Trietley: Predicting the AFC North

By Greg Trietley

So who wins the AFC North?

The AFC playoff race isn’t much of a race at the moment. The New… So who wins the AFC North?

The AFC playoff race isn’t much of a race at the moment. The New England Patriots have a two-game lead on the New York Jets in the AFC East. In the AFC South, the Houston Texans — now accepting quarterback applications — should limp into the postseason over Tennessee. And in the mediocre AFC West, well, have you not heard about Tim Tebow? Either his Broncos or the Oakland Raiders will take the division crown.

That leaves the AFC North, which features the 8-3 Baltimore Ravens, the 8-3 Pittsburgh Steelers and the 7-4 Cincinnati Bengals. If the playoffs started today, all three would make the postseason, and the other three divisions would complain that the North was “hogging all the wild card spots, ma!”

With five weeks remaining, the race for the AFC North title might be the most entertaining battle the conference has to offer — because, really, the AFC West is more fun to watch in theory than it is in reality.

Week 13

Baltimore plays at Cleveland, which is 28th in the league in scoring and hasn’t beaten a team with a winning record this season. Joe Flacco can have an off day, and the Ravens would still win 6-3.

Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, meanwhile, face each other in a 1 p.m. Heinz Field matchup. If the Bengals lose this game and drop to 7-5, they run the risk of losing their stranglehold on the last wild card spot. Although the Steelers are formidable at home (4-1), let’s say Andy Dalton leads the Bengals to a crucial victory just to keep things interesting.

That puts Baltimore at 9-3 and the Steelers and Bengals at 8-4.

Week 14

The Ravens host the Indianapolis Colts, which will enter the game 0-12 barring a miracle in Week 13 at New England. Let’s assume that Baltimore’s current franchise beats Baltimore’s old franchise … by a lot.

The Steelers host the Cleveland Browns on Thursday night. Both teams will have a short week, so neither side has an advantage there. The Browns will drop this primetime matchup against Pittsburgh for the same reasons they will lose to the Ravens. Luckily for them, those without the NFL Network can’t criticize their play this time.

Cincinnati hosts Houston. The Texans are poised to make the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, but injuries to Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart have made fifth-round draft pick T.J. Yates the starting quarterback. Since Cincinnati has a run defense that can stop Arian Foster, and Houston doesn’t have a passing game, the Bengals take this one.

All three teams win, and Baltimore maintains a one-game lead in the division.

Week 15

The Ravens play at San Diego Sunday night. The Chargers are a lackluster 4-7 this year, and Philip Rivers has thrown a league-high 17 interceptions. That’s great news for the Ravens.

Pittsburgh has another night game when it takes on the 9-2 San Francisco 49ers Monday night — the toughest opponent left on anyone in the AFC North’s schedule. The quietly impressive 49ers have yet to show a glaring weakness. Give them the win at home against the Steelers in a nationally televised, low-scoring affair.

Cincinnati plays the St. Louis Rams, a team that’s even worse offensively than the Browns. Mark that as a victory for the Bengals.

With two games remaining, relatively easy schedules have boosted Baltimore to 11-3 and Cincinnati to 10-4. Two losses to Baltimore mathematically eliminate 9-5 Pittsburgh from taking the division.

Week 16

Relief comes to Heinz Field in the form of the Rams, which play Pittsburgh on Christmas Eve. The Steelers rise to 10-5.

However, Baltimore and Cincinnati also host teams whose postseason hopes died in October. Arizona comes to Cincinnati, and Cleveland comes to Baltimore. Christmas cheer spreads wins to all the AFC North’s contenders.

Week 17

That sets up a Week 17 clash between 12-3 Baltimore, now on a six-game winning streak, and 11-4 Cincinnati, on a five-game winning streak. But the Ravens actually have the division wrapped up. They beat the Bengals in November, and even if Cincinnati wins here, the tiebreaker shifts to divisional records. Baltimore would enter 5-0 in the division, while Cincinnati would enter 3-2.

(As this is sorted out, Pittsburgh beats Cleveland, moves to 11-5 and clinches the No. 6 seed.)

At home, Dalton and the Bengals make one last regular-season statement and upset the Ravens, 31-24. All three teams make the playoffs, and Baltimore has the first-round bye, but the Bengals — yes, the Bengals — are the ones with all the momentum entering the postseason.