The AFC North hasn’t been dominated like other divisions in the NFL. Look at how long the New England Patriots have owned the AFC East, or how the Indianapolis Colts ran all over the rest of the AFC South when Peyton Manning was still a Colt.
No, the AFC North is pretty much a toss-up on a yearly basis. In 2016, it was the Pittsburgh Steelers who claimed the division title, but in 2015 it was the Cincinnati Bengals, in 2014 it was the Steelers, in 2013 the Bengals and in 2012 the Baltimore Ravens.
Considering that the division often has had three representatives in the AFC Playoffs, it shouldn’t come as a shock that the divisional race comes down to the very end almost every year. It did so again in 2016, until the Steelers defeated the Ravens at Heinz Field in that remarkable come-from-behind win on Christmas night.
But that’s all in the past. If any team is going to come for the Steelers’ crown this season, who will it be? The Bengals? The Ravens? The Cleveland Browns? Okay, stop laughing, I had to at least mention them in this article.
Gil Brandt of NFL.com released his predictions of who is a lock to repeat, who has a good shot and who will be overtaken in their individual divisional races this season. Needless to say, he has the Steelers in the “Lock ‘em in” category, meaning they have the best chance to repeat.
See what Brandt had to say:
Antonio Brown is 28 and has topped 100 catches in four consecutive years. Le'Veon Bell is 25 and just racked up 1,268 rushing yards and seven touchdowns in only 12 games. Ben Roethlisberger is 35, but he's coming off one of the better seasons of his career. Pittsburgh had a good draft: T.J. Watt can start, while James Conner, JuJu Smith-Schuster and long snapper Colin Holba can contribute. The defense played well in 2016, led by Stephon Tuitt and star linebacker Ryan Shazier. Who will replace Lawrence Timmons? Otherwise, the main question is, can the Big Three stay on the field together long enough to put this team over the hump?
Biggest threat in the AFC North: It's a toss-up between Cincinnati and Baltimore. Both have issues (the Bengals must deal with roster turnover, while the Ravens need to solidify the right tackle spot after losing Ricky Wagner), but both also have pretty good quarterbacks (Andy Dalton and Joe Flacco, respectively).
What he said about the Steelers, and their quest to be the first repeat division winners in the Ravens did it in 2011 and 2012, is certainly nice, but the second paragraph got me thinking about the upcoming season. Who would be considered the biggest threat to the Steelers in the AFC North? The Bengals or the Ravens.
Let’s take a look...
The Ravens gained the following players via free agency:
Re-signed DT Brandon Williams
Signed RB Danny Woodhead
Signed SS Tony Jefferson
Signed CB Brandon Carr
Re-signed CB/S Lardarius Webb
Re-signed FS Anthony Levine
The Ravens lost the following players via free agency:
OT Ricky Wagner
FB Kyle Juszczyk
DE Lawrence Guy
WR Kamar Aiken
FS Marqueston Huff
G Vladimir Ducasse
Here are the players the Ravens have added via the 2017 NFL Draft:
1/16 - Marlon Humphrey - CB - ALABAMA
2/47 - Tyus Bowser - OLB - HOUSTON
3/74 - Chris Wormley - DT - MICHIGAN
3/78 - Tim Williams - OLB - ALABAMA
4/122 - Nico Siragusa - G - SAN DIEGO STATE
5/159 - Jermaine Eluemunor - OT - TEXAS A&M
6/186 - Chuck Clark - S - VIRGINIA TECH
The Ravens lost some key pieces to their puzzle, mainly RT Ricky Wagner, but also gained some weapons on offense and focused mainly on defense through the draft. With Flacco healthy at the helm they will always be dangerous, but with such a young roster you have to wonder if it will take them some time before they actually put everything together.
The Bengals gained the following players via free agency:
Signed ILB Kevin Minter
Signed G Andre Smith
Re-signed DE Wallace Gilberry
Re-signed RB Cedric Peerman
Re-signed RT Eric Winston
The Bengals lost the following players via free agency:
G Kevin Zeitler
LT Andrew Whitworth
DT Domata Peko
DE Margus Hunt
RB Rex Burkhead
Here are the players the Bengals have added via the 2017 NFL Draft:
1/9 - John Ross - WR - WASHINGTON
2/48 - Joe Mixon - RB - OKLAHOMA
3/73 - Jordan Willis - DE - KANSAS STATE
4/116 - Carl Lawson - DE - AUBURN
4/128 - Josh Malone - WR - TENNESSEE
4/138 - Ryan Glasgow - DT - MICHIGAN
5/153 - Jake Elliott - K - MEMPHIS
5/176 - J.J. Dielman - C - UTAH
6/193 - Jordan Evans - ILB - OKLAHOMA
6/207 - Brandon Wilson - CB - HOUSTON
7/251 - Mason Schreck - TE - BUFFALO
Although the Bengals had a boat-load of draft picks (not as many as Cleveland but still a lot), they lost some key pieces to their offensive and defensive lines through free agency. Maybe the loss of Zeitler won’t be such a huge loss, but you have to imagine life without Whitworth won’t be easy. Still some new weapons via the draft could make this team dangerous.
So, looking at all the information, who is the biggest threat to the Steelers? In my opinion, it’s the Baltimore Ravens. Every fan of the Black-and-Gold knows just how tough the Ravens play the Steelers, regardless of record. I think the Bengals have some huge holes on their roster, ones which the Steelers certainly can exploit, and although the Ravens too have holes, they aren’t as vast as the ones in Cincinnati.