It took a last-second prayer on Christmas Day for the Pittsburgh Steelers to clinch the AFC North title over the rival Baltimore Ravens last season. Antonio Brown stretched the ball over the goal line with nine seconds remaining in the game to give the Steelers the division. That’s the kind of drama we’ve come to expect from the AFC North.
The upcoming season should produce even more dramatics, as the Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals hope to wrest the division away from Pittsburgh.
The Steelers enter the year as heavy favorites to not only outclass their northern rivals, but to challenge for a championship. Ben Roethlisberger opted against retirement, Le’Veon Bell is back on a one-year, franchise tag, and Antonio Brown has a new deal and license to dance his heart out when he gets to the end zone.
Talent abounds throughout the division, however. Here are the contenders for the crown in the AFC North:
The Ravens hung in the division race until the end of their Week 16 matchup with the Steelers. The four-point defeat ended their playoff hopes, however, as the wild-card spots had all been accounted for.
They figure to be playoff contenders again in 2017 with the addition of Jeremy Maclin to the receiving corps, Danny Woodhead to the stable of backs, and Tony Jefferson and Marlon Humphrey to the secondary.
Baltimore owns one of the more balanced lineups and is a popular pick to challenge the league’s top teams. The defense again ranked in the top 10 last year, but it’s the offense that will have to keep up as it finished 17th in total offense and 21st in total points.
The Bengals took a significant step backwards in 2016, dropping six victories off their win total from the previous season. Cincinnati finished the year without a trip to the playoffs for the first time since 2010.
This year figures to be a make-or-break season for many in the Queen City. Head coach Marvin Lewis enters the campaign on the last year of his contract and there is a potential out in quarterback Andy Dalton’s contract following the season.
The Bengals have been infused with a lot of young talent that will be relied upon early. First-round pick John Ross is expected to slot in as a starter, many anticipate running back Joe Mixon will eventually climb into the regular rotation, and William Jackson III may have to play opposite Dre Kirkpatrick at corner with Adam Jones suspended for the opening game of the season. He missed his entire rookie year with a torn pec.
Much also depends on whether the Bengals can manage the free-agent losses of Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler on the offensive line and if injured tight end Tyler Eifert can return to Pro-Bowl form.
That’s a lot of ifs.
The obvious answer is no, the Browns cannot unseat the Steelers. Cleveland could barely muster a win last season, so the club is in no position to challenge for a division title.
The slow rebuild continues, however, with another year under Hue Jackson’s leadership and a much-heralded draft class on board. The Browns used the first pick in the draft on the best defensive talent available and, with their subsequent picks, added a versatile safety and athletic tight end.
The Browns have yet to settle upon, or even acquire, their quarterback of the future and the rest of the offensive roster is also in flux. Gregg Williams was brought aboard to bring some structure to the defense.
The team remains in the talent acquisition phase. It’ll be a while before the Browns can even think about chasing a division championship.
Also from this series
- Can anyone unseat the Cowboys in the NFC East?
- Can anyone unseat the Packers in the NFC North?
- Can anyone unseat the Falcons in the NFC South?
- Can anyone unseat the Seahawks in the NFC West?
- Can anyone unseat the Patriots in the AFC East?
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