AFC North 2017 Preview

For the overall 2017 NFL Preview click here, and see the links at the bottom of the page for the rest of the divisional previews.

Steelers 12-4

It’s good to be the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Last week Joe Haden fell into their laps after being unceremoniously cut in Cleveland, presumably helping Artie Burns and Coty Sensabaugh make the weakness of the 2016 Steeler D a strength. This unit lost Lawrence Timmons to Miami but Vince Williams is a solid replacement to pair with stud Ryan Shazier in the middle. The pass rush tandem of Bud Dupree and rookie T.J. Watt could remind us of the 1990s iteration of the Steel Curtain if the latter is anything like his big brother.

The offense comes with issues, but still figures to be special. Ben Roethlisberger could be starting a Favre-ian will-he-or-won’t-he-retire situation, Le’Veon Bell skipped the preseason because of the franchise tag, and deep threat Martavis Bryant is back from a long suspension — but he could be the X-factor the Steelers need to compliment the “Killer Bs.” Throw in rookies JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner, and this could be the best offense in football. Regardless of whether the newly acquired Vance McDonald looks like a “varsity” tight end, Pittsburgh remains the (black and) gold standard in the AFC North and the biggest threat to New England’s return to the Super Bowl.

Ravens 9-7

Eric Weddle may be making big promises in Baltimore, but Ravens owner Steve Biscotti is quoted as saying in reference to his team, “The pitchforks are out.”

That’s because Baltimore has a 31-33 record since they won Super Bowl XLVII and missed the playoffs in three of the last four seasons. Injuries have been a big reason why, and they figure to factor in again in 2017.

Leading tackler Zach Orr retired because of a spinal condition and the Ravens have had unbelievably bad luck at tight end: Dennis Pitta’s career is likely over after he sadly reached the hip injury trifecta, Darren Waller out at least a year for violating the league’s substance abuse policy, and Crockett Gillmore has a knee injury that will cost him the season. The interior of the offensive line figures to struggle after losing John Urschel to retirement and Alex Lewis to a season-ending shoulder injury.

On the plus side, the Jeremy Maclin acquisition basically cancels out Steve Smith’s retirement and the defense acquired Tony Jefferson, Brandon Carr, and rookie Marlon Humphrey to keep that unit close to a Top 10 ranking. Unfortunately for Baltimore, no defensive exploits will be enough to make up for a bad offense likely to struggle early because of Joe Flacco’s back issues and Kenneth Dixon’s four-game suspension. Automatic kicker Justin Tucker’s preseason concussion certainly doesn’t help matters, so the Ravens will be lucky to finish .500 in a pretty good division.

At least they’ll be able to see low-scoring football from every angle!

Bengals 7-9

Incredibly, head coach Marvin Lewis enters his 15th season at the helm in Cincinnati, meaning he’s been the Bengals coach for 30 percent of the franchise’s milestone 50 seasons. Ownership may decide that symmetry in tandem with another losing season is reason enough to move on from the lame duck coach after 2017.

As usual, it was tough for me to figure these Bengals out, because it really could go either way for this team. Speedster John Ross was taken in the first round and the Bengals took a flier on Joe Mixon in Round 2 despite his off field troubles; both players are Top 10 talents that could be difference makers on an offense already blessed with good skill position players. However, they may not have enough time to really shine because of a bad offensive line that lost its two best players (Kevin Zeitler and Andrew Whitworth) to free agency.

Then there’s the defense. Vontaze Burfict was suspended (again) for a dirty hit and will miss the first three games of the season. Otherwise, this is a good unit that got a little better with Kevin Minter at inside linebacker. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Cincinnati return to the postseason but I think they’re more likely to be home for the holidays.

And the only thing worse than Lewis adding another loss to his 0-7 playoff record is not getting to the playoffs at all.

Browns 4-12

Here we go again, Cleveland.

Rookie DeShone Kizer becomes the 27th QB to take a crack at ending the Browns comedy of errors at the position since their 1999 reincarnation. Cleveland did him a solid by beefing up the interior of the offensive line with free agents Kevin Zeitler and J.C. Tretter, and Joe Thomas remains the stalwart blindside protector of that unit. With a line like that, running the ball and keeping pressure off Kizer (and his lackluster receiving options) shouldn’t be a major problem.

Myles Garrett was the top pick in this year’s draft and should be the cornerstone of an improved defense that also took Jabrill Peppers in the first round. Gregg Williams knows exactly what to do with talent like that, and I’m counting on that D to be fun enough to get the Dawg Pound barking again. This is still a losing team but it’s one headed in the right direction.

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Rob Woodfork

Rob Woodfork is WTOP's Senior Sports Content Producer, which includes duties as producer and host of the DC Sports Huddle, nightside sports anchor and sports columnist on

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