By nearly any measurement, the AFC North is the mack daddy of NFL divisions. You want to talk playoff berths? Since 2007, the year the Steelers hired coach Mike Tomlin, the North leads the rest of the league with 18 playoff qualifiers (an average of two per year). That’s three more than the next most successful division, the NFC North, which has 15 over those same nine years.
Are double-digit win seasons your preferred measuring stick? The AFC North has 17 of those from 2007 on, with the NFC North again finishing second with 15. Are winning seasons the bottom line? It’s even more impressive, with the AFC North boasting 20 of those out of a possible 36 opportunities (55.6%), besting the 17 racked up by both the NFC East and NFC North from 2007 on. And in those nine seasons, Cincinnati, Baltimore and Pittsburgh are all tied with six playoff trips each, making the division’s battles as balanced as balanced could be (sorry about that, Cleveland).
So no wonder veteran players who relocate into the division burn to experience the rarified air of the AFC North, which for my money now features the two best rivalries in the league, led by Cincinnati-Pittsburgh, which recently has ever so slightly nosed past the vaunted annual antipathy shared by the Steelers and Ravens.
“Oh, it’s the best division in football,” new Baltimore safety Eric Weddle confidently informed me, weeks before he even gets to play in his first division game, Week 2 at Cleveland. “They play nothing but tough, physical, grind-it-out games, just classic games. That’s what you think of when you think of the AFC North, and to be part of it and be ready to get through it and hopefully have an impact on it, it’s exciting.
“It’s what you live for as a player, those pressure-packed games that you want to be in every week, and in this division, you know it’s going to happen. It’s going to come down to the end of the season with the question of who’s going to get in, and who’s going to win the division. It’s exciting just to think about.”
The division has been won by three different teams in the past four seasons (Cincinnati last season and 2013, Pittsburgh in ’14 and Baltimore in ’12), but the race is almost always tight, with the top two teams separated by only one game or less in seven of the past nine years. The only real rout was the Bengals’ three-game cushion in ’13.
It’s not hard to draw a connection between the division’s coaching stability and its success rate. Marvin Lewis has led the Bengals since 2003 and now trails only the Patriots’ hoodied mastermind, Bill Belichick, in NFL coaching longevity. Tomlin is entering his 10th season in black-and-gold, and the Ravens hired John Harbaugh just one year after Tomlin’s head coaching debut, in ’08. Then there are the forever-retooling Browns, with their almost comically revolving door on the coaching front, who stand in sharp contrast. C’mon down, Hue Jackson, it’s your turn to spin the big wheel.
The prediction for this season is more of the same in the AFC North. The talent-laden Bengals and Steelers again look playoff-ready, the tough-minded Ravens are poised to bounce back from an injury-plagued 5–11 year that was their first losing season since 2007, and the Browns are again starting over, giving their fans at least a bit of hope that the combination of Jackson and new quarterback Robert Griffin III might shake off the stench of the team’s Johnny Manziel era/error.
What else is on tap for the AFC North in 2016?
Favorite: Pittsburgh Steelers
It’s a flip of the coin between the Bengals and Steelers, because both rosters are stacked with proven players. But Pittsburgh does have Cincinnati’s number to a degree, beating the Bengals twice in three meetings last season, including that memorable first-round playoff battle royale in Paul Brown Stadium. Overall, the Steelers have won five of their last six against Cincinnati, and 10 of 13 dating back to 2010. So I’ll take Pittsburgh, even knowing that catching the visiting Bengals in Week 2 without the suspended Vontaze Burfict is probably offset by the Steelers missing both receiver Martavis Bryant and all-world running back Le’Veon Bell to suspensions for that game.
The Steelers have their challenges, but their offense has been hyper-productive the past two seasons—they have 14 games with 30 or more points in that 32-game span—and the defensive front seven has the potential to be one of the best in the AFC with studs like 3–4 ends Stephon Tuitt, Cam Heyward and linebacker Ryan Shazier. If the secondary comes along with rookies Artie Burns and Sean Davis contributing solid play at cornerback and safety, respectively, Pittsburgh’s perennial weak link might finally not need so much massaging.
Dark horse: Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens were decimated by injuries with a capital D last season, losing their quarterback (Joe Flacco), their most proven receiver (Steve Smith), their top two pass rush threats (linebackers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil) and scores more. So it’s not hard to imagine a return to health will equate to playoff contention.
But this is a somewhat aging team that needs to get those key players back in form, plus contributions from new veterans like Weddle, receiver Mike Wallace and tight end Benjamin Watson, as well as steady play from a handful of youngsters like rookie offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley, receiver Breshad Perriman and running backs Terrance West and Kenneth Dixon.
If things fall into place and new stars emerge for the Ravens, they still have the pedigree and the veteran difference-makers to win the division and return to their playoff perennial status. But last year’s horrible injury luck has to turn around, because Baltimore isn’t deep enough to survive another onslaught of IR trips.
Division MVP: Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Steelers
The Steelers can’t win without the ridiculous playmaking of receiver Antonio Brown, who is virtually uncoverable. But Pittsburgh’s passing game is the best in the division, and it starts, of course, with Roethlisberger. Kudos to Andy Dalton, who had a breakthrough season shortened by injury last December, but the Bengals aren’t as dependent on their quarterback as the Steelers are on Roethlisberger.
Big Ben missed five starts and four games last season due to an assortment of injuries, but he still threw for almost 4,000 yards, with a 68% completion rate, 21 touchdowns and a 94.5 passer rating. The Steelers’ offensive line let him take too much punishment last season, but Pittsburgh has been spoiled by Roethlisberger’s ability to shake off almost any physical challenge and quickly return to his elite form.
Potential breakout player: Sammie Coates, WR, Steelers
With no Martavis Bryant in the Steelers’ big-play receiving corps this season, opportunity knocks for Coates, the team’s third-round pick out of Auburn in 2015. Coates spent most of last season slaving away on the Steelers’ scout team, going against Pittsburgh’s first-team defense. But that obscurity apparently served him well, and his two-reception, 61-yard showing in a divisional round loss at Denver when Brown was sidelined by a concussion gave a preview of coming attractions.
Coates physically has some of Bryant’s length and athleticism, and Roethlisberger has developed a rapport with his young receiver this summer. The No. 3 receiving targets will be there for Coates in the prolific Pittsburgh passing game, and if his early preseason issues with ball security don’t re-emerge, he’s going to be asked to carry his share of the load in the Steelers’ division-leading offense.
Rookie to watch: Tyler Boyd, WR, Bengals
The Bengals drafted Boyd in the second round out of Pitt with the idea that he would instantly become one of Dalton’s favorite targets with veteran pass catchers Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu moving on in free agency. So far, so shrewd, as Boyd’s preseason work has stamped him as a player who can be counted on in the Cincinnati passing game.
Boyd’s speed isn’t special, but he seems to have an firm grasp on route running in the NFL and how to create enough space and separation from the slot to work the seams of the defense. His hands have been dependable, and his 40-yard reception from A.J. McCarron in Week 1 of the preseason showed that he can become a decent vertical option in time.
Coach with most to prove: Marvin Lewis
This one isn’t complicated. An NFL head coach has never gone 0–7 in the playoffs before, and you have to believe eight will definitely be enough if Lewis and his team go one-and-done in the postseason yet again in 2016. Cincinnati has made the playoffs for five years running, and gone 52-27-1 in the regular season in that span, the league’s fifth-best record. But every playoff flameout has been worse than the last, and the coup de grace was the Bengals’ meltdown at home against the rival Steelers last January.
Lewis’s team self-destructed with mistakes and penalties in the tense final moments of the 18–16 loss, and then completed the tableau of undisciplined behavior with more embarrassment in the postgame setting (see Jones, Adam, social media diatribe). As high as Lewis has elevated the Bengals program, it’s time to finally get past the team’s tortured postseason history and break out of its frustrating trend of being stuck in the status quo.
Lewis received another one-year contract extension this off-season to avoid being asked to serve in the final year of his deal without a safety net. But don’t let that be interpreted as real job security. The pressure is again on for Cincy to win its first playoff game since 1991, and Lewis has likely finally reached a make-or-break point with the Bengals.
Must watch divisional game: Steelers at Bengals, Week 15
This suddenly very spicy rivalry will get an early and emotional revival in Pittsburgh in Week 2, and you have to think there’ll be some carryover from the nastiness we saw in their playoff encounter in Cincinnati. But both teams are going to be missing some suspended star power in that first meeting, which is why the real drama may not unfold until the rematch in Paul Brown Stadium in mid-December, on Sunday Night Football. Here’s hoping both squads are at something resembling full strength and that another division title will be on the line when they meet for the fourth time in the span of a year and five days.
“You’ve felt this rivalry every time we’ve played them the last couple years,” Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley said in training camp. “And you can tell, just from some of the things that have gone on in those games, obviously. The games have gotten nasty. It ain’t like shaking hands and patting asses before the game, like you see a lot of times.”