When you think about the AFC North division, you think of a tough, rugged style of football that tests a teams will and heart. Your team plays with a physical mindset and the games are always close. It's been one of the toughest and most competitive divisions in the NFL for the last decade, which says a lot considering this is a division that also houses the Cleveland Browns. However, even the division matchups featuring them are at the very least competitive. The Baltimore Ravens have played numerous close games with Cleveland even with their 16-2 record against them since 2008.
While the Browns have floundered in last place, the AFC playoffs will sometimes get more than one team in the tournament from this division. Rare occasions like 2011 and 2014 saw the Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers, and Cincinnati Bengals make the playoffs. The Ravens and Steelers have both won two Super Bowls each since the turn of the new millennium and have met each other four separate times in the postseason.
Those same three teams have exchanged division titles as well since 2002 when the division was realigned from the old AFC Central after the NFL expanded to 32 teams. The Steelers have the most with seven, with the Ravens and Bengals having won it four times each. All three have done it the same way with solid quarterback play, a good running game, and a strong defense. The last time the Browns won this division, back in the AFC Central days, was 1989.
Entering the 2017 season, it seems we are in line for yet another three team race for this division between the Bengals, Ravens and Steelers. With Pittsburgh being the clear cut favorite to win it for the third time in four years. NFL.coms Conor Orr decided to rank each division in the NFL in terms of competiveness. The AFC North was ranked 5th out of the eight divisions. Orr stated:
"With the exception of the Browns, none of these teams are more than two seasons removed from their last 10-win seasons. Most of these teams also boast largely the same group of core players and key contributors as last season. Given the aggressive nature of Cincy's draft, I feel its hard to cast the Bengals away from the division's power players simply because of an injury-fueled drop-off in 2016. The reason I note that the division could be decided in November, though, is a fortuitous opening schedule for the Steelers. As I noted in my 2017 easiest schedules piece, Pittsburgh has a decent chance of rolling into the bye week in early November undefeated. All of the Steelers difficult games come with a caveat in their favor...for example, their first matchup against the Ravens comes the week after Baltimore returns from London. Should Pittsburgh get this type of head start, the competitive nature of the division might force a bit of a logjam between Mike Tomlin and Co."
First off, I do agree it is hard to just throw away the Bengals like we are seeing some do. This is a team that previously made the playoffs five years in a row before last season. Quarterback Andy Dalton still has A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert to go along with rookie John Ross. Even Joe Mixon, controversy aside, can go out and be a factor. While questions need to be answered about their offensive line, the same goes for the Ravens. Speaking of which, the Bengals have also owned the Ravens with a 6-2 record against them since 2013, and the two sides will meet in Cincinnati on September 10th to kick off the season. If the Ravens want to win this division, they have to stop the bleeding against Cincinnati. Week 1 is a good opportunity to send a message.
While Baltimore and Cincinatti will be fighting it out to start the year, the Steelers on the other hand will be in Cleveland. After that, Pittsburgh will be home to Minnesota and then travel to Chicago before their week 4 date with the Ravens. While Orr brings up a good point about Baltimore coming off their London trip against the Jacksonville Jaguars, you still have to factor in this is Ravens vs. Steelers. Its all hands on deck every time these two get together, and you know, London trip or not, Baltimore has been waiting for a rematch ever since the Steelers knocked them out on Christmas night last year. Whenever these two meet, the records and the circumstances are thrown out the window.
As far as Pittsburgh possibly being undefeated before their bye week, after the Ravens game in Baltimore, they play the Jaguars at home, a rematch from last years playoffs with the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead, then home against the Bengals followed by a Sunday Night game with the Lions in Detroit. Its certainly possible, but If there is one thing that has hurt Pittsburgh, it's been their consistency. They can look so dominant and Super Bowl contenders one week, and then struggle the next. Games on the road against the Chiefs and Lions will be tough.
Nevertheless, the road isn't so easy for the Ravens as well facing teams like the Oakland Raiders, Tennessee Titans, Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings away from M&T Bank Stadium. They even face playoff teams from a year ago such as the Miami Dolphins, Houston Texans, and the Detroit Lions in Baltimore.
The Bengals, Ravens and Steelers are sure to make this division fun and interesting to watch this season. With the AFC filled with young and hungry teams vowing for playoff spots, a 9 or 10-win campaign might not be enough for a second team to snatch a wild-card spot. Making the mission to win this division even more important.