The 2020 season is going to be unusual for a number of reasons, but one of the reasons will be one that was long-planned: it will be the first time that the playoffs is expanded to 14 teams, with four division-winners and three wildcard seeds per conference. Only the number one seed in either conference will now by given a bye week.
In this first season in which it is possible for all four teams to enter the playoffs, Pro Football Focus predicts that the AFC North will be the first under the new model to send three. While they predict the Baltimore Ravens to win the division—in fact, Sam Monson predicts that they will win the Super Bowl—the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cleveland Browns (as well as the Houston Texans) were chosen to make it as wildcards.
The Steelers have missed the postseason for the past two years, but prior to that, they made it for four consecutive years, including as the number two seed in 2017. They also advanced to the AFC Championship Game at the end of the 2016 season.
As for the Browns, well, it would be the first time for them to make the playoffs in quite a while. Since 2002, in fact. Since returning to the league in 1999, it is the only time they have made the postseason, and that was the year of the Tommy Gun offense, with Maddox leading a memorable comeback over the Browns in the postseason.
That was also the first of only two times that Cleveland has posted a non-losing record since their 1999 return. The closest that they have come since was in 2018, when they went 7-8-1. That year, they lost in overtime in the season finale to the Baltimore Ravens. They also tied the Steelers in the opener after having a would-be game-winning field goal blocked in overtime by T.J. Watt.
As for Watt, having become the face of the defense, his performance and that of the rest of his unit will be key to the Steelers’ success this year, even with Ben Roethlisberger back under center and the skill positions reinforced with new additions in Eric Ebron, Chase Claypool, and Anthony McFarland.
While Pittsburgh has missed the playoffs for two years running, the worst they have gone is 8-8, and they have been in the mix entering the final week of the season in all but one year under Mike Tomlin. Their 9-6-1 record in 2018 was just a half-game shy of allowing them to claim the AFC North title.