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Unpopular Opinions

Why the AFC North is the NFL's most entertaining division

Listen, I don't try to live my life as a contrarian. That's not true -- I kind of do. I've spent a lot of time in public houses and taverns, and I've heard a lot of the sports world's most popular opinions. Sometimes, I think it's best to take a look at the other side.

In this space, I articulate positions that are the opposite of what most people think -- unpopular opinions, if you will -- and explain why, well, my unpopular opinions are right and everyone else is wrong. Below, I explain why one division is must-see TV, from top to bottom.

The AFC North is the most entertaining division in football.

I didn't say best. Because the NFC West is the best division in football.

But the AFC North is the most entertaining.

I mean, look at what happened last week. Prior to kickoff, people complained about Bengals-Browns getting a plum, prime-time slot on Thursday Night Football. Cincinnati (which went an NFL-worst 2-14 in 2019) vs. Cleveland (which carries a league-high 17-year playoff drought): Who wanted to watch that? But it was a damn good football game. Not the best game I've ever seen in my life. I'm not going to tell my children about it a decade from now or anything like that. But it was an entertaining contest. Which is a huge step up for the division, considering its recent reputation ...

The North has been top-heavy for years, with the Steelers and Ravens getting top billing, like when Clooney and Pitt fronted the Ocean's movies. The Browns have been stuck on the verge of stardom, the team with all of the tools that just can't quite get it together. The Luke Hemsworth of the division, if you will. Which, of course, leaves the Bengals as the Screech.

OK, maybe that's a bit harsh on Cincy. Truth be told, I actually love where the Bengals are as a franchise right now. Joe Burrow is one of the most compelling players in the league. He was the best college football player on the planet a year ago. And he's already carrying the burden of a team that hasn't won a playoff game since Saved by the Bell was originally on the air. (The good version. Not the Tori version -- or worse, The College Years.) I even wrote this about the Bengals back in June, in my State of the Franchise series:

It's an exciting time to be a Bengals fan. This is a team on the rise, potentially heading for unprecedented levels of success, and the Bengals are a proud franchise. They have a history filled with some of the greatest innovators in the game and some of the best who ever played it. The only thing missing is a championship. I'm not going to sugarcoat it and say that a title is within reach this season. But the Bengals are putting together the building blocks to get there one day.

I truly mean that. I know we're only two games into the Burrow era, but having a quarterback of the future who makes everything more enjoyable is like getting a free round of golf at a swanky Orange County country club: Even when it's frustrating or challenging, it's still pretty good (or so I imagine). Bengals coach Zac Taylor has really leaned into it. A lot of coaches would try to protect their young prodigy by running the football. Taylor had Burrow put the ball in the air 61 times on Thursday night. I love it.

Perhaps Browns fans would caution against getting too excited too early about a young quarterback. Given their history with, well, every quarterback who has played for the Browns this millennium. But you can still count me as a card-carrying member of the Baker Mayfield fan club. I mean, a lot of quarterbacks would have looked at the disaster of 2019 and thought to themselves, I probably shouldn't do as many advertisements. Baker went the other way and doubled down. He gets me. And can I get a moment to point out that Mayfield's play on the field is like a damn Greek tragedy? Baker was amazing in Year 1, setting a rookie record with 27 touchdown passes. Then Cleveland brought in all-world receiver Odell Beckham, and Mayfield's completion percentage dropped below 60 while his pick total jumped above 20. This past offseason, the Browns hired Kevin Stefanski and significantly beefed up the offensive line, yet we still get figures like this, courtesy of Next Gen Stats: Mayfield has a passer rating of 120.4 when he's blitzed, but 40.8 when facing four or fewer pass rushers. I don't even know what to do with this kind of information.

But if Baker and OBJ can build off a promising Week 2 showing? I mean, Cleveland already has its modern-day backfield equivalent of Earnest Byner and Kevin Mack (ask your parents) in Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. Dare I say the Browns' offense could be exciting? And speaking of offense ...

With Ben Roethlisberger under center again, the Steelers' attack is back. I know that Big Ben's a polarizing player. He's not really my cup of tea. But if the alternative is watching Mason Rudolph, I'll go purchase a Miami of Ohio throwback right now. JuJu Smith-Schuster's undoubtedly thrilled to have his QB1 again. Which leads into my next point: How is it that the Steelers always manage to find good receivers? ALWAYS. Over the last couple of decades, the Steelers have lost Plaxico Burress, Santonio Holmes, Antonio Brown, et al., and yet still annually manage to have one of the best receiving corps in the game. Just look at the current group. Beyond the resurgent JuJu, Diontae Johnson is picking up right where he left off in his fine rookie season. And now Chase Claypool -- the latest Steelers steal in the draft -- is scoring 84-yard touchdowns. The only Pittsburgh product better than Steelers wide receivers? Primanti Brothers sandwiches -- and really, those can only be truly enjoyed right by the Three Rivers.

Here's the real bad news for the rest of the AFC: While the Steelers' offense looks potent again, their defense is even better. The unit has given up four touchdowns this season -- only the Ravens (two), Bears (three) and Chargers (three) have allowed fewer. Pittsburgh also leads the NFL in sacks and takeaways. Do the Steelers have the best defense in the NFL right now? Maybe, maybe not. Do they have the best Watt brother right now? They certainly do. No disrespect to J.J. Watt, but T.J. Watt should have been Defensive Player of the Year last season, and he's making another push for the hardware in 2020, with 2.5 sacks and a pick in his first two games.

So, here we are, 1,100 words into this column explaining why the AFC North is the most entertaining division in football, and we haven't even gotten to the Baltimore Ravens. You know, the team that finished an NFL-best 14-2 last season? The team quarterbacked by the reigning MVP? Ring a bell?

Lamar Jackson, of course, put all the lazy narratives about his perceived limitations to rest in 2019, authoring one of the most dominant regular seasons in memory. Not only did he shatter Michael Vick's single-season record for rushing yards by a quarterback with 1,206, but he also, um, led the league in touchdown passes with 36. And now, through the first two weeks of this season, Jackson has completed 77.6 percent of his passes, with four TDs and zero INTs. For the record, he's airing it out, too, currently boasting a yards-per-attempt average of 9.8 -- the highest number in the league. The guy continues to become more of a downfield assassin. Just check out the progression in this key area over his brief NFL career:

Lamar Jackson on passes of 10-plus air yards:

Table inside Article
2018 2019 2020
Comp pct 45.8 50.0 75.0
Yards per att 9.9 11.9 14.0
TD-INT 3-3 18-2 3-0
Passer rating 77.2 126.0 156.3

Remember back in the pre-draft process, when people wanted him to play wideout? Yeah, OK ...

And while Baltimore's offense understandably tops this Ravens marquee, the defense just keeps producing at an elite level. Don "Wink" Martindale's unit, which finished last season ranked third in scoring and fourth in yards, currently ranks first and second in those two areas. Top free-agent acquisition Calais Campbell has been a tone-setting beast up front, while top draft pick Patrick Queen leads the team in tackles. A force to be reckoned with on both sides of the football, the Ravens currently look like the NFL's best team.

What more could you want from the AFC North? This is clearly the NFL's most entertaining division. And frankly, the North isn't far off being the league's best division.

Follow Adam Rank on Twitter @AdamRank.

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