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Best Case/Worst Case for AFC North Playoff Hopes in Week 17
For much of the 2021 season, the AFC North has been one hot mess. However, with the Cincinnati Bengals laying waste to the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday in Cincinnati, plus with the Cleveland Browns losing to the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers falling to the Kansas City Chiefs, the division is now Cincinnati’s to lose.
Each team has two games left and there will be three more in-division games by the time it’s all said and done. With that said, here are the best (and worst) cases for each team in Week 17, a week that’ll set the stage for either a very boring or incredibly exciting Week 18 conclusion.
1st - Cincinnati Bengals (9-6, 3rd in AFC Playoff Picture, -250 to win the AFC North)
One week after Christmas, it could be Clinchmas Sunday in Cincinnati if everything goes to plan.
Holding onto the third seed in the AFC playoffs and first place in the AFC North, they’ll enter the weekend looking to punch home a ticket with a win on Sunday. The best case is pretty simple for Cincinnati in that rite. The opponent, however, makes things a lot less simple. When the Kansas City Chiefs roll into town on Sunday, it’ll be a title fight that could leave the winner in line for a first place finish in the conference. The loser? Well, the Chiefs already have the AFC West locked up and the Bengals still clinch a win with a Week 18 victory in Cleveland.
The worst-case scenario involves wins for the Baltimore Ravens over the Los Angeles Rams (more on that below) and a Cleveland Browns win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. Now, Bengals fans at home might ask “why wouldn’t it be worse for the third-place Steelers to win?” That answer is relatively easy; if the Steelers win on Monday night, the Browns are going to close down shop faster than you can order a plane ticket to Cabo. If the Bengals are squaring up with a 7-9 Browns team in Week 18, it’s a good shot Cleveland fields a squad that looks more like the skeleton crew they saw from Baltimore last Sunday.
2nd - Baltimore Ravens (8-7, 10th in AFC Playoff Picture, +550 to win the AFC North)
If the 2021 Baltimore Ravens were an album, they’d be Things Fall Apart by The Roots. No team had worse injury and general health luck this season, but hey, it’s impressive that the Ravens are still hanging around the playoff picture.
Baltimore hosts the Los Angeles Rams (11-4), who’s passing offense ranks seventh in the NFL. Considering the Ravens just gave up 525 passing yards to Joe Burrow a week ago, that’s not a fun bounce back spot. This week, their best-case scenario seems to be the least likely to hit. The Ravens need to beat the Rams to get to 9-7 and hope the Browns mow down the Steelers. Ravens fans have to be rooting for the Browns, as Baltimore heads to Pittsburgh in Week 18 and will hope to see a down-trodden Steelers squad. The Ravens also need the Bengals to lose, as the Ravens winning out and the Bengals losing out is their only path to a division crown. Worst case? The Ravens lose, Steelers and Bengals win, and that would just about end the slideshow on their 2021 campaign.
3rd - Pittsburgh Steelers (7-7-1, 11th in AFC Playoff Picture, +1200 to win the AFC North)
Truth be told, the tie makes everything a little more confusing for the Pittsburgh Steelers wants and needs. In general, they need to win out to match Cincinnati’s win total and hope the Bengals can’t get wins over the Chiefs or Browns.
Here, it’s important to note the importance of Monday Night Football next week at Heinz Field; there’s a very good shot it’s Ben Roethlisberger’s last regular season game in front of the home crowd. Pittsburgh is going to be ravenous, loud, and due for the infamous “double Renegade”, making it a very tough environment for a Browns team in dire need of a rebound game.
The worst-case scenario, mind you, is obvious; a loss to the Browns just about kills the Steelers playoff aspirations in 2021. With their tie, they would be incapable of getting to nine wins, which makes it hard to imagine they could steal a Wild Card spot. The current wild card holders, the Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots, have already crossed the nine-win mark with the Miami Dolphins, Los Angeles Chargers, Las Vegas Raiders, and Baltimore Ravens needing just one more to cross that line. For Pittsburgh, its desperation time in the twilight of the Big Ben era.
4th - Cleveland Browns (7-8, 12th in AFC Playoff Picture, +550 to win the AFC North)
If you’re a Cleveland Browns fan, it feels like a safe bet to say you already know your best and worst case scenario. In fact, what happened on Christmas Day against the Green Bay Packers might look similar to their worst-case scenario; having the ball to win in Pittsburgh, but Baker Mayfield throws his fourth and final interception of the day. The worst case scenario is obvious for Cleveland; a Bengals win alone shuts them out from AFC North, a loss to the Steelers also shuts them out of the 2021 AFC playoff race.
Then again, as Browns fans already know, winning out guarantees them nothing, even if it’s their best chance to make the dance. According to FiveThirtyEight’s model, going 2-0 against the Steelers and Bengals still only gives the team a 44% chance to make the dance. So, this weekend, their best case scenario is a win over Pittsburgh, a Ravens loss to the Rams for good measure, and a Bengals loss to Kansas City, setting up for a huge Week 18 conclusion against Cincinnati (at FirstEnergy Stadium, nonetheless).
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