With two weeks left in the NFL’s regular season, the blueprint for a division crown in the AFC North is now clear for all four teams. While each team’s path is simple on paper, the road to getting there is anything but. Despite one team being firmly in the driver’s seat, even their road to the promised land is bumpy at best. We’ll get into Wild Card scenarios next week, but for now we’re strictly going to discuss how each team can still claim the divisional title and earn themselves a home playoff game.
No messing around this week, let’s get right into the thick of things around the AFC North.
Coming into Week 16, the Browns knew they had a tall task ahead of them at Lambeau Field on Christmas. Give credit where it’s due though, the Browns hung tough all day behind the rushing ability of their stud backfield led by 2022 Pro Bowler Nick Chubb. Unfortunately for them, Baker Mayfield also put on one of his worst performances of the year, compiling 222 yards on 36 attempts and four interceptions (along with two touchdowns, to be fair). As someone who defended Mayfield on numerous occasions earlier in the season because of his injuries, I have to say his decisions on Sunday were downright inexcusable. The fact that the final score was only 24-22, despite all of his untimely turnovers, speaks to the talent and heart that lines the rest of the Cleveland roster. This offseason will surely be one of interest for the Browns. Will they stick with Mayfield and give him one more chance at a fully healthy season? Do they trade him for a couple of mid-round picks to a team like Denver? Only time will tell, but until then, the Browns do still have a path to the division crown.
Should the Browns win their last two games, and Cincinnati loses this week in Kansas City, they’ve actually got the best chance of any other team to wind up as division champions. Given that they play the Steelers on Monday Night Football, a win there would vault them over the Steelers in the standings by a half game. From there it comes down to what the Baltimore Ravens do this week. Should there be a three-team tie at 9-8 atop the division, the Browns would be the victors thanks to the long list of tie-breaking scenarios. A Ravens loss this week, a Bengals loss, and a victory in Pittsburgh will have them playing in a “winner takes all” game for the crown against Cincinnati in Week 18.
Despite all of the recent woes surrounding the Baltimore Ravens, it’s the Pittsburgh Steelers who have to feel the least optimistic about their divisional hopes following Week 16. Entering Kansas City on Sunday, they had a massive opportunity with their team at full strength to upset the current AFC Super Bowl favorites and put themselves in great position to make a late season run. Instead, they fell flat on their faces right from the rip and never got back up. With a final score of 36-10 to back up that notion, it’s going to take a massive turnaround over the final two weeks for Pittsburgh to get into the postseason, let alone as AFC North champions.
For starters, winning both games is an absolute must. A loss this week against the Browns in what will be Ben Roethlisberger‘s last home game as a Steeler would eliminate them from divisional contention. Along with that, they’ll need Cincinnati to lose both of their remaining games, which would give them a 9-7-1 to 9-8 advantage. Should they win both remaining games, they’d also knock out Cleveland and Baltimore in the process. So, while their path to the top is the steepest of anyone, theirs may also be the most cut and dry. Win two, Bengals lose two, and the AFC North title goes back to Pittsburgh yet again.
Anything short of that, it’s likely to be a somber end to the Roethlisberger era.
The Bengals are by far the favorite to enter the postseason as the AFC North champions following Sunday’s victory over the Ravens. It’s unfortunate that the Bengals were handed a gift in the form of the Ravens’ ever-growing injury/Covid-19 list, but it is what it is. They handled their business in dominant fashion in a crucial game, and all you can do is play against the ones in front of you. They certainly won’t be apologizing for anything following that 41-21 beat down, but something tells me they wouldn’t be thrilled to see a Wild Card Baltimore Ravens team again this year with Lamar Jackson back at the helm and a halfway healthy secondary. However, I digress.
— Noah Trister (@noahtrister) December 27, 2021
Out of the 32 possible scenarios left in the AFC North, 25 of them end with the Bengals being division champions. If they win just one out of their final two games and get to 10 wins, the crown is theirs, plain and simple. No easy task though, as they’ll be welcoming those same Kansas City Chiefs this Sunday that just wiped the floor with the Pittsburgh Steelers, before heading to Cleveland in Week 18.
Should they lose both of those games, their only hope of winning the division is the Steelers beating the Browns this week and losing to Baltimore in Week 18 (who would also have to lose this week vs Los Angeles). That would put them in a 9-8 tie with the Ravens, over whom they own the head-to-head tiebreaker. Should the Ravens somehow win this week and in Week 18 in that scenario, it would be Baltimore hosting a home playoff game as the AFC North representatives. It would take a total collapse from the Bengals at this point to not win the division though, something we could never expect from them. Right…
Well, there you have it. There are still so many storylines to follow as we approach Week 17 that it’ll make your head spin. Will the Bengals win that ONE more game necessary to call themselves 2021 AFC North champions? Will the Steelers pull it together and rally around Ben Roethlisberger to make one final push? Will the Browns, despite all of their struggles at the quarterback position, step on the gas and rush their way down the home stretch into their first title since the invention of the wheel? Can the Ravens overcome all of the injury woes and get Lamar Jackson back in time for the games that truly matter most? We’ll have all of those answers and more following this week’s slate of games. Get ready folks, they’re all neck-and-neck, and coming down the quarter pole fast.