NFL 2018: Steelers poised to retain reign in AFC North
BALTIMORE (AP) — As long as Mike Tomlin is standing on the Pittsburgh sideline, watching Ben Roethlisberger pass to Antonio Brown or give the ball to Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers will be favored to win the AFC North.
It makes no difference that Randy Fichtner is the new offensive coordinator, or that Roethlisberger turned 36 in March.
The Steelers are going to score points, and they’re going to play their best against division rivals in big games.
Baltimore knows this all too well. Two years ago, Bell rushed for 122 yards and Roethlisberger connected with Brown for a last-minute touchdown in a 31-27 victory that clinched the AFC North title.
Last December, Roethlisberger threw for 506 yards and two TDs, Bell scored twice and the Steelers beat the Ravens 39-38.
Baltimore hopes to turn things around this year, but if the Ravens are to break a run of three straight years without a playoff appearance, it will likely be as a wild card.
There are, by the way, two other teams in the division. Cincinnati and Cleveland deserve mention only because one will likely finish in third place and the other will occupy the cellar.
In Cincinnati, coach Marvin Lewis got a two-year extension despite his NFL-record 0-7 mark in the playoffs. After two straight losing seasons, he’s getting a 16th chance to finally get it right.
Cleveland is coming off an 0-16 embarrassment and can only hope to be respectable. Since the creation of the current AFC North in 2002, the Browns are the only team never to finish in first place.
Some things to know about the AFC North:
FOR WHOM THE BELL TOILS: Pittsburgh and its “Killer Bs” — Roethlisberger, Brown and Bell — have reached the playoffs four straight years. Yet all those trips to January have turned into just three postseason wins and no trips to the Super Bowl.
While the rejuvenated Roethlisberger believes he can play until he nears 40, this may be his last legitimate shot to win a third championship. Bell is likely in his final year in black-and-gold after being unable to come to terms with the club on a new long-term deal.
Bell is one of the most versatile backs in the league and not easily replaceable. He won’t lack for motivation. He believes he’s a unique talent and wants the paycheck to prove it.
Pittsburgh’s best chance to return to the Super Bowl will rely heavily on having Bell at the top of his game and will certainly take the tradeoff of seeing Bell elsewhere in 2019 if it means hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in February.
FAREWELL TOUR: Ozzie Newsome is the only general manager the Ravens have ever had, running the show in Baltimore since the team arrived from Cleveland before the 1996 season.
Newsome will be stepping aside after this season, to be replaced by current assistant GM Eric DeCosta, who in 2019 will finally get the job he wanted after spurning offers from several other clubs.
The Ravens have won two Super Bowls under Newsome, who in his final season has assembled a team that appears better than last year’s model.
Having provided quarterback Joe Flacco with a new receiving group, Newsome addressed Baltimore’s most glaring weakness in 2017.
BENGALS ON THE LINE: Cincinnati’s offense finished last in the league in yards last season, the worst showing in franchise history. The focus of their offseason was overhauling the line, which failed to protect Andy Dalton or open holes in the running game.
The Bengals fired line coach Paul Alexander, traded with Buffalo for left tackle Cordy Glenn, signed right tackle Bobby Hart and drafted center Billy Price in the first round from Ohio State. Despite all that, the right side of the line struggled against the Cowboys in the second preseason game, renewing concerns that problems remain.
GOTTA BE BETTER, CAN’T GET WORSE: Cleveland coach Hue Jackson is 1-31 in two seasons with Cleveland, but Browns owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam still believe they hired the right coach in 2016. Time will tell, but the pressure is on Jackson from the get-go to win or there could be more changes in a team that has known mostly upheaval for 20 years.
The Browns drafted quarterback Baker Mayfield with the No. 1 overall pick, but the Heisman Trophy winner will begin the year as a backup to Tyrod Taylor, who helped Buffalo snap a 17-year postseason drought last season.
Predicted order of finish: Steelers, Ravens, Bengals, Browns.
AP Sports Writers Joe Kay, Tom Withers and Will Graves contributed.