Who will win the AFC North? Barnwell picks the flaws and surprises for the Browns, Ravens, Steelers and Bengals

    Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for ESPN.com.

In 2020, the AFC North was the only division in the NFL to send three teams to the postseason. In 2021, the race to win the league’s best division has only gotten tougher. The emergence of the Bengals as a legitimate contender has led to a four-way race for the division title through eight weeks. These four teams could realistically finish in any order by the time the season ends.

Let’s run through these four teams — Baltimore, Cincinnati, Cleveland and Pittsburgh — and evaluate their seasons so far to try to figure out what’s next. In many ways, they’re not playing how we might have expected heading into 2021. In others, we could have seen some of their successes (and struggles) coming from a mile away.

What happens over the next nine weeks is for grabs, but here’s where the North stands near the midway point of the season. I’ll use the ESPN Football Power Index (FPI) projections as a guide for chances to win the division:

Baltimore Ravens (5-2)

Chances of winning the AFC North: 47.4%

When we last saw the Ravens before their Week 8 bye, they were getting run off the field at home by the Bengals in the most lopsided loss of the Lamar Jackson era. This was new territory for both teams, given that Baltimore had beaten Cincinnati five straight times with Jackson at the helm, outscoring its division rivals by a combined score of 161-57. Just as the Browns beating the Steelers in consecutive weeks to get into the playoffs and then advance to the next round last season told us that the traditional order of things in the AFC North was being upended, the Bengals blowing out their tormentors tells us that everything is up for grabs in the division.

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