It is hard to get those awesome t-shirts out of your mind. You know, the ones which were given to the Pittsburgh Steelers after they defeated the Cincinnati Bengals in 2014 at Heinz Field to clinch the AFC North title? The slogan on the shirts said it all:
"Steelers Run The North"
As a fan, it was a statement to the rest of the AFC North -- Pittsburgh runs this show, while you are just participating in their game. However, in 2015 the Steelers relinquished their crown to the Bengals, but only before eliminating them from the playoffs in the Wild Card round of the AFC Playoffs.
So, are the Steelers primed to reclaim what is rightfully theirs? To take claim of the division? To again "Run the North"? NFL.com's Gil Brandt recently went through all 8 division champions from 2015, and ranked which champs are most vulnerable in 2016. Which team topped the list? You guessed it -- the Bengals.
See what Brandt had to say for not just why the Bengals are vulnerable, but also why he thinks the Steelers are ready to reclaim the AFC North.
1.) Cincinnati Bengals
Biggest threat in the AFC North: Pittsburgh Steelers
This might be a bit of a surprise, since the Bengals won 12 games last year, including 10 of their first 12. And yes, they'll get quarterback Andy Dalton, who missed the last four games (including a wild-card loss to the Steelers) of the 2015 season due to a fractured thumb, back healthy. But they also lost quality receivers in Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones to free agency and -- perhaps even more importantly -- will have to replace former offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, now the Browns' head coach. Jackson was a very innovative and creative mind in Cincy, and he did a very good job. Thus, I expect this team to take a step back. But my pessimism regarding the Bengals' ability to hold on to the division has less to do with them and more to do with my confidence in Pittsburgh.
The bottom line is, the Steelers have a very imposing set of triplets in quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, running back Le'Veon Bell and receiver Antonio Brown. When all three are healthy, this is easily the best team in the division. Of course, injuries to Big Ben and Brown in 2015 and Bell in 2014 and 2015 are exactly what have stopped Pittsburgh. I cannot believe that the Steelers will be so unlucky as to be sabotaged by the injury bug for a third year in a row. And so I am confident we'll see a new AFC North champ in 2016.
The thought of the Steelers winning the AFC North next season certainly is enticing, and most definitely a realistic possibility, but in no way will it be as easy a task as Brandt makes it out to be. Regardless of the Bengals departures in both free agency, and an offensive coordinator, the team still remains a threat to be not just a division winner, but an AFC contender.
Sure, there will always be fans who mock the fact they haven't won a playoff game since Boomer Esiason was quarterbacking the team, but when you have weapons like Andy Dalton, Giovani Bernard, Jeremy Hill, A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert, those alone can spell trouble for opposing defenses. Throw in Vontaze Burfict nearly single-handedly shutting down Pittsburgh's playoff hopes, and you have yourself a tough task ahead of you.
I wouldn't doubt the AFC North comes down to the Steelers and Bengals in 2016, and how they fare against one another in the regular season could ultimately decided who is crowned champion, but to "Run the North" again next season will take a mighty effort from the black and gold.