- Jamison Hensley, ESPN Staff Writer
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A look at what is rising and falling at the midway point of the regular season:
1. Discipline. This division has always been known for its physical play. This year, the AFC North is also gaining a reputation for being sloppy and undisciplined, and you can't put this all on the replacement refs. Three teams in the division rank in the top 10 in penalty yards: Pittsburgh (second), Baltimore (third) and Cleveland (sixth). On Sunday, the Steelers and Ravens combined for 201 yards in penalties. The Bengals are the exception, ranking 20th in penalty yards.
2. Defensive dominance in the division. It was a source of pride within the division last season, when all four defenses ranked in the top 10. This year, three of the AFC North defenses rank in the bottom 13. Injuries have been a big factor in the decline. The Ravens were without the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year (Terrell Suggs) for most of the season. The Bengals lost their leading tackler (Thomas Howard) after one game. And the Browns watched top defensive lineman (Phillip Taylor), two starting outside linebackers (Scott Fujita and Chris Gocong) and top cornerback (Joe Haden) miss a total of 26 starts. The Steelers, who were the top defense in the NFL last season, are No. 1 nine weeks into this season.
3. Coaching excellence. John Harbaugh and Mike Tomlin should be applauded for how they've kept their teams near the top of the AFC despite the injuries to key players. But this hasn't been a stellar year for coaching so far. Harbaugh has been penalized twice for unsportsmanlike conduct. Tomlin nearly lost the game at the Giants by calling for a fake field goal. Marvin Lewis, who has never been strong at replay challenges, threw the red flag to challenge a 2-yard catch by Mike Wallace, who clearly had both knees on the ground before fumbling. And Pat Shurmur is causing fans to shake their heads with his decisions on fourth down and his inability to get the plays to the huddle in timely manner.
1. The running games. The weather is starting to get colder, which means the running games are beginning to heat up. The Steelers have rebounded from an awful start to get three straight 100-yard games from two different backs (Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman). Browns rookie running back Trent Richardson has run for 100 yards in consecutive games for the first time in his career. And Ravens running back Ray Rice gained 98 yards on a season-high 25 carries Sunday. The Bengals' BenJarvus Green-Ellis has been the biggest disappointment, ranking 24th in rushing yards per game (60.9).
2. Young receivers. The future is bright for the passing games in the AFC North. The Bengals' A.J. Green is sixth in the NFL with 735 yards and has scored a touchdown in seven straight games. Wallace and the Ravens' Torrey Smith have combined for 10 touchdowns and 14 catches over 20 yards. And Browns rookie Josh Gordon is second in the NFL with a 21.9-yard per catch average.
3. Chances of getting two teams in the playoffs. I initially predicted only one team would make the playoffs out of the AFC North because of the tougher schedules this season. It looked like that was going to be the case six weeks into the season when only the Ravens had a winning record in the division. But the Steelers heated up with three straight wins and the Ravens still hold the second-best record in the AFC. If the season ended today, Baltimore would get the second seed and a first-round bye while Pittsburgh would get the sixth and final playoff spot.