Over the past five years, no division has provided as many postseason teams as this group with 11, including last year’s world champion Ravens. In that span, of the 10 wild cards in the AFC, six came from the North.
There’s a good chance the division will add to the total because of the presumed relative weaknesses of the also-rans in the AFC East and West, all of whom had a losing record last season.
Perhaps surprisingly, Baltimore might not be in the mix. That’s because the Ravens took a jarring hit in the personnel department with the departure of six key Super contributors on defense and three more on offense, including the season-ending injury to stellar TE Dennis Pitta (hip).
Cincinnati, meanwhile, will be trying for a franchise-record third straight playoff berth and Pittsburgh is looking to recharge after a .500 season. Even the Browns don’t seem to be wearing “kick me” on their backs anymore after going 5-25 against division rivals the past five years.
Here’s a look at how the division figures to play out, with teams listed in order of predicted finish. The odds listed are from the LVH SuperBook.
CINCINNATI BENGALS (2-1 division; 30-1 Super Bowl): Any time three division teams are listed at 2-1 or shorter to win the loop, you know it’s likely to be a dogfight.
What gives the Bengals an edge is their electric pass-catch combination of Andy Dalton and A.J. Green (seven connections for 40-plus yards, a league high) and a ferocious pass rush that hit for the cycle in eight games last year – getting to the QB four-plus times in half their games. Plus they’ve added Steelers greybeard LB James Harrison, who should add to the mayhem.
In addition, Cincinnati will boast a solid tight end tandem in vet Jermaine Gresham (51-533, 4 TDs) and rookie Tyler Eifert of Notre Dame, its first-round pick. And in the next round Cincy grabbed UNC RB Giovani Bernard, who gives the team some shiftiness behind plodding BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
Note: What could sabotage the team is an aging secondary and a defense that’s not so great stopping the power game.
PITTSBURGH STEELERS (7-4 division; 25-1 SB): Despite losing Harrison on defense plus RB Rashard Mendenhall and speedy WR Mike Wallace on offense, the team’s success will hinge on the health of Ben Roethlisberger.
The Steelers might have made the playoffs last season had their QB not missed three games after the season’s midway mark with a rib injury (among assorted other ailments) and played dinged down the stretch. In the games he played, the Steelers went 7-6, without him 1-2. He had 26 TD throws and eight INTs; his replacements had one TD, five interceptions.
RB Jonathan Dwyer likely will take over for Mendenhall, which he did extremely well at midseason in 2012 when he had back-to-back games of 122 and 107 yards in wins over playoff-bound Cincinnati and Washington. Helping to fill Wallace’s void is Antonio Brown, who had 66 catches for 787 yards and five TDs, numbers not far off Wallace’s production.
Note: Combined with a defensive unit that was the stingiest giving up yards in 2012, the Steelers could surprise.
BALTIMORE RAVENS (2-1 division; 30-1 SB): The Ravens’ playoff run was an aberration last season, helping to make QB Joe Flacco a rich, rich man. His 11 TD passes and no INTs in the postseason – after a 22/10 regular season – matched the best-in-history-mark of Joe Montana for San Francisco in 1989. Overall, the Ravens outgained foes by only 1.6 yards per game last year, the second-smallest regular-season differential for a champ in the Super Bowl era.
Baltimore also was 0-3 SU and ATS on the road against winning teams before they KO’d the Broncos and Patriots as big ’dogs in the playoffs. Now Flacco will be operating without his go-to WR Anquan Boldin (65 catches) and TE Pippa (61). Ray Rice had better get used to a lot of dump-offs. Plus, center Matt Birk retired and OT Bryant McKinnie showed up to camp extra chunky.
Note: There hasn’t been a team that went from Super to a loser the next season since Tampa Bay in 2003. But it could happen here.
CLEVELAND BROWNS (15-2 division; 60-1 SB): The Browns not only haven’t sniffed the playoffs the past five years, they haven’t had a single season in which they won even a third of their games. But there’s new blood in Cleveland with demanding owner Jimmy Haslam and first-year head coach Rob Chudzinski, who was the Browns’ offensive coordinator in 2007, the last time they made the playoffs (10-6).
Chudzinski spent the previous two years grooming Carolina’s Cam Newton, so he might be the right guy to try to help QB Brandon Weeden along. Maybe he can teach him how to find passing lanes and not have so many passes batted down.
Cleveland also has a decent offensive line for RB Trent Richardson, who could be a force.
Note: Defensively, the Browns have a wonderful pass rush and now will be under the guidance of well-respected coordinator Ray Horton. He’ll have DL Paul Kruger, who led Baltimore in sacks last year.
“Popular” Bob Christ has been forecasting Professional Sports games for more than 30 years. His work has appeared in newspapers from coast to coast in Canada and the U.S. Contact him at [email protected].