The always competitive AFC North is going to be a crap shoot this season. Any team in the division – apart from the Cleveland Browns – that ends up winning the division would not end up being a surprise. The Ravens, Steelers and Bengals could each win 12 games, or each win seven games, and again; it would not come as a surprise. In fact, we could have a repeat of 2011 on our hands, where all three teams qualified for the playoffs.
With that said, this isn’t the MLB or NBA, there are only 16 games – and every single one of them is going to matter down to the wire for the AFC North. Things get started early in the season — in Week 1 — on September 7th. In Week 1, we’ll see a pair of division games: Baltimore vs. Cincinnati and Pittsburgh vs. Cleveland.
Let’s took a look at recent history.
Five of the last six seasons, more than one team from the AFC North has made the playoffs, the exception was actually last season when only the Bengals qualified as the division winner. Having said that, the 8-6 Ravens, going into week 15 had two chances to win one game, which would have clinched a wildcard spot; as we all know, that didn’t happen.
In 2012, the soon-to-be Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens finished the regular season as division champions at 10-6, as did the wild card clinching Bengals who lost the tie-breaker. The same thing happened in 2011 when all three teams made the post season.
The Ravens and Steelers both finished 12-4, but the Ravens won the tiebreaker with a better in division record; the same thing happened in 2010, but this time it was the Steelers with the tie-breaker. In 2009 and 2008 the difference between the division-winner and the wild card spot, again, came down to just one game… you see where this is going: it’s always a close ordeal.
Since 2008, (these poor Browns…) the playoff count is as follows: Pittsburgh Steelers: 3 Cincinnati Bengals: 4 Baltimore Ravens: 5, and each team has won the division twice.
Besides the obvious fact that the division is almost undoubtedly going to come down to one game, let’s briefly look at why week one is important for all four teams.
Baltimore: The Ravens have had their fair share of “off the field” issues recently, finally a chance to get back to football. And, who better to start with than the team who won the division last season. Because of those issues, this game will be played without featured running back Ray Rice, which would be a big win to pick up.
Joe Flacco is also one of the more streaky QB’s in the league, so how he starts his year off could have a rollover effect on weeks to come. As far as defense is concerned, having Lardarius Webb back should be a boost – as his absence last year was often an excuse for the not-so-well play of the Ravens young secondary. Not to mention, winning this game would ease a bit of the pressure of having to deal with Pittsburgh coming into town just four days after the Bengals game on Thursday.
Dropping the first game to Cincy at home could prove to be detrimental down the road as well as it would likely force a must-win game in the future on the road, something that I’m sure the Ravens would like to steer clear of. The Ravens first two games could swing either way, giving momentum or taking it away for the remainder of the year.
Pittsburgh: The Steelers are starting to gain some of that swagger back, or better yet, were before last week’s awful preseason showing against Philadelphia. Granted, the preseason is about as valuable as the points on Whose Line is it Anyway in predicting how the regular season will play out.
The big issue was the two running backs that are set to be the featured backs, Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount, got in a bit of trouble with the law Wednesday before the game. We’ve seen how the league feels about pot following the Josh Gordon issues, so it will be interesting to see when and if anything comes of this. Tomlin might choose to sit the two out against Cleveland, which will up the stakes in some aspects I suppose. The Steelers are in the same spot as Baltimore, albeit an easier first game: no one wants to play a game four days later against your biggest rival after having just lost a game.
Cincinnati: The Bengals have been arguably the best AFC north team…in the regular season. Three straight years the team has advanced to the postseason and failed to record a win. The key to getting that win may be home-field advantage, which is going to require a road through Baltimore.
This is a big game for Cincy and Andy Dalton. He will get his first chance to prove he is worth that heavy contract, and the team will get its first chance to prove Who Dey being on top of the AFC North is not a flash in the pan.
Cincinnati has a rigorous schedule because of that first place finish, so games against New England and Denver won’t make that goal of home-field easy, which is why this game is pivotal. It will be interesting to see this season if Dalton, who has taken a step forward into the limelight, can also take a step forward with his play.
Cleveland: For the Browns week one will be about establishing some sorts of identities and setting the bar for their season. All eyes will be on Brian Hoyer (to my dismay). Joe Haden and the defense will most likely be very effective, but can the offense do anything against that historically prominent defense of the Steelers. This is simple, this game will tell us if the Browns are going to be competitive in the AFC North, or just another year of Cleveland helping other teams in the division clinch a wildcard spot. There is certainly some buzz in Ohio, and I actually hope there is substance to it, I just don’t see it happening this season.
1) Ravens: 11-5 (easy schedule later in the season is a big boost, but dropping one on the road against Miami or Tampa Bay will change things)
2) Bengals: 10-6 (the 1st place schedule with losses to the Broncos and Pats hurt)
3) Steelers: 10-6 (Out of conference is a cakewalk if they take care of business. If the Steelers of old show up, I could easily see them winning this division, but the consistency to trust the black and gold just isn’t there)
4) Cleveland: 5-11 (If Pettine plays Manziel I’ll change this to 6.5 wins just because I want the entertainment)