2018 NFL preview: AFC North outlook

The Pittsburgh Steelers remain the team to beat in the AFC North.

As Pittsburgh prepare to enter what likely will be their final season with the "Killer B" trio — Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown — intact, an unlikely contender is strengthening in Cleveland as the Browns look to bounce back from a winless 2017 season.

Meanwhile, the Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens have rehabbed their depleted rosters with the hope of giving Pittsburgh competition for a division title for the first time in four seasons. However, contract drama involving Bell for the second straight season could prove to be distracting and detrimental to the team as its window to win an NFL-record seventh Super Bowl begins to close.

Here's what to look for in the AFC North this season:

PLAYER TO WATCH

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers

The second-year wideout enjoyed a breakout season as a rookie in 2017 and will look to add to those numbers now that Martavis Bryant is gone.

Smith-Schuster finished with 58 catches for 917 yards and seven touchdowns while adding another 240 yards on kickoff returns as he proved to be a reliable backup in clutch situations. He caught seven passes for 193 yards and a score during Bryant's absence against the Lions and caught 21 passes for 332 yards and two touchdowns as No. 1 receiver Antonio Brown missed time during the final three games.

Furthermore, Smith-Schuster became the youngest player in NFL history to record 1,000 all-purpose yards in a season at age 21.

IMPACT ROOKIE

Baker Mayfield, Browns

The Browns believe they've found their next franchise quarterback with Mayfield after drafting him No. 1 overall in April, giving hope to Dawg Pound that this season will be much improved from the previous two.

Mayfield got his first win as a starter when the Browns closed out the preseason with an impressive 35-17 victory over the Lions to bring their exhibition record to 3-1.  He went 9-of-16 for 138 yards while leading three scoring drives, capping an efficient and exciting preseason campaign.

The offense may belong to former Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor when the season begins, but Browns fans will see Mayfield in action soon enough.

COACH IN THE HOT SEAT

Hue Jackson, Browns

With just one win over his two seasons in Cleveland, it's do or die for Jackson, who brings 17 years of coaching experience in the NFL to the table.

The Browns secured some talent by signing Jarvis Landry to a contract extension and getting Josh Gordon back after an apparent successful stint in rehab. The team also bolstered the roster by drafting Baker Mayfield and Nick Chubb in April.

Jackson will need to use every resource he has to get the team back on track and ensure he'll return to continue building the Browns in 2019.

KEY MATCHUP

Patriots at Steelers, Week 15

Jesse James has been looking forward to this rematch since December.

The Steelers were within reach of securing home-field advantage and avenging their losses to the Patriots. Instead, James' game-winning touchdown was called back and Pittsburgh later lost their shot at redemption by falling to the Jacksonville Jaguars in the division round of the playoffs. Jacksonville ultimately fell to New England in the conference championship before the Patriots advanced to their third Super Bowl in four seasons.

Could this finally be the year Ben Roethlisberger catches Tom Brady?

PREDICTED FINISH

Bengals: 4-12

Browns: 5-11

Ravens: 9-7

Steelers: 11-5

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