The regular season is over, and only one member of the AFC North has made it to the postseason. The Steelers, who secured the three seed in Week 16 with their win over the Ravens, did the Browns a favor by beating them in overtime. The Ravens went out with a whimper and a two game losing streak to end the season, thanks in part to the Bengals.
The Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5) defeated the Cleveland Browns (1-15): 27-24
The Browns had every chance to win this game, but would it really have been for the better? Sure it would be nice to say you beat the Steelers, if you’re a Browns fan, but that wasn’t the Steelers. Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell all were inactive for a game that meant nothing for the Steelers.
The Steelers’ defense didn’t have the same excuse. Most of their key contributors were out there well into overtime. They allowed the Browns to score 24 points, but they did force two red zone turnovers, including forcing a fumble with a minute left to cause the game to go to overtime.
The Browns played fairly well overall in their finale, but they missed a few tackles and didn’t execute enough plays on offense to get the win, which would’ve hurt more than help. It sounds anti-fandom to root for a loss, but in April when the 49ers would’ve been picking first, would beating a shell of the Steelers been worth losing out on Myles Garrett?
The Browns are where they wanted to be, and that is picking first in the draft. There are few things Cleveland can salvage from the 2016 season other than that it earned that first overall pick.
The Browns have been one of the worst franchises in recent history, but this will be their first time selecting first overall since 2000. That was the draft after their first season back in Cleveland. Even more surprising, since coming back to Cleveland in 1999, the Browns have only had 10 top 10 selections.
The choice seems clear. The Browns have plenty of needs and should go with the best player in the draft. Right now that player seems to be Garrett, the standout pass rusher from Texas A&M, but there is plenty of time to overthink this.
The Browns also have a huge need at quarterback, but there isn’t a transcendent quarterback in this class to use the first pick on. The Browns would be better off using their other first round pick, 12th overall, to address that need.
Despite some push from the coaching staff, Jimmy Haslam won’t be making major changes with the Browns’ regime. Haslam had previously committed to this group of coaches and front office members before the season. They were to be given the long-term chore of turning the bottom-dwelling Browns into contenders. After being impatient in his first few years in Cleveland, Haslam has seemed to learn that Rome wasn’t built in a day. Building Rome may have been an easier task than fixing the Browns team this regime inherited.
Two things can combine to help fix the Browns this offseason: cap space and draft picks. They can easily add a few foundation pieces to help turn this thing around with a slew of draft picks and they also have a huge amount of cap space to acquire top talent. That’s not to say they’ll be in the hunt for the playoffs next year, but they could add a group of players who can eventually get them to that point in a few years.
There was little doubt who the Steelers would play in the playoffs. The Dolphins would’ve had to beat the Patriots to avoid a first round matchup with the Steelers. They lost pretty badly. Miami fans may point to the Dolphins regular season win over the Steelers as a reason for hope, but these teams are very different from the teams they were at that point in the season.
Mostly, the Dolphins are banged up. Ryan Tannehill is out with a knee injury and it’s too early to know his availability for this game, but it’s unlikely he’ll play. More importantly Jay Ajayi, the running back who first broke out against Pittsburgh earlier this season, left his game against New England to get X-rays. Ajayi was questionable heading into Week 17 so leaving early isn’t a good sign.
The Steelers have also improved since then. Riding a seven game win streak into the playoffs, they are one of the hottest teams going into the postseason. Their defense is the main reason. Pittsburgh’s offense has really been able to do whatever it’s wanted most of the season, and their defense hasn’t put up elite numbers during this stretch, but they’re playing more effectively. Whether it was causing three-and-outs when the Steelers were down against Baltimore or a turnover late in the game to seal the victory, Pittsburgh’s defense has been playing well enough to win.
The Baltimore Ravens (8-8) lost to the Cincinnati Bengals (6-9-1): 10-27
One of the best receivers of his generations has called it quits. Steve Smith Sr. is ending his career in the NFL and football will miss him for it. It has only been recently that the AFC North has regularly seen the 5’9 superstar on a regular basis, but he has left his mark on the division.
Over his career, Smith has made a point to make plays and get in your face while he’s doing it. It hasn’t rubbed everyone the right way. He even almost got into a scuffle with Shawn Williams during his final game after Smith took exception to a hit while stretching out for a pass out of bounds.
Smith may not have had the final game he was looking for, as he only had three catches on Sunday, but he certainly had a career to remember. Smith finishes 12th on the all time receptions list and finished less than 300 yards away from 15,000 yards. He had 81 touchdowns, which proceeded some of the best celebrations the NFL has ever seen.
The Ravens have prepared for this day. They developed Kamar Aiken, signed Mike Wallace and drafted Breshad Perriman, but it will still be hard to fill the void Smith will leave.
The Ravens started the season 3-0, and it looked like they’d be the team to beat in the AFC North. None of the wins were all that impressive though. In fact only two of the Ravens’ wins came by more than seven points. The Ravens rarely looked impressive on offense and that led to them having to survive most games. That ended up costing them in the end.
They had their shot though in Week 16. The Steelers also had a rough stretch this season, with a four game losing streak, and their matchup would ultimately decide the division. Jumping out to a rare lead, the Ravens looked to be in control of the game, but the defense, which kept them in so many games, finally broke down and gave away their lead, and ultimately their season.
Going forward, the Ravens have plenty of questions on how to get their offense going. Better utilizing the run game, which was effective all year long, and setting up play action, which Joe Flacco uses so well, would be in their best interest in 2017.