CINCINNATI — The first half of the season has been perfect in every way for the Bengals. They’ve won every game, kept all of their stars healthy and opened a daunting lead in the AFC North.
The rest of the division? Just trying to hold it together.
Cincinnati (8-0) has the biggest lead of any team in the NFL, up four games in the loss column over second-place Pittsburgh (5-4). At this point, they’re not even talking about the division title anymore.
The better questions: Can the Steelers pull through all of their injuries and stay in the wild-card chase? Can the Ravens (2-6) and Browns (2-7) become respectable? And how long can the Bengals keep running the table?
“I couldn’t care less if we lose a few games and make it to the playoffs,” safety George Iloka said. “A perfect season is not really one of the goals we set in the offseason. The perfect postseason is what we set out for.”
The Bengals are in position to make the playoffs for the fifth straight season, unprecedented in franchise history. Their overriding goal is to finally win a playoff game, something they haven’t done since the 1990 season.
In Pittsburgh, they need Ben Roethlisberger to get healthy and stay that way. In Baltimore and Cleveland, they need a whole lot more than one player back.
Here are some things to watch in the AFC North during the second half:
MORE THAN ONE?: The AFC North has been the league’s best division in recent years, sending 15 teams to the postseason in the past seven years. Three went last season — everybody except the Browns. The question is whether it’ll get two this time. The North has sent multiple teams to the playoffs six times in the past seven years, the only exception being 2013.
UNBEATEN BENGALS: With the best start in their history, the Bengals have put themselves in contention for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, which would be a huge help in ending the sixth-longest streak of postseason futility in NFL history. A Monday night game in Denver on Dec. 28 could go a long way in deciding it.
“As it extends, it’s only going to get harder,” left tackle Andrew Whitworth said of the winning streak. “You’ve just got to continue to be what got you there.”
BANKING ON BEN: Pittsburgh’s chances took a huge hit when Roethlisberger sprained his left knee and missed four games. He was rusty when he returned for a 16-10 loss to the Bengals in Pittsburgh on Nov. 1, throwing three interceptions and floating his long throws. Running back Le’Veon Bell suffered a season-ending knee injury during that game, costing the Steelers their most versatile playmaker.
“It’s always an emotional blow when you lose any guy, let alone a guy and a star like Le’Veon Bell,” backup DeAngelo Williams said.
The hits kept coming. A week later, Roethlisberger hurt his left foot while getting tackled, another injury that won’t go away overnight. How well he plays will go a long way in deciding whether the Steelers can get a playoff berth.
RAVENS MELTDOWN: The Ravens also have been held back by injuries, losing linebacker Terrell Suggs and receiver Steve Smith. Their defensive secondary has given up big plays — the Bengals rallied twice in the fourth quarter for a 28-24 win at Baltimore that left the Ravens 0-3 for the first time in franchise history. They haven’t forced a turnover since the third week of the season, and they rank 29th in pass defense.
At this rate, they’re headed for their first losing record since 2007, when they finished last with a 5-11 mark. John Harbaugh took over as coach the following season.
“It’s a lot of things and in the end, it comes down to making a difference with a play, a scheme or a turnover, or a catch or whatever it might be that wins a tight game,” Harbaugh said.
BROWNS AT THE BOTTOM: The Browns are in their accustomed spot, holding down last place at midseason. They’ve finished last in all but one season since 2008. A 7-9 mark last season — Cleveland’s best since 2007 — provided optimism that the franchise was ready to finally move up in the North, but more quarterback issues and game-turning sloppiness have contributed to yet another lost season with no indication the franchise is close to digging out.
“Our faith is being tested,” quarterback Johnny Manziel said after a loss at Cincinnati. “We’ll see how we respond.”
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: Bengals, Steelers, Ravens, Browns.