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NFL playoffs 2021: How each AFC North team can win the division over the season’s final two weeks

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It took 16 weeks, but someone finally put some distance between themselves and the rest of the field in the AFC North division. By virtue of Sunday’s 41-21 win over the Ravens, the Bengals now have a hold on first place in the NFL‘s tightest division with two weeks left in the regular season. But Cincinnati still has work to do if they are going to complete the task of winning the North for the first time since 2015. 

The Bengals are the front-runner, but each of the division’s four teams still has a path toward a division title. Cincinnati controls its own destiny, while the Ravens, Steelers and Browns will have to win and rely on outside help if they are going to capture the North. Each team is also still in position to capture a playoff berth, but given where the Colts, Patriots, Chargers, Raiders and Dolphins currently are in the standings, a division will be the clearest path to the playoffs for the AFC North’s four teams. 

Let’s take a look at how each AFC North team can capture the division during the regular season’s final two weeks, along with the scenario that we most expect will play out. 

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Cincinnati Bengals

  • Record: 9-6 (4-1 in the AFC North) 
  • Current seed in AFC standings: 3rd 
  • Remaining games: vs. Kansas City, at Cleveland 

AFC North division scenarios: 

  • Defeat Kansas City on Sunday, or 
  • Defeat Cleveland in Week 18, or
  • One loss each by Ravens, Steelers, and Browns (Week 17 vs. Steelers) 

Most likely scenario: 

The Bengals are certainly capable of upsetting the Chiefs, but the likelier bet is that Cincinnati will need to beat the Browns in Week 18 in order to clinch the North. The Bengals may not even have to win another game if the Browns lose to the Steelers next Monday night and the Ravens lose at home to the Rams on Sunday. Regardless, if appears that a win in Cleveland will be the Bengals’ best chance at winning the franchise’s first division crown in six years, especially if the Browns have nothing to play for. 

Baltimore Ravens 

  • Record: 8-7 (1-4 in the AFC North) 
  • Current seed in AFC Standings: 7th 
  • Remaining games: vs. Rams, vs. Steelers 

AFC North division scenario: 

  • Defeat Rams and Steelers, and Bengals lose to Chiefs and Browns 

Most likely scenario: 

Baltimore is the only team in the division that will finish the regular season with two home games. Like the Bengals, the Ravens will host a team in Week 17 that has already clinched its division but is still in the hunt to win their conference’s No. 1 seed. The Ravens have lost four straight, but three of those losses were in one-possession games. Baltimore is certainly capable of beating the Rams if either Lamar Jackson or Tyler Huntley are available, but similar to Kansas City, it’s hard to pick against a Los Angeles team that has won four straight games. Baltimore’s hopes of an AFC North division title likely end on Sunday, but they will have a chance a making the playoffs if they can beat the Steelers at home in their regular-season finale. 

Pittsburgh Steelers 

  • Record: 7-7-1 (2-2 in the AFC North)
  • Current seed in AFC standings: 10th
  • Remaining games: vs. Browns, at Ravens 

AFC North division scenario: 

  • Defeat Cleveland and Baltimore, and Bengals lose to the Chiefs and Browns 

Most likely scenario: 

The Steelers already beat both of their final two opponents, so it’s certainly feasible to think that Pittsburgh could win out and give themselves a chance at winning the division. The Steelers will have an added incentive to defeat the Browns on “Monday Night Football” in what will likely be Ben Roethlisberger’s final game at Heinz Field, so the Steelers will likely enter their Week 18 game against the Ravens needing a win to give themselves a chance at making the playoffs and/or winning the division if the Bengals fall to the Chiefs this Sunday.

Pittsburgh is in a unique position in that they will not have to worry about any tiebreakers assuming that they remain the only AFC team with a tie. If they win two and finish 9-7-1, the Steelers would make the playoffs over any 9-8 team. Conversely, Pittsburgh will likely fail to quality for the playoffs at 8-8-1 unless the Chargers, Ravens and Chargers lose out, the Dolphins go 1-2 down the stretch, and the Browns and Broncos split their final two games. 

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Cleveland Browns 

  • Record: 7-8 (2-2 in the AFC North) 
  • Current seed in the AFC standings: 12th
  • Remaining games: at Steelers, vs. Bengals 

AFC North division scenario: 

  • Defeat Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, Bengals lose out, Ravens lose one of their final two games 

Most likely scenario: 

The Browns have been plagued by injuries and positive COVID-19 cases. They have also failed to get many favorable bounces in key moments as they are 4-6 in one-score games. While a lot has to go in their favor, the Browns could pull off the improbable, assuming they can handle their own business during the season’s last two games. 

Cleveland had its best performance of the season in Week 9 when they left Cincinnati with a 41-16 win. The Browns won’t be lacking any confidence when the Bengals come to town in Week 18, but first, the Browns need to win in Pittsburgh — the site of last year’s wild-card win over the Steelers — if their regular season finale is going to have any playoff significance. That makes next Monday night’s game a must-win for both the Steelers and Browns, a fact that will only elevate what should be a memorable night at Heinz Field. 



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