NFL News & Analysis

AFC North Playoff Picture: How each team can win the division

Cincinnati, Ohio, USA; Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow (9) reacts after scoring a touchdown against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first half at Paul Brown Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL season is 16 weeks old, and while there have been many twists and turns — including the AFC West being the league’s most-competitive division at one point — a lot has already been determined or is close to being determined. 

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The most up-in-the-air division has to be the AFC North. The Cincinnati Bengals, who were one of Ben Brown’s best future bets at 25/1 to win the division, are leading the charge at 9-6 and have already swept the Baltimore Ravens. However, there is a scenario wherein each team could win this division, so let’s go over those scenarios in this article (all odds come from our friends at Pinnacle sports).

Scenario 1: The Bengals (+5.5) win at home against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 17

Implied Probability (via PFF Greenline): 33.4%

This one is actually easy. If Joe Burrow and company can beat a Chiefs team that is gunning for the AFC’s top seed, they win their first division title since 2015.  

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Scenario 2: The Bengals (+5.5) lose at home to the Chiefs, and the Ravens (off of the board) win at home against the Los Angeles Rams in Week 17

Implied Probability: 25.6%

This scenario keeps all teams alive for the AFC North title until Monday night. The following Monday night scenarios are then:

CLEVELAND BROWNS (-3) win in Pittsburgh (implied probability 65.1%)

Pittsburgh is eliminated (Finally? Yeah, finally).

The winner of the AFC North is then (Week 18):

  • The Bengals with a win over the Browns.
  • The Ravens with a win over the Pittsburgh Steelers and a Cleveland win over the Bengals.
  • The Browns with a win over the Bengals and a Steelers win over the Ravens.
Pittsburgh (+3) wins against Cleveland at home (implied probability 34.9%):

Cleveland is eliminated (Finally? Yeah, finally).

The winner of the AFC North is then (Week 18):

  • The Bengals with a win over the Browns.
  • The Ravens with a win over the Steelers and a Cleveland win over the Bengals.
  • The Steelers with a win over the Ravens and a Cleveland win over the Bengals.

Thus, Scenario 2 basically boils down to this: The Bengals control their own destiny, and whoever loses the Monday night game, while eliminated, can play spoiler the following week if the Bengals go down.

Scenario 3: The Bengals (+5.5) lose at home to the Chiefs and the Ravens (off of the board) lose at home against the Rams in Week 17 

Implied Probability: 41.0%

The most likely scenario is that both Cincinnati and Baltimore lose Sunday, making Monday night’s game incredibly significant:

Browns (-3) win in Pittsburgh (implied probability 65.1%):

The winner of the AFC North is then (Week 18):

  • The winner of Bengals-Browns.
Pittsburgh (+3) wins against Cleveland at home (implied probability 34.9%):

Cleveland and old Cleveland (the Ravens) are eliminated.

The winner of the AFC North is then (Week 18):

  • The Bengals if they defeat Cleveland, or the Ravens defeat Pittsburgh.
  • The Steelers if they defeat the Ravens and the Browns beat the Bengals.

Thus, Scenario 3 involves the Ravens being eliminated from the AFC North race (but technically not the AFC playoffs) with a loss Sunday against the Rams. The Browns control their own destiny in this scenario but merely turn into possible spoilers should they lose to Pittsburgh on Monday.  

In sum, the AFC North race, while ugly for the majority of the season, could crown any of their four participants a champion in two weeks. It’s the Bengals' division to lose, starting this week at home against the Chiefs, who are on an eight-game winning streak. If they extend it to nine, hopefully, this helps you sort out the permutations.

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