First things first: No, this article — which the headline says will tell you about the best division in football — isn’t about the SEC West. If you thought it was, that’s an understandable mistake, but, see, the SEC West has a team with a losing record (Arkansas). The division we’re discussing today does not. That would be, obviously, the AFC North.
A quick look at the standings tells the tale: Cleveland sits in first place at 6-3, Cincinnati is just behind at 5-3-1, then Baltimore and Pittsburgh are tied at 6-4. Every team with five or six wins after Week 10? Every team with three or four losses? It doesn’t get much closer than that.
Here are five things you need to know as the tightly contested AFC North race heads into the final portion of the 2014 NFL season.
1. The AFC North is not just good, it’s historically good
It’s been nearly 80 years since an NFL division could boast every team simultaneously residing at least two games above .500 at any point in the season. Until the 2014 AFC North, that is. Last time it happened? The 1935 NFL Western Division, which featured the Lions, Bears, Packers, and Chicago Cardinals.
2. Expect half of the AFC playoffs to be made up of North teams
While it’s not a certainty that both AFC wild-card teams will come from the North division, we’d be surprised if they didn’t. Kansas City is currently the only AFC team not leading a division (outside the North) that already owns six wins, so we like our odds with the six-win Browns, six-win Ravens, six-win Steelers, etc. So, again, while nothing is guaranteed, don’t be shocked if the AFC playoffs are made up of the West winner, the South winner, the East winner, and then three of the four North squads.
3. The Bengals’ schedule does them absolutely no favors
So which three AFC North teams would have the best chance to qualify for the postseason? Well, by process of elimination, it’s obvious from taking a glance at the remaining schedules which team has the toughest road to get there: the Cincinnati Bengals. After laying an egg on Thursday night against the Browns, things don’t get any easier for Cincy, as the team embarks on a three-game road trip next. In fact, the Bengals will go more than a month between dates at Paul Brown Stadium (November 6 to December 7). When Cincinnati finally does make it to December, the schedule arguably gets even more difficult: Pittsburgh, at Cleveland, Denver, and at Pittsburgh to close the regular season.
4. The division race will almost certainly come down to the last week
The NFL schedule is set up so that every game on the final regular-season Sunday is a divisional matchup. And with the Bengals, Browns, Ravens, and Steelers currently in a logjam, the odds are that December 28’s Cincinnati-Pittsburgh and Cleveland-Baltimore games will have an impact on not only which teams go to the playoffs, but also which franchise can claim the 2014 AFC North title (a feat unofficially known as “Winning the Best Division in Football”).
5. The Saints could play a significant role in the outcome
It seems ironic that a team from the NFL’s worst division could have an impact on the race in the league’s best grouping of teams. But that appears to be the case, as the New Orleans Saints will play three more AFC North teams between now and the end of November. The Saints currently lead the NFC South, but they still have a losing record on the season (4-5). That doesn’t bode well for New Orleans having to face Cincinnati, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh in an upcoming span of 15 days. How the outsider Saints fare against the AFC contenders could have a huge impact in such a neck-and-neck North race.