Cincinnati Bengals (12-4)
Taking the major step for the first time in his career, Andy Dalton’s fantastic season was cut short against the Pittsburgh Steelers. With a broken bone in his hand, second-year quarterback A.J. McCarron was forced into action late in the season. The year had started off strong for the Bengals as the defense continues to be dominant. The running game, one of the strongest aspects of Hue Jackson’s career, struggled throughout the season. Giovani Bernard was able to find work in the passing game, but Jeremy Hill failed to reach the production he found last year. However, Tyler Eifert finally broke out with a Pro Bowl nomination this season, and A.J. Green continued his young career. A loss late in the season caused the Bengals to lose a tiebreak with the Denver Broncos, eventually casting them into the three seed to host the Steelers in the Divisional round.
Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6)
A season of injuries, it is a testament to this team that the Steelers made the playoffs. Star running back Le’Veon Bell was suspended early, and then eventually lost for the season to a knee injury. Ben Roethlisberger later went down for an extended period of time and the rest of the team has seemed to be a revolving door at times. Nevertheless, the game plan was almost always to get the ball to star receiver Antonio Brown who finished second all-time in receptions for a season with 136 (tying Julio Jones). The defense has been questionable at times, but the high-powered offense behind the arm of Ben Roethlisberger and the hands of Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, and Markus Wheaton was enough to push this team into the playoffs. Now taking on division rival Cincinnati Bengals, the Steelers are on the road to find Super Bowl number 7.
Baltimore Ravens (5-11)
Injuries. Terrell Suggs. Joe Flacco. Steve Smith Sr. Justin Forsett. Dennis Pitta. With a whopping 20 players finishing the season on the IR, somewhere over 60% of the Ravens payroll was not on the field come Week 17. In a season marred by injuries, there was little hope for the playoffs, although there is hope for the future. Rookie tight end Maxx Williams showed that his success at Minnesota may transfer to the NFL, becoming the next big tight end out of the division. Second-year linebacker C.J. Mosley failed to reach his second Pro Bowl, but finished 14th in the NFL in tackles. Most impressive though, the team managed a Week 16 victory over the playoff bound Steelers with Ryan Mallett under center. While Joe Flacco should be back in the huddle under center, the inspired performance from Mallett and the Ravens late in the season left Ravens fans smiling.
Cleveland Browns (3-13)
Frankly an embarrassment to the league, the Cleveland Browns deserved the number one pick, but failed to even earn that. Star receiver Josh Gordon was suspended all of this season. Star linemen Alex Mack and Joe Thomas both had their dedication to their team questioned. The quarterback position is a joke. About halfway through the season, Mike Pettine gave the team over to Johnny Manziel. Manziel responded by spending his bye week in bars and as a result being demoted to third string. Soon after though, Pettine returned Manziel to the line-up before he was concussed. Finally, in Week 17, Manziel was spotted in Las Vegas the night before a home game where he failed to report for mandatory concussion protocol. Much like Manziel, this organization is acting wildly with seemingly little acknowledgement for the consequences. Very few bright spots, the Browns will search for their sixth coach since 2008.
*Images from Panic Button, WPXI, Huffington Post, Cleveland, and Sporting News