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Bengals, Ravens, Steelers in 2nd tier of AFC contenders

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The Bengals and Steelers fought tooth and nail for the AFC North last year, but the Ravens made the deeper playoff run. Where do all three now rank in the AFC food chain?

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

The AFC North will again be arguably the best division in football when the 2015 NFL season opens.

However, none of the three perennial playoff teams in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh or Baltimore are considered "top-shelf contenders," according to NFL.com's Elliot Harrison who called those three 'second-tier teams' in his breakdown of AFC contenders heading into 2015.

Here's his analysis of the Bengals, as well as what's keeping them from getting into the next tier.

Achilles' heel: Getting over the mental hump. OK, OK; we could easily list quarterback. But here's a news flash: Andy Dalton is not the only Bengal who has faltered in big games. The defense stunk in New England on Sunday night last year. The whole offense was missing in the playoffs. No, seriously -- top receiver A.J. Green and tight end Jermaine Gresham both missed the loss to Indy. The bottom line is, making four straight first-round exits -- against the Texans, Texans, Chargers and Colts -- is a good indicator that a team runs up against some mental barriers when facing higher-level competition.

I'm actually shocked someone acknowledged Dalton isn't the entire reason why the Bengals are 0-6 in the postseason under Marvin Lewis. You'd think it was Dalton who shredded Carson's knee in 2006 with as much flack as he catches for Cincinnati's shortcomings.

As for the Steelers, Harrison listed their secondary as the reason why they're not a true AFC contender. And for the Ravens, Harrison cited the passing attack as their Achilles' heel.

The good news for the Bengals is they have the weapons to attack both of those weaknesses. In his last four games against the Steelers, Dalton has thrown for an average of 264 yards with eight scores (seven passing) and just two picks.

As for the Ravens, Cincinnati's secondary has forced Joe Flacco into eight interceptions while allowing just four touchdowns in his last four games vs. the Bengals.