By Kate Arhar // @ClvlndK8
While some divisions in the NFL are already settled and playoff spots clinched, the AFC North is going to go down to the wire to determine which teams are in and which ones will be crying in their after-game water bottles.
My friend Dayna likes to talk about the NFC West being the best division in football. I disagree! The AFC North is – finally – looking like a real powerhouse of competition and could very easily produce this year’s Super Bowl champion!
With their win over the Indianapolis Colts last week, the Pittsburgh Steelers have locked on to the division title and a playoff berth. And at a depressing 4-10, the Cincinnati Bengals are out of the running.
However, the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens promise to make things interesting as they both fight for a wild card spot.
After starting the season 11-0, the Steelers went on a three-game slide but they are back to their winning ways and seem to have righted the ship. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t seemed quite himself, even in their past two victories, and he may very well sit out in their week 17 matchup versus the Browns since they are locked into the playoffs.
— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) December 27, 2020
After suffering from a huge loss to the New York Jets, the Browns desperately need to beat the Steelers. And not just to get into the playoffs, but to get that elusive 11th win season they haven’t had since 1994. Losing their starting wide receiver corps to Covid protocols was just brutal but is in no way an excuse for the poor defensive play last week. Their secondary really needs to up its game if they’re going to beat the Steelers, regardless of who shows up under center.
Basically, if the Browns win they are in the playoffs. A loss means they need both the Colts and Titans to lose. This is all in their hands, they control their destiny. Hopefully, the return of WR’s Jarvis Landry, Rashard Higgins, Donovan Peoples-Jones, and a successful running game from running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt will get them the win they – and their fans – so desperately want!
The Ravens were skidding hard mid-season but they seem to have finally figured it out and their win last week over the Titans moved them ahead of Cleveland in the playoff race. A win over Cincinnati next week gets Baltimore in the playoffs. A loss could still get them in if they get a loss from one of Miami, Cleveland, or Indianapolis. They own the season tie-breaker over Cleveland so that helps also.
Frankly, the Ravens don’t rely on anyone else to get the job done. They plan to just “keep winning” and, really, that’s the smart play. Roll into the playoffs on a hot streak with QB Lamar Jackson once again lighting up the field!
Lamar Jackson found out that the Colts and Browns lost — which helped Ravens gain control of their playoff fate — in the locker room after the game.
“My reaction was: We just got to keep winning,” Jackson said. “That’s what I’m focused on.”
— Jamison Hensley (@jamisonhensley) December 27, 2020
The Bengals may be out of it but they do have the opportunity to play spoiler. With rookie QB Joe Burrow out due to injury, they’ve still managed to stay competitive. They are on a two-game winning streak, beating the Steelers and Texans, and could very well pull off the upset this week against the Ravens. Sometimes, it’s the dog with nothing to lose that wins the fight.
My prediction: The AFC North will be sending three teams to the playoffs. It sounds crazy, but if Cleveland and Baltimore both win this week then they are in. Frankly, having five teams at 10-5 (Ravens, Browns, Titans, Colts, Dolphins) with only four open spots is insane. How does a 10-win team NOT make the playoffs? There could be TWO NFC teams in the post-season with only 8 wins. Sigh. I guess this is just another way the “Covid Era” of football makes everything a bit strange!
Who do you think will rep the AFC North in the playoffs?
Check in with Kate on twitter // @ClvlndK8