The NFL tends to operate with the same basic barometer — Al Davis’ “Just win, baby!” — thanks to the parity that results from a hard salary cap and an annually impactful draft. The reality is, unless your name is Jeff Fisher, you have to make the playoffs in your first two years as a head coach or you’ll be looking for work.
But success can still be relative for teams that are either rebuilding, ascending or ready to contend. The strength of the division as well as the conference, and a team’s schedule can help determine how high the bar can realistically be set.
All22.com is taking a close look at each of the division races to see which teams have a legitimate shot at the postseason.
In this installment, the AFC North.
Cincinnati Bengals (12-4, first place, lost to Pittsburgh in wildcard round in 2015)
It’ll be a successful season if: The Bengals win a playoff game. That’s the continued expectation for a club that hasn’t broken through in the postseason since the 1990 season. The Bengals went a while not even being competitive in their playoff losses, and then last January’s meltdown against the Steelers happened. Coach Marvin Lewis needs to find a way to get his team over the hump.
Why it should happen: Cincinnati has turned into one of the more consistent regular-season winners in a league of parity, reaching the playoffs in five straight seasons. It boasts a system of balanced offense, playmaking defense and grit in the trenches that makes it always competitive in the rugged AFC North. So even with offseason losses at the skill positions and a slight change in direction on offense with coordinator Hue Jackson now the head coach in Cleveland, the Bengals have the talent to expect playoff success. At some point, fortunes have to change for a team that should be as hungry as any.
And if it doesn’t: The league’s second-most tenured head coach might finally be looking for a new job. Lewis has won consistently and stayed enough out of owner and president Mike Brown’s way to keep his spot for 13 years, but his series of one-year extensions show the leash is short. The NFL just isn’t built for long coaching tenures that don’t produce championships, let alone playoff wins.
Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6, second place, lost to Denver in divisional round in 2015)
It’ll be a successful season if: The Steelers win 11 games, the division and the AFC. It’s time for the most talented offense in the NFL to break through in an offense-first league. Last year featured Pittsburgh’s first playoff victory since the 2010 run to the AFC crown, which came despite odd circumstances: many injuries on offense and almost none on defense. This year, especially with the defending champion Broncos depleted, the expectation will be to put it all together for another run toward the Lombardi Trophy.
Why it should happen: No offense in the NFL, and certainly not in the AFC, can match the proven talent the Steelers have in every facet. They boast a likely future Hall of Fame quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger, one of the league’s best do-it-all running backs in Le’Veon Bell, arguably the best individual wideout in Antonio Brown and one of the better offensive and defensive lines in the league. Even with wide receiver Martavis Bryant out for the year due to a substance-abuse suspension and Bell set to miss four games with one of his own, the offense doesn’t have a glaring hole. Defensively, the Steelers have invested plenty of top picks to restock the linebacking corps that for years made the defense strong.
And if it doesn’t: The Steelers will get another crack at it in 2017, presuming the major players all will be back, but the window will feel like it’s closing. Roethlisberger will be 34, Bell and Brown will be entering contract years and guard David DeCastro could be headed elsewhere due to financial limitations. The AFC appears a little down right now, but that could change, too.
Baltimore Ravens (5-11, third place in 2015)
It’ll be a successful season if: The Ravens win 10 games and return to the playoffs. Like the Steelers and Bengals, the Ravens have reached the point where making the postseason is an expectation, something they’ve enjoyed in six of John Harbaugh’s eight seasons in Baltimore. This year’s team features a number of key players working back from major injuries, but big-time offseason additions leave expectations where they have been for recent years in Baltimore.
Why it should happen: The foundation of what took the Ravens to the playoffs is still here, from Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Dean Pees to quarterback Joe Flacco and linebackers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil. A season-opening slate that includes games against Buffalo, Cleveland and Jacksonville should make it somewhat manageable to ease back from injury the likes of Flacco, Suggs and wide receiver Steve Smith.
And if it doesn’t: It will mean some combination of Flacco, Suggs and Smith was unable to recover fully from injury. Or perhaps the roster general manager Ozzie Newsome has constructed in recent years isn’t good enough. Newsome has built a career on drafting value and keeping a core in place, but he’s recently whiffed on big deals to free agents Lardarius Webb and Eugene Monroe. The result has been losing some talented players and plugging holes with aging veterans. It’s hard to blame him or Harbaugh for the injuries, but the seats don’t stay completely cool for any regime that misses the playoffs in back-to-back years.
Cleveland Browns (3-13, fourth place in division in 2015)
It’ll be a successful season if: The Browns win six games behind promising play from quarterback Robert Griffin III. The Browns are in a league of their own right now in how much they have to rebuild and how they’re going about doing it. The analytics-based front office has gone nuclear on the aging, misconstructed roster it inherited, and owner Jimmy Haslam and new head coach Hue Jackson are preaching patience. We’ll see how long the fans let them keep that approach, but the win total this season won’t tell the tale as much as the path they appear to be on. That will include how close they are to securing a quarterback to build around.
Why it should happen: What the Browns do appear to finally have is coaching. In Jackson and defensive coordinator Ray Horton, who oversaw the Browns’ ninth-ranked defense in 2013, Cleveland has two of the most respected play callers in the NFL. Given the way former Pro Bowl players have under performed on defense the past two years, that kind of upgrade has to matter. Jackson has a strong history of grooming quarterbacks, and if he can fix Griffin III (who has to stay healthy) and keep receiver Josh Gordon on task (perhaps an even bigger accomplishment) in a role opposite first-round speedster Corey Coleman, the Browns could have their most talented passing game since they returned to the league in 1999.
And if it doesn’t: The Browns will likely move on from RGIII and draft a quarterback with one of their two first-round picks. It won’t be anything new for an organization that has had 25 starting quarterbacks since 1999, but it would slow the rebuild even more with the time it’ll take to develop another rookie.
Nate Atkins is an NFL features writer for All22.com. He previously covered the Chicago Bears and the NFL for Pro Football Weekly. You can reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and can follow him on Twitter @NateAtkins_.