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Bengals have opportunity to take control of AFC North in coming years

In light of this season’s events, the Bengals should capitalize and take control of the AFC North.

Wild Card Round - Pittsburgh Steelers v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

2016 was a rough season for three of the four teams in the AFC North. We all know about the Bengals’ 6-9-1 finish, the worst of the Dalton-Green era. But, the Ravens also missed the playoffs despite being in position to win the division and the Browns barely avoided the second 0-16 season in NFL history. The Steelers went through a rough patch during the season and ended the regular season strong, getting into the playoffs as the No. 3 seed, before ending the season with a 36-17 loss in the AFC Championship at the hands of the New England Patriots, which was never really that close. The Steelers only got to double digit points due to a garbage time touchdown from Cobi Hamilton. The Steelers got lucky by playing a backup quarterback in the Wild Card round, then failed to score a touchdown and still beat the Chiefs in the Divisional Round, and finally were shown the door in the Conference Championships.

Throughout much of the 2016 season, the Bengals had a shot at making the playoffs, if they could just pull things together, despite absolutely not deserving it. As tough of a division as the AFC North has been over the last decade or so, it appears that most of the Bengals’ divisional opponents are either close to or in the process of a rebuild. Therefore, if the Bengals can get their act their act together soon, very soon, they could be next in line to dominate their opponents and take control of a division in transition.

The roadmap

Cleveland Browns

When discussing why the Bengals’ AFC North opponents look vulnerable, it shouldn’t be hard to figure out the Cleveland Browns are one of the teams in that category. They haven’t had a winning record since the 2007 season when they finished in second place in the AFC North with a 10-6 record. Since then, they have only won more than five games in a season once (7-9 in 2014) and have seen five different people hold the position of head coach. Many had high hopes for Hue Jackson, who joined the Browns last offseason, but he put together a franchise worst 1-15 record this season.

As of right now, the Browns have major holes on defense, the offensive line, the running game, and no consistent quarterback situation. They have proven time and time again that they are very bad at drafting as only three of their first round picks since 2011 are still with the team, all three of which were picked in the last two drafts. The situation going forward doesn’t look much better, so it is unlikely they will pose much of a threat to the Bengals for a while. Consider the Browns the least of the Bengals’ problems in the AFC North.

Baltimore Ravens

As long as there has been an AFC North, it has been considered a division that goes through Pittsburgh and Baltimore. The Ravens and Steelers have combined for 11 of the 15 division championships since realignment created the division in 2002. The Ravens actually have as many AFC North championships as the Bengals (four), but Baltimore has been much more consistent about staying competitive in the years that they do not win the division.

However, during the last few years, the Bengals have been very good about beating the Ravens. In fact, since the 2012 season, they have only lost three of 10 meetings. Since 2011, the Bengals have been in first or second place in the AFC North five times, as opposed to only three times for the Ravens. It appears as though a ‘changing of the guard’ is already in the process between these teams, despite down years for both teams in 2016. The Ravens went through a mini rebuild in 2016 and have more work to do in the 2017 offseason. Joe Flacco is clearly in decline, despite the very high (elite-worthy) deal he’s getting. This season, Flacco threw for 4,317 yards, with 20 touchdowns and 15 interceptions, a very poor touchdown to interception ratio. His passer rating was a 83.5, which ranked 24th among quarterbacks this season. Ben Roethlisberger ranked 11th, Andy Dalton 15th and the Browns’ quarterbacks didn’t play enough to even be ranked by ESPN among quarterbacks. With Flacco in decline and the Bengals establishing an ability to beat the Ravens with such consistency, that leaves only one hurdle left for the Bengals to overcome...

Pittsburgh Steelers

For the Bengals to truly take control of the AFC North, they must start consistently competing with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers have won seven of the 15 division titles throughout the history of the AFC North, including the most recent one. However, they didn’t exactly win their most recent division title in the most convincing fashion. They were sitting at 4-5 after Week 10, allowing an opportunity for another team to pull things together and steal the crown. But, the Ravens and Bengals were unable to take advantage of the opportunity and allowed the Steelers to climb out of the hole they dug.

However, their inability to score any touchdowns in the divisional round of the playoffs and the blowout loss in the AFC Championship showed significant weaknesses in Pittsburgh. The ‘Killer B’ trio of Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, and Antonio Brown might be arguably the best QB-RB-WR attack in the NFL, but their depth is seriously concerning. Roethlisberger will be 35-years-old in March and Landry Jones doesn’t appear to be anywhere close to ready to start in his place.

Can the Steelers survive losing their Hall of Fame quarterback to father time? Once he goes, the Steelers are almost certain to go into rebuild mode. So, the fact that the Bengals can get some rebuilding of their out of the way now bodes well for the future.

For the Bengals to actually take long-term control of the AFC North, they will certainly need to perform much better than they did in 2016. And most importantly, they must start beating the Steelers, especially at home. But, the opportunity seems to be there for the taking. All they need to do is seize the opportunity.