That the AFC North is one of the most competitive divisions in the NFL is not a surprise. However, no team having a winning record six weeks into the season would qualify.
But despite the slow starts for the four teams, both the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens will have a chance to end the week in first place if they pull out a win when they meet on Sunday afternoon at M&T Bank Stadium.
Despite the Ravens' .500 record, they could well be 6-0 if not for a few tough breaks. All three of their losses have come down to the last minute and featured brutal turnovers. The latest was a 24-20 loss to the Giants that they led the entire game until their last two drives ended with Lamar Jackson coughing up the ball.
The Browns' season has been a roller coaster as well, although early-season optimism has faded after a three-game losing streak. Last week's 38-16 loss to the Patriots was their biggest defeat since ... their previous loss to the Patriots last November. But the loss also cut their playoff odds more than half, according to Football Outsiders, from 23.9 percent to 10.8 percent.
The Ravens have dominated this rivalry 34-12 since the Browns reestablished in 1999. However, the Browns won the most recent matchup, 24-22, to snap a four-game skid in this series. Can Cleveland end another losing streak with a road victory on Sunday?
Cleveland (2-4) at Baltimore (3-3)
Three Things to Watch
1. Can the Browns bounce back after little rushing success last week?
Although Cleveland has the NFL's No. 1 rushing attack, led by Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, it looked rather normal last week against the Patriots. New England held it to just 70 yards on 18 carries, more than 100 yards below the previous season low. Part of that was due to the Browns trailing for so much of the game, but the Pats also employed a few strategies that the Ravens could emulate.
Like the Ravens, the Patriots run a 3-4 defense, but their default defense last week used three safeties and one cornerback. That larger secondary allowed them to stop the run and would fit well with the Ravens' personnel. Baltimore often uses three or more safeties with Chuck Clark, Marcus Williams (currently on IR), Brandon Stephens, and first-rounder Kyle Hamilton, and they've been gifted a clear blueprint of what to do.
Strong play from their safeties may be necessary, since Baltimore ranks 27th in adjusted line yards (4.80). The Ravens do rank seventh in run defense (103.8 ypg), but that's largely thanks to facing the sixth-fewest rushing attempts. Their per-carry defensive stats (4.6 ypc, 18th) are far less impressive.
Cleveland may need a strong rushing performance since quarterback Jacoby Brissett has fallen off after a relatively strong start. In his last three games, all losses, the 29-year-old has completed just 55.3 percent of his passes, while averaging 6.4 yards per attempt, with two touchdowns and four interceptions. An opportunistic Ravens defense that is third in the league with 12 takeaways and eight interceptions is not the foe he'd like to face at this point.
2. Will a healthier offense solve Baltimore's scoring woes?
After averaging 33 points per game through Week 3, the Ravens have yet to score 21 points in any of their last three games. But with the injury report looking a little thinner, Baltimore could turn things around quickly.
The most obvious addition would be second-year receiver Rashod Bateman, who returned to practice and is questionable to play after suffering a foot injury in Week 4, which coincided with the team's offensive slide. He became the team's No. 1 receiver after the draft day trade of Marquise Brown and has been effective when healthy, averaging 22.1 yards per reception, the second-highest mark among receivers with double-digit catches. In his absence, the Ravens have yet to pass for 200 yards, as the remaining receivers leave much to be desired.
The other key player to watch is All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley, who has been eased back into action the last two weeks after missing nearly two seasons with ankle injuries. After playing 34 percent of snaps in Week 5, he was up to 86 percent this week and could be back to a full load against the Browns. He did not give up any pressures last week and could also benefit from the return of fellow tackle Morgan Moses (heel).
One player the Ravens will not get back is running back J.K. Dobbins, who is out four-to-six weeks after undergoing knee surgery. The silver lining is that backups Kenyan Drake (5.9 ypc) and Justice Hill (6.6) have been more effective than Dobbins (3.5) so far this season.
3. How concerned should these teams be about turnovers?
These teams have combined to win just one game over the past three weeks, and turnovers are a key reason for that. The Browns have seven during that span, and the Ravens have five. And as mentioned earlier, Baltimore's giveaways have come at the worst time, costing them several games.
However, one major difference between the teams is that the Ravens have been far better at making up for that by creating takeaways. Baltimore has more than twice as many (12 vs. 5), and the difference is especially stark with interceptions (8 vs. 2). That has allowed them to maintain a positive turnover differential (plus-four, tied for third).
Cleveland has sunk a lot of capital into its secondary, with free-agent signing John Johnson III, first-rounders Denzel Ward and Greg Newsome II, second-rounders Grant Delpit and Greedy Williams, and 2022 third-rounder Martin Emerson Jr. But the results are just not there yet. They have the potential to be much better, and they'll need to start creating turnovers — in addition to cutting down on their 6.8 net yards allowed per pass attempt — if the Browns are going to stay on the periphery of the playoff picture.
It's still too early to write the Browns off, especially with Deshaun Watson's impending return from his suspension related to more than two dozen sexual harassment allegations. But the Browns will need to have their running game return to full strength to have a chance in this game. Expect a bounce-back performance from Jackson against a weak Cleveland secondary, which should be enough to not only win but cover the near-touchdown spread.
Prediction: Ravens 31, Browns 23
*Price as of publication.