You have undoubtedly heard the phrase “AFC North football”.
It is supposed to be synonymous with hard-nose football and tough competition. However, we rarely try to stack it up against the other divisions around the NFL when talking about the AFC North being one of the toughest divisions in the league.
Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com recently sought to rank every division in the NFL with some surprising results. The AFC North ranked fifth.
The Steelers rank with the Patriots and Eagles as the safest picks to make it back to the playoffs. The onus on lifting the AFC North to greater overall relevance lies with the other three teams, which all have major bounce-back potential. Joe Flacco and John Harbaugh are fighting for their careers, with a strong defensive base to build off. The Bengals boast a roster without huge weaknesses ... and a lot of players in their prime. The Browns’ depth chart barely resembles the 0-16 squad from a year ago.
This was the last AFC division to send three teams to the playoffs, back in 2014. While it’s a longshot, the North has the best chance of any AFC division to do it again.
The AFC North may be ranked fifth overall, but they are the second-best AFC division behind the South that consists of the Colts, Titans, Jaguars and Texans. That isn’t surprising since two of those teams made the playoffs and the Texans looked very impressive before they lost Deshaun Watson to an ACL tear.
As for the AFC North, a lot of what makes them one of the toughest divisions are the teams at the top. The Steelers, Ravens and Bengals all seems to be right there in playoff contention every year. It is usually commonplace to see at least two AFC North teams in the playoffs in any given year.
The past two seasons have been different, though. The Bengals have obviously struggled over that span, and the Ravens have also failed to make the playoffs as well. Although last year, the Bengals did help prevent that. We also can’t ignore the fact that the Browns have only won a single game over the past two seasons, which really hurts the overall toughness of the division.
This year looks to be different as the Bengals and Ravens have revamped their rosters, and Cincinnati has changed most of their coaching staff. The Bengals brought in Cordy Glenn at left tackle and drafted center Billy Price to upgrade the offensive line. The team is also allowing Bill Lazor to start from scratch on offense, and Frank Pollack brings a fresh voice as the new offensive line coach. Teryl Austin is looking to bring a more aggressive defense to Cincinnati as well.
The Ravens added a pair of young tight ends as well as replacing most of their receivers from last season, including the addition of Michael Crabtree.
Competition for the Wild Card spots seem tougher, but it is doubtful that an AFC North team doesn’t manage to take one of those spots. The Bills and Titans may have made the playoffs last season, but it is hard to say either of those teams got substantially better, and they both finished 9-7, which was the same record as the Ravens.
Ironically, what could end up hurting the division’s toughness is the Browns. If they have actually put a team together that can get up to five or six wins, that could mean some losses for the rest of the division.
It could create a scenario where an AFC North team misses the playoffs due to a loss to the Browns sneaking up on them. It shouldn’t be too far fetched that the Browns could actually win a few games considering Tyrod Taylor helped carry the Bills to the playoffs last season. Not being able to count on two wins per season against the Browns could hurt when it comes time to decide who gets into the postseason.
In reality, it will come down to whether the offseason changes for the Ravens and Bengals actually translate to wins on the field. Both teams were relatively close to the playoffs last season, and the Steelers are likely headed back unless they suffer a serious injury.
Where do you think the AFC North should rank among the other divisions?