It certainly seems like the fate of the AFC North division crown is destined to come down to one game - Cincinnati at Baltimore, Sunday evening, December 26, week 16.
Of course, that other team up north (the Cleveland Browns) might have something to say about that, too.
The Bengals’ disappointing loss to the Chargers gave the Ravens the perfect opportunity to open up a two-game cushion for the division lead when they faced a reeling Pittsburgh Steelers team that was coming off a pair of losses and a tie in its last three games.
But Baltimore turned in its worst offensive performance of the season and ended up on the wrong end of a 20-19 score that left the Ravens at 8-4 on the season, one game ahead of the 7-5 Bengals. The Steelers, on the heels of a 36-28 loss to the Minnesota Vikings on Thursday night, fell to 6-6-1 while the Browns, who Cincinnati faces in the last game of the season, had the week off and stand at 6-6.
Things don’t get any easier for any of the four contenders. In fact, they can’t get much harder. No opponent comes in with a losing record.
Pittsburgh has the toughest remaining strength of schedule in the NFL, followed by Cleveland and Baltimore, who are tied for the second toughest. Cincinnati stands in a tie with the Detroit Lions at No. 5.
The Steelers’ remaining opponents boast an overall record of 30-18-0, while Cleveland and Baltimore foes have compiled identical 36-24-1 marks. The remaining teams on the Bengals’ schedule come in at 34-26-0.
Pittsburgh has a pair of home games remaining, starting with the AFC South-leading Tennessee Titans (8-4) in week 15 and concluding with Cleveland in week 17. The Steelers travel to Kansas City, which leads the AFC West with a record of 8-4, for a week 16 matchup and end the season at Baltimore in week 18.
The Browns play host to Baltimore on Sunday, and are back home against Las Vegas (6-6) on week 15. Cleveland travels to take on the Green Bay Packers, who lead the NFC North with a record of 9-3, in week 16, then goes to Pittsburgh for a week 17 slugfest. The Browns end the season hosting the Bengals.
After traveling to Cleveland on week 14, Baltimore plays host to the Packers in week 15. The Ravens travel to Cincinnati with revenge on their minds in week 16, then conclude the season with home games against the Los Angeles Rams (8-4) and Steelers.
Like the Ravens, Cincinnati has three home games remaining on its schedule, beginning with Sunday’s matchup against the San Francisco 49ers (6-6). The Bengals then travel to Denver to take on the 6-6 Broncos in week 15.
Week 16 finds Cincinnati back home against Baltimore, and the Bengals host Kansas City in week 17. Cincinnati wraps up its 2021 schedule in Cleveland.
One thing is certain - whoever wins the AFC North division this year is going to have to earn it.