No division is more up for grabs this season than the AFC North. The team with the worst record in the hyper-competitive division is the 7-6 Cleveland Browns, with the Cincinnati Bengals, Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens all claiming eight victories.
Despite their loss to the Steelers in Week 14, the Bengals are first in the division thanks to their Week 6 tie with Carolina, with a tie being better than a loss.
But the division is far from decided. With three games left in the regular season, any one of the four teams can wear the division crown and the second-place squad, as of now, is likely to claim one of the AFC’s two wild-card spots.
It’s very possible that the AFC North will be decided by one of the NFL’s tiebreaker procedures, starting with head-to-head record, followed by division record, record in common games and then conference record.
The tiebreakers are already playing a significant role, as Cincinnati would be second behind Pittsburgh after last week’s loss if not for their tie with the Panthers.
According to FiveThirtyEight.com, if current trends hold up between the four teams, Pittsburgh has a 36.7 percent chance of winning the division, Baltimore 35.7, Cincinnati 25.8 and Cleveland 1.8.
Let’s break down what each team needs to do, or have done for them, in order to make the postseason. Each team’s overall record, division record and record in conference games is provided, as well.
Cincinnati Bengals (8-4-1, 2-2, 5-4)
The Bengals have the toughest road to the postseason, facing teams with a combined record of 25-14, including two division matchups to teams they’ve already lost to this season. Right now, Cincy’s tie with Carolina has helped them significantly, but a slip in Week 15 to Johnny Manziel and the Browns, and a win for the Steelers over Atlanta, tosses them to second.
Thanks to a season-sweep of the Ravens, Cincinnati would still maintain one of the two wild-card spots. The tie also comes in handy if Houston wins again, since the Texans already have six losses this season.
Cincy also has the slight benefit of its last three games all against AFC teams, which could allow them to build on their 5-4 conference record.
Schedule: at Cleveland, Denver, at Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh Steelers (8-5, 3-2, 7-3)
Currently owning the top wild-card spot, Pittsburgh has the best division and conference records of anyone in the AFC North, and plays a 5-8 Atlanta squad this week that’s allowing 26.3 points per game. Winning out against teams with a combined 20-18 record, could allow them to not only win the division, but surpass 9-4 Indianapolis for the No. 3 seed.
How the Colts season plays out could play a big role for whoever clinches the AFC North. Indy’s at home against a hot Texans squad, and then finishes the season with two straight road games at Dallas and Tennessee. A Colts and Bengals loss in Week 15, slots Pittsburgh atop the division and in the No. 3 seed.
Catching the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos for a first-week playoff bye will be difficult for the Steelers. They’ll need to win out, and then hope both 10-3 squads lose two of their last three, and even then tiebreakers could keep the Steelers at No. 3
Schedule: at Atlanta, Kansas City, Cincinnati
Baltimore Ravens (8-5, 2-3, 4-5)
The two losses to Cincy are a huge blow to the Ravens, but they get two home games in the final stretch, including this week’s matchup against 2-11 Jacksonville. Baltimore’s poor division and conference records would also be a major hindrance, but they stand to overtake 8-5 San Diego for the last wild-card slot.
The Chargers face a difficult slate of visiting Denver this week, followed by successive road games at San Francisco and Kansas City. Denver’s a perfect 7-0 at home this season, and with the Ravens playing the Jags, the Chargers are likely to fall out of the last wild-card spot when Week 15 concludes.
Still, the Ravens' best bet is to win out, with San Diego owning better division (2-2) and conference (6-4) records.
Schedule: Jacksonville, at Houston, Cleveland
Cleveland Browns (7-6, 2-2, 4-6)
New starter Manziel can snap the Browns' 12-year playoff drought, but they’ll need plenty of help. The consecutive losses to Indianapolis and at Buffalo significantly weakened Cleveland’s conference record, gave the Bills the head-to-head tiebreaker advantage and pushed Baltimore, Houston, Miami, and Kansas City ahead of them.
Cleveland will need Houston to stumble twice in the next three weeks at Indy and in Week 17 against Jacksonville, but hope the Texans beat Baltimore in between for a shot at the division.
Miami is on the road at New England, but finishes the season with two straight at home versus Minnesota and the Jets. A loss to the Patriots and Jets would put the Dolphins at 6-6 in the AFC, and Cleveland could surge past them if they win out.
How Kansas City plays out is another major factor for the Browns. The Chiefs are 1-3 in their division, but face two AFC West foes in the next three weeks, and all three of their opponents are in the conference, which could help them improve an already solid 5-4 AFC record. However, Cleveland will be rooting for the Chiefs to beat Pittsburgh on the road in Week 16.
The Browns also end the season with two road games, including one against an improving Carolina defense. Cleveland can take solace in the fact that it completely shut down the Bengals offense five weeks ago, but now Cincy has receiver A.J. Green back at full strength.
Schedule: Cincinnati, at Carolina, at Baltimore