(CBS Pittsburgh) -- One win separates all four teams in the AFC North. And with the Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, and Pittsburgh Steelers so evenly matched, the division race is likely to stay tight deep into the season. The Ravens entered their bye week in second place. But thanks to Cincinnati's ugly loss to the New York Jets, Baltimore found themselves in first place coming out of it. The Steelers downed the Browns in a defensive affair to pull ahead of them in the standings.
Week 9 matchups are unlikely to add much space among the teams in the division race. The well-rested Ravens host the Minnesota Vikings. The Browns look to jumpstart their ground game against a Bengals defense which can be stingy to opposing running backs. And the offensively challenged Steelers get the offensively challenged Bears in Pittsburgh.
All times listed are Eastern.
Minnesota Vikings @ Baltimore Ravens, Sunday, November 7, 1:00 p.m.
The Ravens lead the AFC North, but they're still smarting from that blowout loss to the Bengals two weeks ago. The bye week may be just what they needed heading into November and the stretch run toward the playoffs.
"The Ravens looked like they ran out of gas against the Bengals," Hartstein noticed in Week 8. "The Bengals were fresher. The Ravens had a stretch, if you go back to preseason, where they played five road games in six weeks. They also played two overtime games. And then it all came to a head against the Bengals. I think it was a perfect time. And if you look back at John Harbaugh before the bye and after the bye, before the bye, 49-39, after the bye 80-40. This is a coach [who], when given extra time, can make the adjustments."
Baltimore will be well-rested and adequately prepared for the Vikings. The Ravens boast one of the NFL's top rushing offenses, averaging 149.4 yards behind quarterback Lamar Jackson, despite the injuries that decimated their running back room in the preseason. Their defense has also tightened up some as the season's progressed, the Bengals game notwithstanding.
The Vikings find themselves sinking, despite two wins in their last three games. They squeezed by the winless Detroit Lions and the fading Carolina Panthers before their bye and then lost to the Dak Prescott-less Dallas Cowboys last week.
"Minnesota [is] in disarray after losing to Cooper Rush at home," Hartstein said. "Mike Zimmer getting so conservative on offense. And they give up 4.6 yards a carry, which is going to spell trouble against the Ravens in their rush defense."
Kirk Cousins passed for only 184 yards against a Cowboys pass defense that's currently giving up 278.1 yards per game, among the worst in the NFL. Dalvin Cook is generally productive out of the backfield, when he's available. However, the Ravens are only allowing 86.1 yards on the ground this season.
Cleveland Browns @ Cincinnati Bengals, Sunday, November 7, 1:00 p.m.
The Browns and Bengals are both coming off games they probably should have won. The banged-up Browns were hardly a sure thing heading into Pittsburgh to meet the division-rival Steelers. Running back Kareem Hunt was out. Quarterback Baker Mayfield, nursing an injury to his non-throwing shoulder, was iffy. A healthy Mayfield would have given Cleveland a clear advantage. But he was clearly not 100 percent. And the 15-10 loss suggests maybe a healthy Case Keenum might have been a better option.
In any case, something is clearly wrong with a Browns offense that has seemed stuck in second gear since their 42-point outpouring against the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 5. They've failed to top 20 points in their last three outings. Opportunities presented themselves against the Steelers, but they couldn't seem to execute. Wide receiver, Jarvis Landry, who tends to be pretty sure-handed, fumbled and failed to catch a couple key passes in the game's finally minutes. Mayfield spread the ball around, connecting with nine different receivers. But the running game never seemed to really get going. Nick Chubb averaged only 3.8 yards per carry on his 16 carries, with most of the yardage coming on just two of those.
"The Browns offense is just not producing lately, still have a lot of injuries," according to Hartstein. "And I'm also worried that they had another injury in the secondary to John Johnson. If you look at the Browns, the defense has played well, but they've been susceptible to receiving corps with a ton of speed, like the Chiefs, like the Chargers, like the Cardinals. And now you have Ja'Marr Chase, Tyler Boyd, Tee Higgins, a very explosive passing offense."
The Bengals are primed for a bounceback game after their Week 8 disaster. They were a clear favorite over the New York Jets. With how Cincinnati was playing going into New York, the potential was there for a blowout over the Jets, one of the NFL's worst teams. Apparently, the potential was also there for a letdown game. And that's what happened, as their defense allowed Jets' backup QB Mike White to surpass 400 yards in his first NFL start, and their offense failed to capitalize on the Jets' turnovers.
"I'm going to throw out last week, because this was a terrible spot against the Jets," Hartstein said. "The Jets didn't even have their quarterback. They were in between a 'Super Bowl win' over the Ravens, which was like a Super Bowl, and Cleveland on deck. It was an obvious flat spot, and they paid for it. But now I think they'll be focused."
Chicago Bears @ Pittsburgh Steelers, Monday, November 8, 8:15 p.m.
Neither the Bears nor the Steelers have been lighting up scoreboards and stat sheets as of late. The Bears are 3-5 behind rookie quarterback Justin Fields and the basic offense they execute. That will change as they allow him to do more, and hopefully see growth as a result. For now, though, the losing continues, most recently to the San Francisco 49ers.
"Justin Fields, even though they lost, he ran for 100 yards," Hartstein pointed out. "They are getting his legs more in the offense. He's starting to develop."
His increasing willingness to run could create more openings in the passing game. But so far Fields has topped 200 yards passing in only one game this season. The lack of yardage has led to just 15.4 points per game, among the lowest in the NFL. And the Bears' defense behind Khalil Mack, while adequate, isn't strong enough to win games on its own. Mack missed the Bears' Week 8 loss to the 49ers with an ongoing foot injury and could miss this week's game as well, making them even more vulnerable.
The Steelers defense, led by T.J. Watt could create problems for Fields, as they did for Mayfield. Bears quarterbacks have been sacked an NFL-worst 30 times so far. Meanwhile, the Steelers have 19 sacks, 8.5 of which belong to Watt.
All this seemingly sets up nicely for the Steelers, who have won three straight to climb out of the AFC North cellar. But Roethlisberger has been looking his age in an offense that seems very pedestrian. Only rookie running back Najee Harris provides any real spark.
According to Hartstein, "the Steelers, as favorites, have not covered once this season, 0-3 against the spread and twice they lost outright. Now there was that game at Denver where they actually closed as the underdog, when Bridgewater was available. So that game was almost a pick'em. And they did eke out that game, but Denver was threatening as it ended. Basically you don't want to lay a lot of points with an offense that is so limited. And even last week, 15 points. Big Ben did play well, but this offense is very, very limited."
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