AFC North Whiparound: Are Ravens or Bengals true contenders? Plus Week 12 picks

AFC North Whiparound: Are Ravens or Bengals true contenders? Plus Week 12 picks

Updated: 6 days, 3 hours, 5 minutes, 27 seconds ago

Each week during the season, our AFC North writers gather for a roundtable discussion on hot topics, upcoming games, key players and the most interesting characters around the division. Here we go with Week 12 …

We still have a clear separation in the division with two teams fighting for the postseason and two clearly at the bottom. At this point, are either the Bengals or Ravens a true AFC title contender?

Jeff Zrebiec (Ravens): Do I think the Ravens and Bengals are in the same class right now as the Chiefs, Bills and maybe even the Dolphins? Not at the moment. There’s probably some separation there, at least with the Chiefs and Bills. But for the most part, I think if you get into the playoffs — and I believe both the Ravens and Bengals will — then you are a conference title contender. There are always a few exceptions, like a below-or-at-.500 team that wins a really bad division. But that’s not the Ravens and Bengals. They have their flaws, but they also have characteristics of teams that play well in January. The Bengals have an explosive offense and a team that proved last year that they can win in the playoffs. The Ravens can run the ball against anyone and their defense is getting better every week. There’s no reason either team couldn’t have postseason success. I’ve seen too many teams, who are coming off uneven regular seasons, get hot and go on a run in the postseason to rule out anybody in the field.

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Jay Morrison (Bengals): They both are. The distance between great and good has never been shorter, and even when it was more pronounced there always were instances where teams got hot at the right time. The 2022 Bengals are better than they were in 2021 when they went to the Super Bowl, so why wouldn’t they be considered contenders? Three of their next four are against current division leaders, and five of their next six AFC games are against teams above them in the playoff seeding. We will know for sure in short order whether they are contenders. I’m less sure the Ravens can make a deep run, but I’m still not ruling it out. My biggest doubt is whether they can hold serve in a track meet. If they have to go through Kansas City and Buffalo, can they keep those games from turning into shootouts? If so, they can make it to Phoenix.

Zac Jackson (Browns): I’m not sure that either team is playing well enough to be considered an elite team right now, but I also know I wouldn’t really want to play either when January rolls around. The Bengals have last year’s playoff experience and are getting Ja’Marr Chase back; the Ravens appear to be rounding into form defensively, and trying to slow Lamar Jackson in any one-and-done scenario would be scary. I still think it’s Chiefs, then Bills, then a gap to everyone else — but I could see that changing as we get closer to the games everyone’s going to remember.

Mark Kaboly (Steelers): Have you watched the NFL this year? Almost everybody is a contender. The parity this year has been more than I can remember. I am sure you can dig up some numbers to refute that but in terms of having no clear-cut favorite this deep in the season and the ability of many near the bottom of the conference to upset the elites, everybody should be on notice. The Chiefs are good but they’re beatable. So, I am going to go all cliché on you: whoever is playing the best football at the end of the regular season is going to have the best chance to represent the conference in the Super Bowl and yes, that includes the Bengals and the Ravens. The Ravens are in the best position because their schedule isn’t the most challenging. I still don’t think they are playing championship-caliber football despite the record but they are winning and that’s all that matters right now.

Everybody loves a Black Friday bargain — and nobody loves a cheesily themed question more than we do. So, which player is the best bargain for the team you cover?

Zrebiec: Justin Houston is on a one-year, $3.5 million deal. According to www.overthecap.com, 56 different edge rushers are playing on more lucrative contracts than Houston is this year. Yet, Houston entered Week 11 tied for fifth in the NFL with nine sacks despite really playing in only six games. Houston has seven sacks in his past four games while averaging only 24.5 snaps per contest. The 33-year-old is giving the Ravens a lot of bang for their buck. Houston has had a really nice career, but I don’t know that anybody saw this coming.

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Morrison: Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase are in the conversation for best bargains in the league, but that’s too easy. If you filter out guys on rookie deals — which is the bulk of the Bengals roster — I’d say Samaje Perine. And it’s not just recency bias after he caught three touchdown passes from Burrow when Joe Mixon got hurt Sunday in Pittsburgh. Perine is arguably the best blocking running back in the league, which is a huge deal with how many times Burrow gets hit and sacked. He’s also a terrific receiver, and he’s been a far more efficient runner than Mixon, averaging 4.5 yards per carry to Mixon’s 3.8. And then you factor in that Perine has played 57 percent of the special teams snaps, and that’s a heck of a lot of value for a guy with a $1.9 million cap hit this year.

Jackson: Though there’s a case to be made for Nick Chubb being the answer to this question from a Browns’ standpoint, I’ll go with Jacoby Brissett. He’s making his last start for the Browns this weekend, and at $4.65 million he’s absolutely been a bargain. The Browns haven’t won enough games to make Brissett one of the best stories of the league, but he’s done his part and has been everything the team could have asked him to be in this awkward situation while the Browns await the debut of Deshaun Watson.

Kaboly: I can honestly say I have never purchased a thing in my life on Black Friday. I am more of a Christmas Eve-at-Walmart kind of guy. You are going to make me do a deep dive if you want me to come up with a bargain when it comes to the Steelers. Their defense is the most expensive in the NFL and their offense is basically made of players on rookie contracts so this is not an easy exercise, especially for a 3-7 team. After careful consideration, I will go with strong safety Terrell Edmunds. Nobody wanted the former first-round pick during the offseason, including the Steelers. They didn’t pick up his fifth-year option and he didn’t re-sign with the Steelers until all of his options were exhausted. He got a one-year, $2.4 million deal to come back and has been well worth his salary. Edmunds has played at least 95 percent of the snaps in all but one game his year, and in that game, he got hurt. He hasn’t been great but has been very good and reliable … and cheap considering he’s the 40th-highest-paid safety in the NFL in 2022.

When you think of Thanksgiving Weekend, do you think football? Is there an especially notable Thanksgiving moment involving the team you cover?

Zrebiec: I’m the last person who’s going to wax poetic about Thanksgiving. I’d love to share my feelings about how overrated just about everything about the holiday is, aside from the enjoyable family time, but I don’t want to get ripped in the comments section like Kaboly does. John Harbaugh has pitched the idea a few times of the Ravens annually hosting the Thanksgiving night game. The last time that happened was in 2013 when Mike Tomlin stepped onto the field and prevented Jacoby Jones from scoring a return touchdown. That’s the one memory I have from a Ravens’ Thanksgiving game.

Morrison: Hell yeah, I think football. My in-laws, on the other hand, have been known to have the Disney Channel or even the Weather Channel on instead for turkey gatherings. Thank god we can watch games on our phones — and, as a bonus, ignore people — these days. As far as memorable Thanksgiving moments for the Bengals, they’ve only played on the holiday once, and it did not meet the minimum requirements to be considered memorable. The 26-10 loss at the Jets was the team’s eighth in a row of what would become a 10-game skid in the 2010 season.

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Jackson: I always think about football. I don’t get out much. Now I don’t really think about the Browns when I think Thanksgiving, but ask me again when Christmas rolls around and I’ll gladly talk about James Harrison piledriving the drunken fan who wandered onto the field in Cleveland in 2005. I have fond memories of family Thanksgivings watching the Lions lose by a lot and later watching the Cowboys, and now I try to balance my need for a good post-turkey nap with not wanting to miss too much of the games on TV.

Kaboly: This was a little before my time but how can you forget the overtime game at the Silverdome in 1998 when Jerome Bettis infamously called tails/heads? Referee Phil Luckett insisted he said tails and the Steelers lost the coin toss. They then lost the game in overtime to the Lions, 19-16. The Steelers were 7-4 at the time and went on to lose their final five games to go 7-9. Then there was in 2013 when Mike Tomlin almost tripped Jacoby Jones on a kickoff return. He was fined $100,000. And then there was the 1983 Thanksgiving Massacre against the Lions. Two years ago, the first-ever Thanksgiving game in Pittsburgh was postponed because of COVID-19. So, there have been a lot of Thanksgiving memories the Steelers have created over the years.

Mike Tomlin was fined for stepping on the playing field during a Jacoby Jones kickoff return on Thanksgiving 2013 when the Steelers faced off with the Ravens. (Dylan Buell / Getty Images).

There’s still basically half a season left, but Thanksgiving and the end of November are landmarks in the season. Is December going to be productive and positive for the team you cover? Or do you have bad vibes about what’s ahead?

Zrebiec: If the Ravens don’t have a strong December, they’ll have only themselves to blame. Things couldn’t be more set up for them. Their schedule is very forgiving. They’ve gotten healthier and they should get some more guys back in the weeks ahead. Their defense has settled in under first-year defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald. The Ravens don’t ever make things easy on themselves, so I don’t expect them to run the table in the regular season and have the AFC North and a playoff berth clinched by Week 15. But I think by the end of December, they’ll be in very good position and well on their way to the postseason.

Morrison: I’m firmly in the middle. I expect the Bengals to play well, but they also have the toughest remaining schedule in the league, starting Sunday against the AFC South-leading Titans. There are also the Chiefs, Buccaneers, Bills, Patriots and Ravens. If they keep games close, they’ll always have a chance to win in the end with Burrow at the helm. Is that sustainable? Probably not. The only game where they have a legitimate chance to dominate is Dec. 11 against Cleveland, but the Browns have had their number ever since Burrow arrived. The good news is that if they are able to survive and reach the playoffs, they will have been tested and fully earned it, which could help send them on another postseason run.

Jackson: The Browns are always making awkward kinds of history, and their record 14-game preseason ends this week as Deshaun Watson takes over as their quarterback next week. That will mark the start of a new era, an increased spotlight and a different kind of evaluation for all involved. The Browns to this point have been a terribly coached team outside their game-opening offensive scripts, and what many thought was a great roster doesn’t look like it’s close to one of the best in the AFC. The vibes right now are anything but good, but a lot changes next week.

Kaboly: Put it this way, I cannot see the Steelers “unleashing hell in December” this year despite playing some average-to-bad teams down the stretch. The issue is that they are a pretty average-to-bad team as well. At this point, the Steelers would take a steady improvement by Kenny Pickett over the final seven games then call it a season without making the playoffs and Tomlin’s streak of never having a losing record coming to an end. To me, it’s hard to project what Pickett is going to do in December and into January. There hasn’t been much tangible evidence of him improving during his first six games but, as previously noted, the competition is set to lighten up significantly. Man, what has it come to that all the Steelers are playing for in the second half of the season is to determine if their first-round quarterback doesn’t suck. Wow!

Pick time. Browns host the Bucs, Bengals at Titans, Ravens at Jags and a true Monday night thriller between the Steelers and Colts. Who ya taking? Will it be a winning weekend for the division?

Zrebiec: The Ravens probably have the easiest matchup on paper, but I don’t think it will be an easy win. I think it will be a struggle and they’ll survive some anxious moments. I like the Bengals to win, too. Burrow is starting to get in a rhythm and they’ll hold up just fine against a physical Titans team, especially if Chase is back. I’m going to call a 3-1 week, because I think the Browns will win, too. They should be able to run the ball against the Bucs. Jacoby Brissett has done a commendable job and it would be a nice way for him to finish his stint as the starter. I feel the least confident about the Steelers. The Colts are playing better and their defense has been relatively good for most of the year.

Morrison: Best-case scenario is a .500 weekend for the division, and that only happens if the Bengals win at Tennessee, which I’m picking against. Barely. Revenge angles are sometimes overblown, but not in this instance, not when the GM cries at the Scouting Combine recounting the playoff loss to the Bengals and Ryan Tannehill talks about mental health and the dark place he went to after throwing three picks in that game. I think we’ll see another thriller, but that extra edge for Tennessee will be just enough for a 27-26 win. The Ravens fought through their post-bye malaise to survive last week, so I expect them to smoke the Jaguars 31-13. The Cleveland defense is just what the slowly improving Tampa Bay offense needs to add to its roll, 28-23. And Kaboly will be the only one of us still awake at 11 p.m. Monday when the Colts walk off the field with a 27-17 win.

Jackson: I think the Browns lose at the buzzer. I think the Bengals lose at the buzzer. I think the Ravens win by a touchdown in a bit of a wild one, and my best for Monday night is that I’m asleep by halftime. But I’ll take the Steelers, 17-16.

Kaboly: There are some stinkers in the division this week, that’s for sure. The Bengals and Titans, however, could be a preview of the AFC Championship Game. I like the Titans in this one (25-21) with Tennessee having some extra prep time and the fact that the Bengals aren’t great at stopping the run. The Bucs coming off the bye will be too much for the Browns (27-21), the Ravens will struggle with the Jags but will win (19-14) and the Steelers will sneak by the Colts (20-17).

(Top photo: Kareem Elgazzar / USA Today)