Eisenberg: AFC North Has Turned Upside Down in 2021

QB Tyler Huntley

Since the NFL schedule came out earlier this year, it was widely assumed Sunday's season finale between the Ravens and Steelers would be a big deal.

Given how those teams have dominated the AFC North, it seemed quite possible a division title would be at stake.

But the AFC North has turned upside down in 2021. It has become the scene of some serious script-flipping.

It turns out Sunday's finale at M&T Bank Stadium is between teams with a combined record of 16-15-1; teams clinging to the thinnest of playoff chances; teams that will spend the offseason wondering what to do about a former punching bag that suddenly punched back this season.

The Cincinnati Bengals didn't just tiptoe up and snatch the division away from Baltimore and Pittsburgh. They battered the Steelers, winning two games by a combined score of 65-20. They battered the Ravens, winning two games by a combined score of 82-38.

Cincinnati quarterback Joe Burrow passed for 1,303 yards and 11 touchdowns in those four wins. Put that into your analytics algorithm and smoke it.

I'm guessing the subject of the AFC's surprising new kings will come up Sunday when Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh and Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin chat on the field during warmups, as they always do. What's the saying? Misery loves company.

And the Bengals don't look like one-year wonders with Burrow all of 25 and his top targets, Ja'Marr Chase and Tee Higgins, all of 21 and 22, respectively. Joe Mixon, who is second in the league in rushing yards, is 25.

Nope, the Bengals are young and on the rise. They rallied to beat the Chiefs Sunday to clinch the division title. They're almost certain to be a handful for a while.

Suddenly, the Ravens and Steelers have some catching up to do.

Not that Sunday's game will lack dramatic framing. Both teams can still make the playoffs. The loser will be eliminated.

But don't get too excited. With the Steelers' playoff chances at 8 percent and the Ravens' chances at 4 percent, according to ESPN, it's unlikely either will punch a wild-card ticket.

More compelling drama may emerge from the fact that Sunday's game probably marks the end of Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's stellar career, during which he terrorized the Ravens as much as any opponent.

You know the Ravens would love nothing more than to send him into retirement with a solid thumping, their version of a tip of the cap.

I can almost get melancholy about Big Ben departing the scene. He is the last, surviving link to the glory days of the rivalry, when Ray Lewis and Hines Ward and Ed Reed and Joey Porter and others were butting heads like rams on the side of a mountain.

I'll always remember Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs pawing frantically at Big Ben as he led a late-game march across a windswept tundra with blood trickling out of his nose and a division title up for grabs.

That truly was football at its best.

But fast forward to 2021, and honestly, it feels like ancient history. The Ravens are ranked last in the league in passing defense. The Steelers are ranked No. 31 in rushing defense. The Ravens have intercepted eight passes all season; that was a good year for Reed. The Steelers are No. 24 in total offense.

Picked by many analysts to win the division, the Ravens have lost five straight games and seven of their past 10. They're wondering what hit them – I mean, besides a withering run of subtractions that has reduced them to fielding lineups they never envisioned.

The Steelers hoped Roethlisberger's last ride would inspire something special; instead, the team has hung around .500.

To have any shot at the playoffs, both teams need the Jaguars, with a 2-14 record, to pull a monumental upset in their finale. It's not a good place to be.

I'm not suggesting Sunday's game will be a lesser event; games between the Ravens and Steelers are as fierce as ever. The uniforms alone get everyone worked up.

But hanging over the field, like a dark cloud, will be the inescapable reality that the AFC North's mighty have fallen this year – fallen behind the Bengals, at least.

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