The AFC North standings, as they currently stand, look like this:
Baltimore Ravens: 9-6
Pittsburgh Steelers: 8-6-1
Cleveland Browns: 7-7-1
Cincinnati Bengals: 6-9
This would have sounded absolutely absurd six weeks ago. Allow me to remind you what the standings looked like back then:
Pittsburgh Steelers: 6-2-1
Cincinnati Bengals: 5-4
Baltimore Ravens: 4-5
Cleveland Browns: 2-6-1
The teams at the top and the teams at the bottom have, since then, done nearly the exact opposite of each other. The Bengals have lost five of their last six, and the Steelers have lost four of their last five. Meanwhile, both the Ravens and Browns are riding winning streaks and have gone 5-1 in their past six games.
While the Browns cannot finish ahead of the Steelers in the standings because of Pittsburgh’s 1-0-1 head-to-head record against them, they can finish with the same record if they beat the Ravens next week and the Steelers lose to the Bengals. The former is certainly possible, but the latter is a harder sell, even given Pittsburgh’s recent perplexing losses.
Whoever wins the AFC North will have a record of no better than 10-6, and may be as low at 9-6-1 if the Ravens lose to the Browns and the Steelers beat the Bengals. Even outside of the AFC North, this has been one of the wackiest seasons I can remember in recent years in terms of the ups and downs individual teams have had, including the Carolina Panthers falling off a cliff after losing to Pittsburgh following a 6-2 start to the season.
Interestingly enough, the Browns with a win would finish with the best record in the AFC North. While they went 0-1-1 against the Steelers, they just completed a sweep against the Bengals, and would do so against the Ravens as well in a win, so they would finish 4-1-1.
The Steelers, meanwhile, could only tie that record, as they already have a loss to the Ravens and a tie against the Browns. They split 1-1 against Baltimore, went 1-0-1 against the Browns, and are currently 1-0 against the Bengals pending next weeks’ results.
There are two trends on the line in the finale, and one likely holding up will carry the other. The Steelers have made the postseason for four straight years. The Ravens have failed to make it for three straight years. A Ravens loss would all but assure that they will not make the playoffs. In that event, they would only make it if the Steelers also lose to the Bengals.