the way are the Cincinnati Bengals, the last undefeated team in the AFC. The Bengals have outscored opponents 80-33 for a point differential of plus-47. The team with the second-best point differential, the Atlanta Falcons, lost in Cincinnati in Week 2, 24-10.

The Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens have reestablished themselves as contenders after both missed the playoffs in 2013. The Steelers, in fact, have not been to the playoffs since Tim Tebow was quarterbacking the Denver Broncos.

Baltimore’s only loss came in the season-opener versus the Bengals. Pittsburgh’s only defeat came in Week 2 against the host Ravens.

The Steelers are coming off one of the season’s first statement wins, a 37-19 dismantling of the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium, where the Panthers had won 13 of their last 14 regular-season games. Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount ran for a combined 265 yards against a defense that finished last season ranked No. 2 against the run.

“We can be as good as we want to be if we don’t hurt ourselves and stay healthy,” said Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger.

The resurgence of the Steelers and Ravens also lends credibility to the Cleveland Browns, whose two losses came against those division rivals. The Browns lost both of those games in heartbreaking fashion on last-second field goals. While the NFL is not a place where moral victories are celebrated, it is clear the Browns are trending upward under new coach Mike Pettine.

On Sunday, the Browns missed several opportunities to put the Ravens away in the second half: Cleveland missed a field goal, had another blocked, and left more points on the board when WR Taylor Gabriel fell down after a long reception, preventing a sure touchdown.

“I want to say to the Browns, that was a well played, hard-fought football game,” said Ravens coach John Harbaugh. “That is a good football team. We’ve been playing tough games against the Browns for many years and they are even better than they’ve ever been before. They are extremely well coached, they’re physical and they’re tough. That was AFC North football.”

Next week — while the Bengals and Browns enjoy their bye weeks — the Steelers host the winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Ravens host the same Panthers team that looked so punchless against Pittsburgh.

Expect the early season trend of AFC North dominance to continue.

Michael Lombardo has spent more than 10 years as a team expert at Scout.com, primarily covering the Chargers, Cardinals and Panthers. He has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and other venues.

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