We are in the throes of the final few thrilling weeks of the NFL season. The AFC North currently has three teams that would be playoff-bound if the season were to end today. The fourth team is plummeting in the standings but is only one victory away from drastically changing their precipitous tumble.
Everything hinges on the next few games for the division. The number one seed, playoff positioning, and wildcard spots are in play for all four divisional rivals. The division itself, however, cannot be won by the Cincinnati Bengals or Pittsburgh Steelers, ending the Bengals' run at the top of the AFC North.
Here are where the AFC North Power Rankings stand after Week 15 and as we enter the most exciting part of the season for the best division in the league.
4) Pittsburgh Steelers
The Pittsburgh Steelers remain at the bottom of the power rankings for the second consecutive week. More importantly, for Mike Tomlin’s squad, they have played themselves out of the playoff picture.
This seemed almost inevitable, as the Steelers had the worst point differential, by far, of all the teams in the division and playoff contention. They now own the third-worst point differential in the AFC.
The Steelers are in the midst of the longest losing streak in the conference, at three. Their latest defeat came against the Indianapolis Colts, 30-13.
However, the perception surrounding that could change with just one victory. Their next opponent is the Cincinnati Bengals. Another head-to-head victory over the Queen City Cats would vault the Steelers ahead of the Bengals in the standings and the power rankings. Let’s hope that does not happen.
On the other hand, another loss would almost certainly end Pittsburgh’s playoff hopes for the 2023 season. Let’s hope that does happen.
Meanwhile, in the Steel City, fans have turned up the heat on Super Bowl-winning head coach Mike Tomlin. There is room for things to get much warmer if Pittsburgh loses against their divisional rival.
3) Cincinnati Bengals
Under any other circumstance, we should be discussing which team is the hottest in the NFL heading into the playoffs. Unquestionably, one of the hottest teams right now is the Cincinnati Bengals. They are currently riding the second-longest winning streak in the AFC Conference.
Perhaps the Bengals are being overlooked as getting hot at the right time because they are playing with their backup quarterback, Jake Browning.
However, Browning has been a revelation. And he continues to be after a 27–24 comeback victory over the Minnesota Vikings.
It wasn’t perfect for the Bengals quarterback, but it was clutch. Browning ended the day with a stat line of 29 completions on 42 attempts, 324 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception.
The defense also stepped up, keeping the Minnesota Vikings out of the end zone after two long drives thanks to one turnover in the red zone and another two yards away from being yet another for a Cincinnati defense that seems to have a notch for forcing turnovers in the red zone.
Now, the men in stripes would own the sixth seed in the NFL playoffs if the season were to end today. But as we know, the season does not end today. The next step for the Bengals is the rival Steelers.
Pittsburgh is a wounded, thus dangerous, team. The Bengals must continue to play one game, one quarter, and one down at a time. If Cincinnati is to hold on to their playoff position, they must get the victory against their archrival Steelers.
Fortunately, this will be nothing new for the Bengals, as the last three games have been must-win to keep their playoff hopes alive. They have answered the bell for each game. Let’s hope that they can do it again on Saturday.
2) Cleveland Browns
The Browns will need help from a couple of other teams to catch the Ravens. Nevertheless, they have done their part, winning two consecutive games.
They are coming off a thrilling come-from-behind victory against the Chicago Bears. The Elves scored 13 fourth-quarter points to complete the comeback and get the win, 20-17.
As a result, Cleveland keeps its slim hopes of catching the Ravens alive. More importantly, they hold off the surging Bengals in the division’s power rankings.
Anticipate the Browns being heavy favorites in their next two matchups when they take on the Texans and Jets. They end their regular season campaign with the second installment of the ‘Battle of Ohio’ this year.
Week 18 of the NFL season could be a crucial game for playoff seeding or to see if one or both Ohio teams make it to the playoffs.
But the Browns have their eyes set on the team above them in the standings, contemplating surpassing the Ravens at the very last moment to take the AFC North crown. However, for now, at least, they will have to settle for second place in this week’s power rankings.
1) Baltimore Ravens
The writing has been on the wall for quite a while. This past weekend, the Baltimore Ravens made it official by securing their place in the playoffs. However, the division title is still in question.
The Ravens kept their conference-best winning streak going, securing their fourth consecutive victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars, 23-7.
And while the rest of the division trails behind, the Ravens have their sights set on something greater. They are now in sole possession of first place in the conference. They have no intentions of relinquishing that spot. However, holding on to it will not be easy.
Baltimore closes the curtain of their season with games against the 49ers, Dolphins, and Steelers. That is a daunting schedule for everyone involved.
The 49ers are arguably the best team in the NFL. Their six-game winning streak and league-best point differential suggest this to be the case. The Dolphins will want to beat the Ravens to have a head-to-head advantage if the number-one seed comes down to a tiebreaker. And the Steelers would love to spoil Baltimore’s plans to get the top seed.
Expect a marvelous sprint to the end of the season. It will be made even better knowing the AFC North continues to be, arguably, the best division in football. Hopefully, that will be borne out by getting three teams into the playoffs, with the Cincinnati Bengals being the third.