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Quality, toughness of AFC North clubs evident early

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Posted Oct. 10, 2011 @ 10:36 p.m. ET
By Mike Wilkening

Through five weeks, only one division has all four teams with records of .500 or better: the AFC North. The Ravens (3-1) hold a half-game lead over the Steelers and Bengals (3-2), with the Browns just one game back at 2-2.

The Steelers and Bengals each notched impressive victories in Week Five, with Pittsburgh romping vs. Tennessee and Cincinnati overcoming a fourth-quarter deficit to win at Jacksonville. The victories point to the resiliency of the Steelers and Bengals, as we'll detail below.

Once again, the AFC North is far from a finesse division. All four teams rank in the top nine in total defense, with the Bengals allowing fewer yards per game and per play than anyone else. Their re-emergence as a factor in the division race after a down 2010, coupled with Cleveland showing some potential in its first four games, makes the AFC North race one to watch in the weeks ahead.

The PFW Spin 

The Steelers gained much in their 38-17 victory vs. Tennessee on Sunday. QB Ben Roethlisberger played wonderfully with a foot injury, throwing five TDs for the second time in his career. Yet perhaps the best sign about the health of the Steelers' passing game was this: Roethlisberger was sacked just once. Injuries continue to be a concern along the line — ORT Marcus Gilbert (shoulder) left Sunday's game — but the O-line got the job done on Sunday. Such fine pass protecting and solid run blocking will make this a formidable offense. 

The running game, even without RB Rashard Mendenhall, was very successful vs. a stout Tennessee defense. Second-year RB Jonathan Dwyer racked up 107 yards, including a 76-yarder. Isaac Redman ground out 49 yards on 15 carries. The Steelers were able to set a physical tone in the ground game.

The defense also thrived under challenging circumstances. Playing without NT Casey Hampton, ROLB James Harrison and DE Aaron Smith, the Steelers held the Titans without a touchdown until late in the third quarter. Overall, Tennessee gained just 4.4 yards per play.

The Steelers' victory highlighted their talent, versatility and grit. Tennessee took apart Baltimore and Cleveland earlier in the season but had no answers for Pittsburgh. Any dismissal of the Steelers after early losses to Baltimore and Houston was premature.

So, too, was it premature to write off the Bengals before the season began, as many did. The Bengals have had a legitimate shot at winning every game. They led in the fourth quarter before falling to San Francisco, and they lost by just two points at Denver.

On Sunday, they trailed 20-16 late in the fourth quarter, but QB Andy Dalton found TE Jermaine Gresham on a nine-yard pass on 4th-and-6 from the Jacksonville 19, and the Bengals would score the eventual game-winning touchdown three plays later. Dalton (179 yards, two TDs, one interception at Jacksonville) has some young, talented targets in Gresham and WR A.J. Green. The Bengals' passing game, though it can be inconsistent at times with a rookie quarterback and several young pass catchers playing key roles, is better than expected.

So is the Bengals' defense. The Bengals are stout vs. the run and the pass. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has done a masterful job molding this group, which has at least one new full-time starter at every position, into a sound, physical, cohesive unit so quickly. 

The Bengals featured a strong defense and a grind-it-out offense in winning the AFC North two years ago. Can they do it again? If so, they must take care of business in games they are expected to win, like Sunday's matchup vs. winless Indianapolis.

Can the Bengals keep this up? After their Week Seven bye, they play three of their next four games on the road (at Seattle, at Tennessee, at Baltimore). Their lone home game in this span is vs. Pittsburgh. That stretch will be a major test for Cincinnati, but if its defense keeps playing this well, it can be competitive.

The Browns will also be challenged in the weeks to come. Three of their next four games are on the road against teams with winning records, starting with Sunday's game at Oakland. Trips to San Francisco and Houston also loom. Cleveland must play its best during the second quarter of the season to avoid falling too far off the pace in this tough division. The Browns' defense is off to a solid start overall, but it struggled in the Week Four loss to Tennessee. What's more, the Browns' offense must be more consistent. 

The Ravens have been very impressive at times this season, and their Week Six opponent, Houston, has lost star pass rusher Mario Williams to a season-ending pectoral injury. What's more, Texans WR Andre Johnson missed Week Five with a hamstring injury. However, the Texans' offense has good depth, and Baltimore surrendered 489 yards in an OT victory at Houston a season ago.

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