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AFC North preview: Pittsburgh Steelers look to reclaim the division

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger throws during warmups.
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is out to prove he’s still one of the NFL’s top pass-slingers at age 38.
(Keith Srakocic / Associated Press)
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A team-by-team break down of the AFC North and the predicted order of finish in the division.

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1. Pittsburgh Steelers

Pittsburgh Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick.
(Keith Srakocic / Associated Press)

2019 | 8-8, 2nd in North

Last year in playoffs | 2017

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WHAT HAPPENED LAST SEASON

The Steelers started 1-4, including an embarrassing 33-3 loss to New England in the opener, and the loss of Ben Roethlisberger in Week 2. They won seven of their next eight games, but ended the 8-8 season with a three-game losing streak.

PINNING THEIR HOPES ON

Roethlisberger. Can a 38-year-old quarterback come back from elbow surgery and still sling it the same way? We’ll find out, as Roethlisberger gets in sync with new targets Eric Ebron and rookie Chase Claypool. Early word is, Big Ben has something left in the tank.

KEEP AN EYE ON

Defensive backs. After years of hand-wringing, it looks as if the Steelers have the secondary fixed. Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick was a terrific addition last season, and now Steven Nelson is a bookend to Joe Haden at corner. The back end of the defense gives the front seven a little more time to get to the quarterback.

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2. Baltimore Ravens

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson.
(Julio Cortez / Associated Press)

2019| 14-2, 1st in North

Last year in playoffs | 2019

WHAT HAPPENED LAST SEASON

The Ravens were 2-2 after the first month of the season, although that mediocrity didn’t last. They ran the table the rest of the way, winning their final 12 games of the regular season behind the play of eventual MVP Lamar Jackson. Then … they lost their opening playoff game at home to Tennessee.

PINNING THEIR HOPES ON

Jackson. The third-year quarterback reminded people last season that he can get the job done with his arm, regardless of what’s happening with the running lanes. Now that opponents have plenty of tape to study Baltimore’s run-pass option, will the defensive looks change?

KEEP AN EYE ON

Calais Campbell. The Ravens traditionally are built around their defense, and the 6-foot-8 Campbell is a key addition on that defensive line. He’s among the NFL’s best interior pass rushers, and now has Derek Wolfe to attract some of the blocking attention.

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3. Cincinnati Bengals

Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow throws a pass.
Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow.
(Bryan Woolston / Associated Press)

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2019 | 2-14, 4th in North

Last year in playoffs | 2015

WHAT HAPPENED LAST SEASON

The Bengals were eliminated from playoff contention by the end of Week 11. That’s because, for the first time in history, they lost their first 11 games. It got slightly better after that, as the team finished 2-14 and landed the No. 1 pick in the draft.

PINNING THEIR HOPES ON

Joe Burrow. It’s hard enough with all the expectations piled on a quarterback drafted first overall, but consider that Burrow, the former Louisiana State star, has gotten relatively little work during the pandemic, particularly with a compressed training camp and no preseason games.

KEEP AN EYE ON

The opponents’ ground game. The Bengals were the worst in the league at stopping the run last season, giving up a whopping 4.7 yards per carry. The team has taken some steps to avoid that this fall, in part by signing free-agent nose tackle D.J. Reader, who figures to have his hands full.

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4. Cleveland Browns

Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield throws a pass.
Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield.
(Tony Dejak / Associated Press)

2019 | 6-10, 3rd in North

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Last year in playoffs | 2002

WHAT HAPPENED LAST SEASON

Familiar story. The Browns had a lousy season and wound up firing their coach and general manager. In this case, they went 6-10 (despite winning four of five games during one hot stretch) and said goodbye to first-year coach Freddie Kitchens and GM John Dorsey.

PINNING THEIR HOPES ON

Baker Mayfield. After he had a breakout rookie season, Mayfield saw his numbers drop dramatically last year, with his passer rating going from 93.7 to 78.8. Maybe new coach Kevin Stefanski, who came from the Minnesota Vikings, can get him back on track.

KEEP AN EYE ON

Myles Garrett. The defensive lineman taken No. 1 in 2017 was living up to that draft status last season until a Thursday night football game on Nov. 14, when, during a skirmish late in the game, he ripped the helmet off Pittsburgh’s Mason Rudolph and used it to hit the quarterback over the head.