The AFC North is expected to be a much improved division this season. It’s fair to say all four teams appear to have significantly improved their roster from last year and are expected to put up more of a fight this year, as opposed to last year when only the 11-5 Steelers recorded a winning record.
There was a good chunk of the season in 2016 when all four teams were struggling—to an extent—and the AFC North was up for grabs deep into the year. The Bengals were in the midst of a 6-9-1 season, yet still had a significant chance to turn things around and win the division throughout much of the year.
The Steelers turned things around to win their last seven games in a row and finished with the division crown. But, before that, they were 4-5, coming off a four game losing streak after Week 10, exposing their lack of a stranglehold on the weak division.
It is hard to argue against the Steelers being the favorites in 2017, and data scientist Stephen Oh at SportsLine agrees. He simulated the 2017 season 10,000 times to get and found the Steelers are the favorites to win the AFC North, but the Bengals and Ravens appear to be in a position to make an impact, and potentially even upset the defending division champions. Here’s what Oh found in his 10,000 simulations:
Pittsburgh Steelers: 47.6%
Cincinnati Bengals: 27%
Baltimore Ravens: 25.1%
Cleveland Browns: 0.3%
As expected, the Steelers remain the favorite here, but the simulation gives the Bengals and the Ravens a chance. Cincinnati's offense has loads of potential, as does Baltimore's defense, but Pittsburgh remains the most well-rounded team in the division.
In 2017, the general consensus appears to be the Steelers as the favorites to repeat as division champions. However, don’t count out the Bengals and Ravens, who struggled keeping up with an underperforming Steelers team in 2016. Both teams look to be much improved in 2017. Assuming the changes made this offseason pan out, both should be ready to keep up with a Steelers team that is well balanced, but likely not much different from last year. From Oh’s findings, it is safe to rule out the Browns as division champs, though.
The Bengals jump from a game and a half behind the second-place Ravens last year, to second-favorites in the division this coming year in Oh’s analysis. It makes sense, with all the talent the Bengals brought in this offseason via free agency and the 2017 NFL Draft, while also replacing underperforming starters like Domata Peko and Rey Maualuga. The Bengals’ biggest obstacle will simply be their ability to bring all the talent together despite so much inexperience in so many areas, and ensuring the offensive line stays afloat.
It is also worth noting no division in the NFL is home to a team with a worse chance to win their division than the Cleveland Browns. The Browns are tied with the New York Jets for an NFL-worst 0.3 percent chance to win the division. However, the Jets are also in a division dominated by the New England Patriots, who boast a 95.2 percent chance to win their division. Meanwhile, the Browns play in a much more balanced division, so you could argue their perceived futility is more notable than the Jets’.
With new additions to the Bengals like John Ross, Joe Mixon, Carl Lawson, and Kevin Minter, the Bengals’ offensive and defensive potential has improved dramatically over lackluster results in 2016. Going forward, they should be expected to return to a state of consistently competing for the division crown, like they did from 2011-2015.
The Bengals’ success this season largely depends on how quickly their reloading strategy can take effect. But, the potential is clearly there for Cincinnati to have a refreshing season and potentially steal the AFC North crown away from the Steelers.