For a second consecutive NFL regular season, the AFC North is headed to a photo finish. It’s anyone’s division to win with three weeks left.
In 2020, the Steelers (12-4) edged the Ravens (11-5) and Browns (11-5) for the division title. All three made the playoffs in the AFC’s expanded 7-team field.
In 2021, the Bengals (8-6) have crashed the parity party, in first place after Week 15 by a head-to-head tiebreaker over the Ravens (8-6). The Steelers (7-6-1) are in third place, but they are only a half-game behind. The Browns (7-7) fell into last place and a full game behind after losing to the Raiders on Monday night.
Unlike last season, it owuld be difficult to have three teams make it in the division again. The records are not as impressive with four teams involved and that hurts in the wild-card race vs. the Colts (8-6), Chargers (8-6) and Bills (8-6) — the current No. 5 through No. 7 seeds in the AFC.
Winning the division might be the only way to punch a ticket for a team from the North. Based on the current standings and closing three-game schedules, here’s the latest breakdown and projections.
NFL playoff picture: AFC North
1. Bengals (8-6)
Division record: 3-1
Division wins: at Steelers (Week 3), at Ravens (Week 7), vs. Steelers (Week 11)
Remaining schedule: vs. Ravens, vs. Chiefs, at Browns
The Bengals have the best QB in the division this season, Joe Burrow. They can be explosive passing offensively and also run the ball when needed. Their defense has had some breakdowns, but also a lot of good results given how much they invested to improve it. They walk the fine line between complete team and inconsistent team, which confirms they are a promising young team.
Getting the reeling Ravens at home next after breaking through against them earlier is a good spot. That’s balanced out by the red-hot Chiefs coming to Cincinnati. The Bengals got crushed by the Browns at home in Week 19, but the “Battle of Ohio” rematch figures to be a tossup then. Having the best record in the division is helpful and finishing at least 4-2 in North play would be huge.
2. Ravens (8-6)
Division record: 1-3
Division win: vs. Browns (Week 12)
Remaining schedule: at Bengals, vs. Rams, vs. Steelers
The Ravens were fine offensively with Tyler Huntley playing supersub for Lamar Jackson against the Packers, but their injury-depleted defense and makeshift traditional running game have caught up to them with less fourth-quarterback comeback punch. All three remaining games look very tough, given how NFC’s Los Angeles is playing and the fact Baltimore already lost to both Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.
John Harbaugh has done an admirable job keeping his team together and on the brink of the playoffs. But it might be running out of gas for the end of a longer marathon.
3. Steelers (7-6-1)
Division record: 2-2
Division wins: at Browns (Week 8), vs. Ravens (Week 13)
Remaining schedule: at Chiefs. vs. Browns, at Ravens
The Steelers needed that successful rally past the Titans to save their playoff chances in Week 15. That home tie against the lowly Lions continues to haunt them. Pittsburgh did grind past Cleveland and Baltimore in the first meetings like it did Tennessee, but the looming rematches can easily go the other way.
Mike Tomlin has done fine coaching the Steelers into contention, but he probably didn’t anticipate the offense to be so limited at times and the defense to be so overwhelmed at times, producing inconsistent complementary football. Playing the put-together Chiefs in Kansas City is a bad break in the final interdivision game.
4. Browns (7-7)
Division record: 2-2
Division wins: at Bengals (Week 9). vs. Ravens (Week 14)
Remaining schedule: at Packers, at Steelers, vs. Bengals
The Browns’ last-second loss to the Raiders was crushing because it dropped them to .500. That puts them in last place in the division and logjams them behind the wild-card leaders with the Raiders, Dolphins and Broncos all at 7-7. The problem for Cleveland beyond the big COVID-19 list challenges vs. Las Vegas is the short week turnaround for playing at 11-3 Green Bay on Christmas Saturday. Staying on the road in Pittsburgh for Week 17 is tricky, and Cincinnati in Week 18 will be much better prepared for the rematch.
Will the Browns get enough offense, no matter who’s quarterbacking, to support the defense and win enough? That answer, like all season, is leaning to a resounding no.
Who will win the AFC North?
Believe it or not, the Bengals are the best bet to get the job done with a 10-7 record. They didn’t like being left out last season and are playing like it. They have the fewest issues in contrast to the other teams, and digging deep for that Week 15 win in Denver was huge.
Cincinnati has built a strong resume in the division and can add to it. There’s some real confidence the Bengals can go 2-1, while with everyone else in the division, 1-2 feels like the ultimate scenario.
With all the crossover division play left and difficult opponents looming outside the North, only one is headed for double-digit wins. 9-8 looks like the ceiling for the Ravens and Browns, while the Steelers are headed to .500.
Nine wins won’t do it in the AFC for a playoff berth. That’s why the 7-7 Dolphins and Broncos also feel so far behind not being 8-6 after Week 15.
The Queen City hasn’t been King in the North since 2015, but look for the Bengals to finish their surprise 2021 and scratch to that status.