The AFC North will be a race to the finish, something I've been saying for weeks, and the Pittsburgh Steelers' victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 14 action only makes the race for the North crown more intriguing as the final three weeks approach.
The Cincinnati Bengals (8-4-1) remain a half-game ahead of both the Steelers and Baltimore Ravens, thanks to their tie with the Carolina Panthers. Nonetheless, although Bengals players and their fans may be comforted about their team's position going forward, their remaining three games might be the most difficult of the entire division.
The Bengals travel to Cleveland this Sunday, followed by a Monday Night Football contest against the Denver Broncos. Their final game will be a trip to Heinz Field to play the team that just defeated them 42-21 this past Sunday. Looking at those remaining games, it certainly isn't a lock for the Bengals even to be in the post-season when the dust settles.
The Steelers (8-5) find themselves in the passenger seat for another week, and ahead of the Ravens due to tie-breakers. Comparing remaining schedules across the division, if the Steelers' final three games aren't the most difficult, they're a close second-place. The Steelers travel to play the Atlanta Falcons for their final road trip of the regular season, then follow that trip with back-to-back home games against the Kansas City Chiefs and the Bengals.
If the Steelers win their remaining games, they will be crowned AFC North Division champions and will host a playoff game. But slipping up in one of the final three and the focus turns to a wild-card spot rather than a division title.
The Ravens (8-5) continue to hang around and might have the easiest stretch to end the season of all four teams. The Ravens will host the Jacksonville Jaguars this Sunday, followed by a trip to play the Houston Texans, before hosting Cleveland in the final week of the season at M&T Bank Stadium.
The Ravens' tie-breakers are the reason they aren't currently in second place in the division, and Baltimore will need to rely on the Bengals and Steelers both slipping up if they expect to win the division. Those circumstances could very well come true, but the Ravens look to be in a prime position to return to the post-season after missing last season.
The Cleveland Browns suffered a devastating loss to the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday, and in doing so essentially killed their hopes of winning the division. The Browns still have a playoff spot to play for, but their remaining three games look to be a challenging test for a team not used to preparing for meaningful, late-season games.
The Browns host the Bengals this Sunday and follow that up with back-to-back road trips to play the Panthers and then the Ravens to finish out their 2014 season.
Looking at the AFC North, no one should even try to predict outcomes anymore. Nonetheless, with three weeks remaining, it seems to be shaping up to be a three-horse race to the finish. May the best team win.