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AFC North Preview, Wildcard: Ravens on bye, Steelers and Browns hit the road

Taking a look ahead for the AFC North.

Cleveland Browns v Houston Texans Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

Baltimore Ravens (13-4)

As the No. 1 seed in the AFC, the 2023 AFC North Champions won’t be taking the field this on Super Wildcard Weekend or Monday because they earned the first-round bye. They’ll get to watch Saturday and Sunday’s games play out to see who they’ll be hosting at M&T Bank Stadium in the divisional round the following weekend which will be the lowest remaining seed.

Since they have the week off from competition, the Ravens don’t have to produce an injury report even though they are still practicing. On Friday, the players that weren’t practicing in the portion open to the media were wide receivers Zay Flowers (calf) and Tylan Wallace (undisclosed), outside linebacker Odafe Oweh (ankle), cornerback Marlon Humphrey (calf), linebackers Malik Harrison (groin) Del’Shawn Phillips (shoulder), and left tackle Ronnie Stanley (undisclosed).

However, they did have some players who have been dealing with some minor injuries during practice including guard Kevin Zeitler (knee/quad), and safeties Kyle Hamilton (knee) and Geno Stone (knee). The Ravens still have over a week until they have to play a game so they should have plenty of time for players dealing with minor ailments to heal but the biggest development on the injury front by far was the return of three-time Pro Bowl tight end Mark Andrews to practice from injured reserve.

Cleveland Browns (12-5)

The fifth-seeded Joe Flacco-led Browns will be the first team in the division to take the field this weekend as they will be heading back to the Lone Star state to take on the Houston Texans for the second in four weeks on Saturday evening to kick off the Wildcard round. After sitting a lot of starters in their season finale loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, they’ll need all hands on deck to beat the fourth-seeded 2023 AFC South Champion.

These two teams played each other in Week 16 in the same venue and not nearly as high of stakes and the Browns came away with a resounding 36-22 defeat. However, that win came against a Texans offense that had journeyman veteran Case Keenum under center and not rookie sensation CJ Stroud who missed it due to a concussion. Each team has split their last eight meetings dating back to the 2011 season with the Texans winning the first four from 2011-2018 and the Browns have won the last four since the 2020 season.

Cleveland had over 20 players listed on their injury report for the third week in a row heading into this game. The only players they ruled on the final report are kicker Dustin Hopkins (hamstring), wide receiver Cedric Tillman (concussion), and safety Grant Delpit (groin). The rest of the vast majority of players were removed from the final injury report except the following who are listed as questionable to play:

CB Mike Ford (calf)

DB Juan Thornhill (calf)

RB Pierre Strong (back)

CB Denzel Ward (shoulder)

Pittsburgh Steelers (10-7)

The seventh-seeded Steelers will have the tallest task of arguably any team on Super Wildcard Weekend as they have to travel to upstate New York to faceoff with both the second-seeded Buffalo Bills and the harsh elements. The weather was such a public safety concern that the game which was originally scheduled for Sunday at 1 p.m. Eastern Standard Time had to be postponed until Monday at 4:30 p.m. after a consultation with the Governor of New York. Coming off a gritty win over a backup-laden Ravens team in Week 18 that was played in sloppy rain, the bad weather might actually play in the Steelers’ favor by limiting how much the Bills can exploit their deficiencies and weaknesses in coverage.

Even though 2022 first-rounder Kenny Pickett is cleared to play, the Steelers are sticking with the hot hand of sixth-year pro Mason Rudolph for the fourth week in a row after winning each of his last three starts. Pittsburgh has won four of the seven meetings between the two teams dating back to the 2010 season but Buffalo has won three of the last four since 2019 and are favored by nearly double digits to come out on top on Monday.

The Steelers had five players listed on their injury report for actual ailments and not rest or personal days but the only one who was given a designation for the game was six-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker T.J. Watt. He was ruled earlier this week with the sprained MCL he suffered against the Ravens in Week 18. Four-time Pro Bowl free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick was a full participant in practice and will be making his long-awaited return to action after missing the last three games of the regular season.

Cincinnati Bengals (9-8)

Despite finishing with a winning record for the third year in a row and getting their first division win of the season in Week 18 against a Browns team that rested several starters, the last-place Bengals are the only AFC North team that won’t be playing or resting this week because they were eliminated from contention the week before with the loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.

Instead, they are among the 18 teams whose offseason officially started this week and while they aren’t expected to have their coaching staff picked through and poached from the like the Ravens, they face some difficult decisions when it comes to their roster and who they can afford to retain or will have to let walk in free agency come March. Some of their notable players slated to hit the open market include wide receivers Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd, defensive tackle DJ Reader, and backup quarterback Jake Browning.