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State of the AFC North: Week 17

The Ravens secure the division crown and the rest of the division looks towards next season.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Pittsburgh Steelers Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

After 17 long, competitive weeks, the AFC North was finally settled on Sunday. It was a rollercoaster season, but the Ravens (10-6) ultimately ousted the Steelers (9-6-1) to capture their first division title since 2012.

The Steelers managed to squeak by the Bengals in Week 17, but they needed a Ravens loss to the Browns to earn a postseason berth. It nearly came to fruition, but Baltimore’s defense came up big late to seal a victory.

The Browns (7-8-1) and Bengals (6-10) will again round out the bottom of the division for the third straight season. However, the outlook in Cleveland looks far brighter than that of Cincinnati going forward.

Bengals lose to Steelers: 13-10

Valiant effort

The Bengals had essentially nothing to play for on Sunday other than pride and spoiling the playoff chances of a division foe. They clearly wore both of those on their shoulders and were motivated to end a largely disappointing season with a bang.

Cincinnati gave Pittsburgh all they could handle for much of this game and actually held a 10-3 advantage entering the second half. If the Bengals offensive attack could have struck more balance, they very well could have pulled out a victory.

Quarterback Jeff Driskel threw for just 95 yards and completed 50% of his passes, and yet the Bengals still found themselves with a chance to tie or win the game with just under two minutes remaining. They ultimately came out on the losing end, but given the stakes at hand for both teams, it was impressive that the Bengals gave themselves a legitimate chance.

End of an era

After a 6-10 finish and third straight season missing out on the playoffs, the Bengals have fired head coach Marvin Lewis. Lewis has been the head coach in Cincinnati for the past 16 years and it started to feel as if he may have immunity.

At the end of last season, it was reported by many that the Bengals were preparing to fire Lewis. However, a Week 17 victory over the Ravens earned the longtime Cincinnati head coach a contract extension. Now, the Bengals have finally decided to move in a different direction.

The Bengals started the year 4-1 and appeared to be the most complete team in the division. However, the tide soon changed and Cincinnati fell off, winning just two games total throughout the rest of the season. Injuries certainly didn’t help, but the Bengals were trending in the wrong direction before key players began going down, anyways.

Lewis had never won a playoff game in his 16 years as the Bengals coach. Despite his lack of success, he’s an experienced, well-respected coach and shouldn’t be out of work long unless he decides to retire. Now, for the first time in forever, the Bengals will be looking for a new head coach.

Steelers defeat Bengals: 13-10

Seen this before …

For as talented of a roster as they’ve had, the Steelers have developed a reputation for playing down to their competition. This development again played out this season and it’s one reason they failed to make the playoffs.

On Sunday, the Steelers were playing for a playoff berth and the Bengals were playing for … pride? And still, the Bengals looked like the better team for the entire first half and nearly pulled off an upset IN Pittsburgh.

Throughout the season, the Steelers played down to the level of inferior competition. They tied with the Browns in Week 1, narrowly squeaked out wins against the Buccaneers and Jaguars, and lost road games to the Broncos and Raiders.

Close, but no cigar

After narrowly squeaking by the Bengals, the Steelers fans and players alike stuck around, glued to the jumbotron hoping the Browns could pull off a late comeback against the Ravens. That didn’t happen, and the Steelers will miss the playoffs as a result.

Frankly, Pittsburgh should not have found themselves in this position. The Steelers boast a talented roster across the board, an experienced head coach and quarterback, and arguably the most dynamic wide receiver tandem in the league.

And yet, there they were in Week 17, relying on the Browns to help them get in. Pittsburgh was in the drivers seat midseason, but ultimately faltered late and lost winnable games to the Raiders, Chargers, and Broncos. There’s no one to blame but themselves, and the Steelers will be sitting on their couch during the playoffs for the first time since 2013.

Browns lose to Ravens: 26-24

Mayfield of dreams

When the Browns selected Baker Mayfield with the first overall pick, many questioned the selection. Few expected Mayfield to make much of an impact his rookie season, as Tyrod Taylor was the starting quarterback heading into the season.

However, Mayfield won the starting job just a few weeks into the season and never looked back. In just 13 games, Mayfield threw for 3,725 yards, 27 touchdowns, and finished with a rating of 93.7. His 27 touchdown passes represent a new rookie NFL-record, which was previously held by Peyton Manning.

Mayfield’s stellar rookie season not only validated the Browns decision to draft him but cemented his role as the quarterback of the future in Cleveland. The Browns have long needed stability and flash at the position, and they finally found their guy in Mayfield.

Looking ahead

The Browns had a legitimate chance to upset the Ravens in Week 17 and while they ultimately couldn’t close the deal, it shouldn’t overshadow a successful season. Cleveland won seven games on the year, including five of their past seven contests.

A 7-8-1 record may not seem great, but it’s important to understand the context. The Browns had won just one game in the past two seasons and have long been the doormat of the league. Now, they appear to be a franchise on the rise.

Cleveland has building blocks at quarterback and running back, are loaded with defensive talent, and will likely bring in a new coaching staff. The Browns look primed to make noise and figure to be a legitimate factor in the AFC going forward.

Ravens defeat Browns: 26-24

Bucking the trend

It's been six years since the Ravens last won the AFC North, the same year they won the Super Bowl in 2012. Since then, Baltimore has made the postseason just once (2014) and have been on the outside looking in ever since.

On Sunday, despite another near collapse late in the fourth quarter, the Ravens came up with a huge late turnover for the second consecutive week. Baltimore’s defense gave up over 400 yards of offense to the Browns but came up big on the last drive.

The Ravens forced three straight incompletions to force a 4th & 10, where C.J. Mosely picked off Baker Mayfield to seal the Ravens victory. It appeared the Ravens were about to suffer a third straight Week 17 loss in nearly the exact same fashion to miss out on the postseason.

These aren’t the same old Ravens.

So you’re saying there’s a chance?

Nobody expected the Ravens to be hosting a playoff game, but here we are. Now the question begs, can they make a run? Baltimore’s path won't be easy, but a defense and running game can go a long way in the postseason.

If the Ravens can get past the Chargers at home next week, the same team they dismantled on the road just two weeks ago, they could be headed to Foxborough to take on the reigning AFC champions. A daunting task, but the Ravens have beaten the Patriots in the postseason before.

Or they might be looking at a road matchup with the Chiefs. If not for some late-game heroics from Patrick Mahomes and help from the referees, the Ravens would have beaten the Chiefs in their Week 14 matchup, which went to overtime.

Just getting out of the first round will be an uphill battle. However, with a top-ranked defense, dominant rushing attack, and experience on the roster, anything is possible.