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first_imgWe’re being optimistic in our assumption the Ravens will win out while the Steelers will steal a high-scoring affair from either the Patriots or the Saints. The division will send two teams to the playoffs; Pittsburgh’s tie will serve as a handy tiebreaker to sneak the team into the postseason over a surging pack of 7-6 teams.The Ravens and Steelers both win in the end, given a bye isn’t happening for the North champs. This finish is ideal to get the Ravens (home) and Steelers (away) where they have been most comfortable this season.The Browns’ first goal of the season was to win a game, period. Getting to seven wins, after how things started with Jackson and Tyrod Taylor, would be incredible. That means the Bengals, who were once 4-1, are the team that ends up as the only true disappointment in the division. The Steelers seemed to have their third straight AFC North title on lock one short month ago, when they were 6-2-1. Everyone else in the division was fading.Four weeks later, Pittsburgh is now looking back fondly on its last-minute escape in Jacksonville, the team’s last victory. Since then, the Steelers have fallen as favorites to three consecutive AFC West foes (Broncos, Chargers, Raiders) in frustrating, one-possession fashion. There’s worse news. The AFC nemesis Patriots, coming off a loss themselves — when they rarely lose — are the next opponent, followed by the NFC powerhouse Saints.There’s a legitimate chance the Steelers (7-5-1) could go into Week 17 in a total free-fall having lost five straight.MORE: Updated NFL playoff pictureThe Ravens (6-5), despite their overtime loss in Kansas City on Sunday, have gone 3-1 with Lamar Jackson as their starting quarterback and are still a half-game behind the Steelers. The Browns (5-7-1) also have gotten a spark from their rookie first-round QB, going 3-1 in the past four with Baker Mayfield. Only the last-place Bengals (5-8) can be considered out because of their quarterback situation with Jeff Driskel and by far the worst defense in the division.Going through what Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Cleveland have left, here’s laying out what needs to happen for each team to win the North and assessing their chances.Pittsburgh SteelersSchedule: vs. Patriots, at Saints, vs. BengalsThe Steelers’ offense missed James Conner in Oakland. Ben Roethlisberger missed most of the second half, too, with a rib injury. Their offense has not been as crisp or consistent during the skid. That definitely showed up in the losses to Denver and Oakland.But over the past two weeks, against Los Angeles and Oakland, the defense that looked it had turned the corner with the Week 10 domination of Carolina was absent, with major lapses in key moments in the second half.That’s bad timing with New England and New Orleans bringing balance, explosiveness and versatility into the next two games. The Steelers can’t get away with being one-dimensional and relying on battered Big Ben to simply be the passing hero to out-duel Tom Brady and Drew Brees.Even if it holds serve against Cincinnati in Week 17, Pittsburgh probably can’t afford to lose to both New England and New Orleans; eight wins likely won’t cut it for a wild-card, let alone the division race. There’s never been a better opportunity for the Steelers to solve the Patriots — at home against a team that has found bad ways to lose on the road this season.The Steelers have lost whatever cushion they had, and without Conner, failing to live up to their immense offensive talent could cost them most in the final three weeks. Easier said than done, but they must play their absolute best to save a playoff berth.AFTER FURTHER REVIEW:Biggest takeaways from Week 14 in NFLBaltimore RavensSchedule: vs. Buccaneers, at Chargers, vs. BrownsThe Ravens will need to make the call on whether to stick with Jackson or go back to Joe Flacco in Week 15. The offense has found a good, physical identity with Jackson opening an effective, run-heavy offense, which has carried over to Baltimore’s talented defense. That should help the Ravens beat the Bucs next week, meaning Baltimore will be favored to leave Week 15 a half-game up in the division.The Chargers are daunting as an opponent, but their defense is most vulnerable to the kind of power running to which the Ravens are committed with Jackson and backs Gus Edwards and Kenneth Dixon. Tampa Bay and Cleveland have even weaker run defenses.The Ravens’ result against the Chiefs on Sunday wasn’t desirable, but Baltimore going toe-to-toe with one of the AFC’s best will have the team brimming with confidence and attitude for a strong finish.Cleveland BrownsSchedule: at Broncos, vs. Bengals, at RavensThe Browns, who are two games below .500, need the most help. And with three other teams tied with the Ravens at 7-6 in the wild-card race (Dolphins, Colts, Titans) the North title is Cleveland’s only viable path to the playoffs, because it can’t get to nine wins.The first order of business is winning out, and at the moment, Cleveland is better than both Denver and Cincinnati. While the Browns go 3-0, the Ravens must go 1-2 and the Steelers 0-3, but at least the Browns control some of that directly in Week 17. In that scenario, Cleveland would go from washout season to accelerating their ascent to potential division favorite status for 2019.The Browns’ biggest obstacles are the ineffectiveness of their run defense and the inconsistency of Mayifleld — he’s still a rookie QB, even though he often doesn’t play like it. But in its last three opponents, Cleveland is not facing offenses equipped with offensive firepower.center_img Everything about the Browns with Mayfield and interim coach Gregg Williams is fearless. They play like they have nothing to lose (and they don’t) with aggressiveness in going after big plays on both sides of the ball. As Mayfield might say, that’s a “dangerous” way to play, but save for the turnover mess against the Texans in Week 13, such a style has worked.This recent success makes one wonder: Had the Browns fired Hue Jackson ahead of the season and started Mayfield from Week 1 on, could they be the division leaders at this point? The Steelers are fortunate to have a tie and not a loss lingering from that Week 1 meeting.AFC North prediction1. Ravens (10-6)2. Steelers (9-6-1)3. Browns (7-8-1)4. Bengals (6-10)last_img read more