2017 NFL season preview: Steelers clear favourites to win AFC North

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The Pittsburgh Steelers have won the AFC North two of the last three seasons, and another division title could be theirs in 2017.

The Baltimore Ravens are Pittsburgh's biggest challengers in the division with the Cleveland Browns improved, but not ready to compete for a playoff spot, and the Cincinnati Bengals trending in the wrong direction.

Mike Tomlin's Steeler offense is the most talented in the division, but is offset by a shaky defense. The Ravens have perhaps the best defense in the division, but an offense that has struggled in the preseason without injured quarterback Joe Flacco.

Baltimore's biggest issue last season was staying healthy, but if the Ravens can get Flacco on the field and avoid injuries, they could overtake the Steelers for the divisional crown.

 

THE BREAKDOWN

Player to watch: Joe Flacco, QB, Ravens -- The question is not whether Flacco is among the NFL's elite quarterbacks, but if he can stay healthy enough to prove it. A back injury has prevented him from participating in the preseason and comes less than two years after a severe knee injury cost him the final six games of the 2015 season. If the preseason proved anything, it's that the Ravens' offense needs Flacco on the field - they managed just 27 points across their final two games, although won both.

Impact rookie: DeShone Kizer, QB, Browns -- Kizer will be the opening-day starter after Brock Osweiler failed to win the job this summer. Kizer will go through some growing pains and his development will be scrutinised all season.

Coach on the hot seat: Marvin Lewis, Bengals -- Lewis is firmly on the hot seat after the Bengals went 6-9-1 last season. Despite taking the Bengals to the playoffs seven times and winning four AFC North titles in his 14 years as the team's coach, Lewis has not won a single playoff game. The Bengals don't appear to be in a position to contend with the Ravens and Steelers atop the division this year and that could mean the end of Lewis' tenure in Cincinnati.   

Falling: Bengals -- The Bengals had an underwhelming offseason coming off last year's disappointing campaign. They didn't do much in free agency and got some boom-or-bust draft picks in wide receiver John Ross, running back Joe Mixon and pass rushers Jordan Willis and Carl Lawson.  

Rising: Browns -- The Browns might be the most improved team in the NFL, but are also one of the youngest. They could finally get out the basement in the AFC North and, though not quite ready to compete for a playoff spot, they're not far away.

Circle this game on the schedule: Ravens at Steelers, Week 14, Dec. 10 -- The Sunday night game at Heinz Field could be for the division, though the final matchup between the two division contenders comes with three weeks remaining in the season.

Predicted order of finish:

Pittsburgh        11-5 (No. 4 seed, AFC wild-card round)
Baltimore         9-7
Cleveland        6-10
Cincinnati        5-11