Sports Today: AFC North race wide open for Bengals

Credit: John Grieshop

Credit: John Grieshop

Here’s an understatement to start the week: The AFC North race is looking a lot better for the Cincinnati Bengals than it did three weeks ago.

The Orange and Black were already two games out two games into the season despite playing both games at home against beatable teams.

(They looked awful in both games, by the way.)

The Steelers slogged by the Browns in Week 1 then beat the Minnesota Vikings handily.

These were two teams clearing going in opposite directions, right?

Since then the Bengals have righted the ship, putting up a solid performance at Green Bay (now 4-1) then crushing the Browns last week and taking care of the Bills on Sunday.

RELATED: Will schedules be key in AFC race?

Meanwhile, a Steelers team that was a trendy pick to have the best chance to knock off the thought-to-be-invincible New England Patriots has gone 1-2 while discontent reportedly swirls in the Pittsburgh locker room.

Pittsburgh’s one win in that timespan was also handy for the Bengals as it came against the Ravens, who are 3-2 but still unproven.

(Baltimore has beaten the Bengals, who didn’t know how to play football at the time, the Browns, who were the Browns at the time, and the Raiders, who didn’t have their starting quarterback at the time.)

So Cincinnati is still a game back, but the trajectory of the season is far more positive.

It certainly makes for a happier bye week than was on the table, oh, somewhere midway through the second half.

I admit to seeing the season teetering on the brink of disaster after A.J. Green's fumble, but that's life following the NFL.

RELATED: Green shrugs off turnovers, comes up big for Bengals 

Every game is like an MLB postseason contest — not quite sports life and death but pretty damn close because you never know what disaster could be waiting around the corner — because there is so much parity.

It’s best just to embrace the uncertainty, ride out the emotional waves and hope for the best while fearing the worst.

The Bengals have figured out how to use many of their weapons on offense, and Andy Dalton has been much better over the last three weeks.

The defense continues to look better, too, even with some secondary secondary players having to play against Buffalo. That defensive line is legit, and with Vontaze Burfict back and Nick Vigil on the rise, the linebacker corps looks a lot better, too.

The offensive line remains a huge problem, though.

It’s hard to believe that will change between now and the end of the season, but stranger things have happened…

The weekend was also nice for the Ohio State Buckeyeswho annihilated a Maryland team that should still flirt with bowl eligibility then watched their oldest rival lose a sloppy game at home.

Michigan State’s upset of Michigan on Saturday exposed the Wolverines’ offense and made us rethink how good the Spartans might be.

It also raised the stakes of Ohio State-Penn State (Oct. 28) even more.

How good are the Buckeyes?

That’s still a fair question considering the level of competition over the past month, but I’m quite confident they are better than they were when they played Oklahoma (another weekend loser).

RELATED: 5 takeaways from Week 6 in college football

I saw some people arguing about the Associated Press poll online, but I didn’t want to wade too deeply into that because, ya know, it doesn’t matter at all.

But here is a measure that Buckeye fans will like: Football Outsiders' S&P+ ratings have Ohio State on top.

Yes, the Buckeyes are even ahead of Alabama thanks to a slightly more productive offense.

What does it mean?

The FO numbers, which take into account both efficiency and explosiveness on each side of the ball and special teams, are impressed with just how thoroughly dominant Ohio State has been in a four-game winning streak over teams currently ranked 74th (Army), 97th (UNLV), 94th (Rutgers) and 78th (Maryland).

RELATED: Everything that was wrong with that targeting call against Denzel Ward

You can only play who is put in front of you, but you can control just how much you kick their ass. Ohio State has taken care of business almost literally as well as it possibly could.

That won’t count for anything when the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions (currently fourth in the S&P+) meet at Ohio Stadium, but it’s a good sign in the meantime…

The weekend was also busy on the UD basketball front. 

Coach Anthony Grant's Flyers reportedly are in the hunt for a five-star prospect.

Yes, you read that right. Dayton is trying to reel in not just a highly regarded prospect but one of the nation’s elite talents.

The recruitment of Anfernee Simons is no normal story, though. He committed to Louisville last fall then rose up the ranks from four-star to five-star via his play since.

RELATED: Dayton reportedly visits five-star prospect

Dayton is one of numerous teams wooing Simons, and the Flyers got an in-home visit with him over the weekend according to ESPN.

Dayton would appear to be a long shot for Simons, but Grant’s connections in Florida certainly could be a factor here.

And just being in the game for this type of talent indicates Grant has high expectations for his alma mater.

RELATED: Scoochie Smith off to strong start to pro career

While Archie Miller won (a lot) mostly via coaching up underappreciated prospects and diamonds in the rough, similar schools such as Xavier, Butler and Creighton have risen recently by recruiting more like power conference programs.

Trying to follow that example is not without risks, but it could also mean even greater rewards.

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