The Steelers won the division with 11 regular season wins last year, and went on to the AFC championship game before falling to the Patriots. Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Baltimore each own two AFC North titles over the last six seasons in this hard fought division. The Ravens were 8-8 in 2016 while the Bengals finished two games below .500, and the lowly Browns won a single game in 2016.
In an interesting twist, the contending teams seem to beat up on each other in a consistent pattern. The Ravens usually beat the Steelers but lose to the Bengals, while the Steelers have been successful against the Bengals in most recent matchups. It will be difficult to earn a wildcard in a highly competitive AFC this season, but the toughness of the North should ultimately enable two teams to make the playoffs. Final division standings projection:
1. Baltimore Ravens
Franchise quarterback Joe Flacco has struggled in three of the four season since winning the Super Bowl. The front office did him a solid by inking receiver Jeremy Maclin, who should combine with Mike Wallace and Breshad Perriman to provide a dangerous vertical passing attack. The offensive line has two studs in Marshal Yanda and Ronnie Stanley, and uncertainty at the other three spots. Flacco does not need to carry the team, simply cutting way down on the interceptions will suffice.
John Harbaugh’s team decided to go back to their defensive roots this offseason. Nose tackle Brandon Williams was re-signed to anchor the defensive line. Terrell Suggs and C.J. Mosley lead a linebacking group that drafted a pair of high upside pass rushers. And the secondary looks to have completed a dramatic two-year turnaround. Talented free agent acquisition Tony Jefferson will line up beside savvy safety Eric Weddle. At corner, Jimmy Smith will have much more support in the form of veteran signing Brandon Carr and first round rookie Marlon Humphrey. Excellent special teams and superior coaching by Harbaugh allow the Ravens to reclaim the division from their arch rivals in 2017.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers
As always, the availability of oft injury quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will play a big role during the coming season. He should benefit from one of the very best offensive lines in the league. Dynamic receiver Antonio Brown and smooth back Le’Veon Bell give Mike Tomlin elite offensive weaponry to deploy. Explosive receiver Martavis Bryant will also return, rounding out one of the top offensive attacks in the NFL.
The Steelers defense improved down the stretch last season. Defense ends Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt are adept at keeping blockers off playmaking linebacker Ryan Shazier. The pressure is on second-year defensive backs Artie Burns and Sean Davis to continue on an upward trajectory. If Pittsburgh fails to repeat in the North, they will be in thick of the wildcard hunt.
3. Cincinnati Bengals
Bad karma surrounds Marvin Lewis and the Bengals. Whether it is off-the-field incidents, catastrophic injuries or untimely penalties, they can never seem to get it together. Their defense is built around penetrating tackle Geno Atkins, linebacker Vontaze Burfict and a deep stable of defensive backs.
Cincinnati’s front office added some firepower to the offense via the draft with speedy receiver John Ross and dynamic runner Joe Mixon. When healthy, A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert give Andy Dalton an elite one-two punch to throw to. However, the Bengals lost both of their top blockers from an already questionable offensive line. Blocking and a lack of discipline will be their downfall next season.
4. Cleveland Browns
Head coach Hue Jackson has the Browns headed in the right direction. The foundation of the offense is a line that features Joe Thomas, Joel Bitonio and free agent acquisition Kevin Zeitler. Intriguing receiver Corey Coleman is ready to break out in his second year, but the quarterback position remains a major question mark.
Cleveland is strong in the trenches on defense as well. Top overall pick Myles Garrett will line up with Danny Shelton, Emmanuel Ogbah and Jamie Collins on a defensive front with loads of potential. Their interior linebackers are mediocre at best and the secondary will be made or broken by the performances of Joe Haden and rookie safety Jabrill Peppers. The Browns are still a couple years away from truly contending.
Who will win the AFC North?
This poll is closed