AFC North could produce a sub-.500 champion
By Mike Florio - SportingNews
43 minutes ago

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One of the most compelling arguments against expanding the NFL playoffs from 12 teams is that having 14 or 16 teams in the postseason could result in a sub-.500 squad qualifying for the Super Bowl tournament.

There’s a chance, however, that it could happen in 2008—under the current system.

Each of the AFC North teams—Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers—will play each of the teams of the AFC South, which sent three teams (Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans) to the 2007 playoffs. And each of the AFC North teams will play all the teams of the NFC East, which sent three teams (Dallas Cowboys, Washington Redskins and New York Giants) to the playoffs last season as well.

That’s half the entire schedule—and emerging from those eight games with a 4-4 record figures to be the best outcome possible for any of the AFC North teams.

The question then becomes whether any of the AFC North teams can dominate in the home-and-home round-robin portion of the schedule. Last year, it was a 5-1 division mark that, coupled with a mediocre 5-5 record in their other 10 games, allowed the Steelers to edge out the Browns via a tiebreaker.

This year, it’s anyone’s guess as to whether any one team can do better than 3-3 in the six divisional games.

It’s more interesting because even the supposedly good teams in the AFC North have flaws and the supposedly bad teams have potential.

The Browns are the trendy pick to win the AFC North, but the expectations and pressure could make it difficult for Cleveland to improve on last year’s “close but no dog bone” effort. The Browns start the season with a game against the Cowboys and then one each against the AFC North rivals.

We’ll know by October whether the Browns can succeed while waving the flag of front-runner.

The Steelers won’t give up their title quietly, but they haven’t done much in the offseason to improve. Their offensive line is going to be a major problem. And if the Steelers can’t score or win the field position tug of war, more stress will be placed on an aging defense.

On the surface, the Bengals seem to be in disarray. However, if new coordinator Mike Zimmer gets control of a porous defense, the team could be far more competitive in ‘08. If the Bengals get off to a quick start in September—minimizing the chances of a Chad Johnson meltdown—they could keep things close in the division.

Then there are the Ravens. With low expectations and a high likelihood of being overlooked by opponents, the team with an energetic and respected new coach, John Harbaugh, could stir things up. Just two seasons ago, Baltimore was 13-3. Sure, the roster has undergone some changes, but there’s enough left for the Ravens to be competitive.

The kicker in the AFC North could be the two remaining games on the schedule:

• The Steelers, by virtue of winning the division, will play the Patriots (16-0 last year) and Chargers (11-5). Ouch.
• The Browns get the Bills (7-9) and Broncos (7-9).
• The Bengals play the Jets (4-12) and Chiefs (4-12).
• And the Ravens face the Dolphins (1-15) and Raiders (4-12).

Whether the Steelers, Browns, Bengals or Ravens can get to .500 comes back to those eight games against the AFC South and NFC East. A uniform failure by the AFC North’s squads in those eight games could lead to the first 7-9 division winner in league history. And if the AFC North champion finishes 8-8, it’ll be only the second time that a .500 team has won a division. (It happened in 1985, when the Browns won the old AFC Central.)

Regardless of who wins the division, don’t expect to see double-digit wins. And, for the three runners-up, don’t be surprised to see each have double-digit losses.

Mike Florio writes and edits and writes two columns a week for Sporting News