Steelers shouldn't find much of a challenge in messy AFC North

Aug 7, 2018 3:01 AM

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fourth of eight NFL division previews. Next week the NFC South.

The AFC North used to be the gorilla division of the conference, securing nine of the 16 wild-card slots over an eight-year span that ran from 2008-2015. But in the past two seasons, only the loop-winning Steelers have advanced as the Ravens and Bengals have regressed while the cellar-dwelling Browns have remained the Browns.

Unless Pittsburgh implodes, that’s how things appear to be shaping up as a heavy choice for the second straight season to win the North. They’re followed not-so-closely by Baltimore, Cincinnati and Cleveland.

What’s going to make it tough for a wild-card to emerge from this bunch is being matched against the NFC South, which had three playoff teams last season and figures to be just as strong across the board. Already early in the Steelers’ camp there’s the usual discord with Le’Veon Bell staying away from drills in a contract tiff, and now star WR Antonio Brown reportedly has a quad injury.

There was a time the Ravens and Bengals would have been able to cash in on dents in the Steelers’ armor, but probably not this year with both teams coming off exasperating seasons.

And then there’s Cleveland, which got a face-lift this offseason after going winless in 2017. Maybe the Browns will draw inspiration from the 2008 Dolphins, who recovered from a 1-15 season to win the AFC East at 11-5.

Here’s how the North should play out. The odds are courtesy of Westgate Las Vegas:

1. Pittsburgh (5-14 to win division; 10-1 for Super Bowl): As long as QB Ben Roethlisberger can stay on the field and the Steelers don’t have to call on backup Landry Jones (or third-round pick Mason Rudolph), a team that rolled to 545 yards and 42 points vs. the Jags’ top-rated defense in a playoff loss last season should prevail again.

Pittsburgh was 13-3 in 2017, four games clear of its nearest rival. So even a slight drop-off shouldn’t sound alarms. Assuming Brown and Bell are good to go in Week 1, the Steelers’ offense is solid with a dominant line and the emergence of fleet WR JuJu Smith-Schuster. He should be able to take advantage of the attention afforded Brown.

On defense there are concerns, especially with the loss of star LB Ryan Shazier, who suffered a spinal injury last year. The unit will for sure have to improve its run defense, having yielded 4.4 a carry – widely reported as its worst rate since 1955. With that in mind, DE Cameron Heyward will be asked to step up his game.

Note: Has Bell lost his giddy-up? He had a league-high 321 carries last regular season and totaled 1,291 yards, but only three gains of 20-plus yards, a career low. Two years earlier, he had eight 20-plus runs on only 113 carries.

2. Cleveland (10-1 div; 80-1 SB): The Browns, with coach Hue Jackson (1-31) still in charge, are looking to end their NFL record seven-year streak of last-place finishes.

Things are looking up, too, especially since Cincinnati and Baltimore aren’t up to their past standards. And if Cleveland can somehow upset Pittsburgh as a 6.5-point dog in its season opener in the Dawg Pound, watch out.

The good news in Cleveland starts with QB DeShone Kizer being shipped to Green Bay and replaced by ex-Bill Tyrod Taylor, who guided Buffalo to the 2017 playoffs. He’ll start for as long as he can fend off Baker Mayfield.

They’ll be throwing to former Miami standout WR Jarvis Landry, who had career highs of 112 catches and nine TDs in 2017. And if oft-suspended WR Josh Gordon can shake his demons and get back with the team, all the better. Although Cleveland lost leading rusher Isaiah Crowell in free agency, they added Carlos Hyde from San Fran and got Georgia’s Nick Chubb in the second round of the draft.

Defensively, Cleveland allowed only 3.4 yards a carry, second best in the league. But its pass defense was worst in the NFL (by passer rating). Getting Ohio State CB Denzel Ward with the No. 4 pick in the draft should help.

Note: The Browns have opened their past two seasons 0-5. The NFL record for such lousy starts is held by Philadelphia from 1970-72.

3. Baltimore (7-2; 50-1): The Ravens’ season ended in crushing fashion last year when they blew a lead in the final minute to Cincinnati on a fourth-and-12 TD pass good for 49 yards. That cost them a playoff berth.

The big question this season is whether veteran QB Joe Flacco will remain a pedestrian passer and lose his job to first-round pick Lamar Jackson of Louisville or will Flacco show off the skills that enabled him to throw for 11 TDs with no interceptions in a four-game postseason run to the Super Bowl title six seasons ago.

Regardless of who’s in charge, the offense was given a boost with the acquisition of a new, but not spectacular, WR corps led by ex-49er/Raider Michael Crabtree. And there were few RBs who showed more promise last year than tackle-busting pickup Alex Collins, who averaged 4.6 a carry and totaled 973 yards. But the Ravens are hurting literally at tight end.

Baltimore’s defense will need to show more life and get off the field. The aforementioned scoring drive by Cincinnati was 90 yards, one of four TD marches of 90-plus yards the Ravens yielded in just the final five weeks.

Note: Baltimore, which had a league-best +17 turnover differential last year, became the first team since 1999 to lead the league in that category and not reach the playoffs.

4. Cincinnati (14-1; 80-1): Bengals coach Marvin Lewis remarkably is back for his 16th year on the job despite coming off 6-9-1, 7-9 seasons and having gone 0-7 in postseason games previously.

Much of the blame last year was hoisted on the offensive line, which lost two starters to free agency, including standout LT Andrew Whitworth, a four-time Pro Bowler. Without him Cincinnati was next to last in rushing yards.

Then there was TE Tyler Eifert, who missed the final 14 games because of injury. All of which contributed to QB Andy Dalton having the worst completion percentage and average yards per throw his past five seasons. The Bengals’ hopes hinge on second-year RB Joe Mixon having a breakout year. And schedule-wise, this won’t help: In Weeks 11-12, the Bengals will face Baltimore and Cleveland, both of which will be coming off byes.

Note: Cincinnati was held to less than 200 yards of total offense four times in 2017, the most for any team. But history says there’s hope. The Rams had five such games in 2016, then last year were the highest-scoring team in the NFL.