This would be a rare outcome to the division.
Competitiveness has never been in short supply in the AFC North. No matter which team wins the division, the other three teams usually put up decent fights to challenge the current leader of the pack.
Last year, three teams represented the AFC North in the first NFL Playoffs that featured a 14-team format. This is what CBS Sports predict will happen again according to their full NFL record predictions.
The Cincinnati Bengals, like last year, are left on the outside looking in once again, but they do finish with a winning record for the first time since 2015.
AFC playoffs: 1. Chiefs 2. Bills 3. Ravens 4. Titans 5. Browns 6. Colts 7. Steelers
If any AFC division is going to end 2021 with four teams above .500, the North is the clear favorite. The addition of the 17th game against an NFC squad makes it an even greater possibility. They may not send three teams to the postseason again, but this offseason has seen all four teams got increasingly close to one to one another.
For the Bengals, catching the Steelers seems far more likely than catching the Browns or Ravens this year. The latter two are projected by most analysts to return to the playoffs this season, while the Steelers are expected to regress to some degree. The Ravens winning the division once again would surprise no one.
A 9-8 season would look good on head coach Zac Taylor’s resume, but the optics may be a bit fuzzy if another last-place finish is attached to it. We’ve never seen a 17-game schedule play out before, but that combination of record and divisional finish would be an odd mix of progress and stagnation.
In all likelihood, 9-8 would yield at least a third-place standing in the division. That may not be enough to get Cincinnati back in the playoffs, but it would signify the franchise moving in a positive direction under Taylor and his staff.