NFL playoff photo: How the Bengals, Browns, Ravens or Steelers can win overcrowded AFC North


For a second straight NFL regular season, the AFC North is heading for a photo finish. It’s anyone’s division to win with three weeks to go.

In 2020, the Steelers (12-4) edged the Ravens (11-5) and Browns (11-5) for the division title. All three reached the playoffs in the AFC’s extended 7-team field.

In 2021, the Bengals (8-6) crushed the parity party, in first place after Week 15 by a tiebreaker against the Ravens (8-6). The Steelers (7-6-1) are in third place, but they are only half a game behind. The Browns (7-7) fell to last place and a full game behind after losing to the Raiders on Monday night.

Unlike last season, it would be difficult to have three teams in the division again. The records aren’t as impressive with four teams involved and it hurts in the wildcard race against the Colts (8-6), Chargers (8-6) and Bills (8-6) – the current one n ° 5 to n ° 7 seeds in the AFC.

Winning the division might be the only way to strike a ticket for a Northern team. Based on the current standings and the closing schedules of the three matches, here is the latest breakdown and the latest projections.

MORE: AFC & NFC Playoffs Image Updated After Week 15

NFL Playoff Photo: AFC North

1. Bengals (8-6)

Division record: 3-1

Division wins: Steelers (Week 3), Ravens (Week 7), Steelers (Week 11)

Remaining time: against Ravens, against Chiefs, at Browns

The Bengals have the division’s best QB this season, Joe Burrow. They can be explosive when passing offensively and also execute the ball when needed. Their defense has had a few failures, but also a lot of good results considering everything they’ve put in to improve it. They distinguish between a full squad and an inconsistent squad, which confirms that they are a promising young squad.

Bringing the Ravens home in shock after breaking through against them earlier is a good place. This is offset by the scorching Chiefs who come to Cincinnati. The Bengals were crushed by the Browns at home in Week 19, but the “Battle of Ohio” rematch seemed like a big blow at the time. Having the best record in the division helps and finishing at least 4-2 in the North would be huge.

2. Ravens (8-6)

Division record: 1-3

Division victory: against browns (week 12)

Remaining time: at the Bengals, against the Rams, against the Steelers

The Ravens were well offensively with Tyler Huntley playing the supersub for Lamar Jackson against the Packers, but their injury-depleted defense and traditional makeshift running game caught them with less of the fourth quarterback’s comeback oomph. The remaining three games are shaping up to be very tough, given the way the NFC’s Los Angeles plays and the fact that Baltimore has already lost to Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.

John Harbaugh has done an admirable job keeping his team together and on the verge of the playoffs. But he could run out of gas for the end of a longer marathon.

3. Steelers (7-6-1)

Division record: 2-2

Division wins: at the Browns (week 8), against the Ravens (week 13)

Remaining time: among chefs. against the Browns, at the Ravens

The Steelers needed this successful rally against the Titans to maintain their playoff chances in Week 15. The home draw against the lowly Lions continues to haunt them. Pittsburgh has passed Cleveland and Baltimore in early meetings as it did in Tennessee, but looming rematch can easily go the other way.

Mike Tomlin has coached the Steelers well in the race, but he probably didn’t expect offense to be so limited at times and defense to be so overwhelmed at times, producing inconsistent complementary football. Playing the Reunited Chiefs in Kansas City is a bad break in the final interdivisional game.

4. Browns (7-7)

Division record: 2-2

Division victories: at the Bengals (week 9). against the Ravens (week 14)

Remaining schedule: the Packers, the Steelers, against the Bengals

The Browns’ last second loss to the Raiders was overwhelming as it took them down to 0.500. This puts them in last place in the division and locks them behind the wild card leaders with the Raiders, Dolphins and Broncos all at 7-7. The problem for Cleveland beyond the big COVID-19 roster challenges against Las Vegas is the short one-week deadline to play at 11-3 Green Bay on Christmas Saturday. Staying on the road in Pittsburgh for Week 17 is tricky, and Cincinnati in Week 18 will be much better prepared for the rematch.

Will the Browns have enough attacks no matter who the quarterback is to support the defense and win enough? This answer, like any season, is about a categorical no.

Who will win the AFC North?

Believe it or not, the Bengals are the best bet to get the job done with a 10-7 record. They didn’t like being left behind last season and play like that. They have the fewest issues compared to other teams, and digging deep for that Week 15 win in Denver was huge.

Cincinnati has built a strong resume in the division and can enrich it. There is real confidence that the Bengals can go 2-1, while with everyone in the division 1-2 looks like the ultimate scenario.

With all of the cross-divisional game remaining and some tough opponents looming outside the North, only one is heading for double-digit wins. 9-8 looks like the cap for the Ravens and Browns, while the Steelers are heading towards .500.

Nine wins won’t be enough for the AFC for a playoff berth. That’s why the 7-7 Dolphins and Broncos also feel so far away from not being 8-6 after Week 15.

The Queen City has not been King in the North since 2015, but expect the Bengals to end their surprise in 2021 and clinch that status.