NFL 2017: AFC North revolves largely around QB longevity


A tweet answered the biggest question in the AFC North — in fewer than 100 characters, no less.

“Informed the team I am looking forward to my 14th season,” Ben Roethlisberger told the Twitterverse in April. “Steeler Nation will get my absolute best.”

With that, the division’s pecking order was established. It’s the Steelers and everyone else in a division that slumped significantly last season and is counting on its unmatched run of quarterback continuity to get it back among the NFL’s best.

No other division has been as proficient in sending teams to the playoffs lately — 18 in the past nine seasons. It’s had multiple playoff teams in seven of the past nine seasons.

A big part of that starts with the most important position, and the AFC North excels and finding and keeping the good ones — well, with one exception, of course.

Roethlisberger has nine playoff appearances, six division titles and two Super Bowl rings in his 13 seasons. Joe Flacco — entering his 10th season — helped Baltimore win playoff games in each of his first five seasons and added a Super Bowl MVP season. Andy Dalton got the Bengals into the playoffs in five of his six seasons, although they have yet to win one in the postseason.

And then there’s Cleveland, where each new season brings a new quarterback and another lesson in why it’s so important to have a proven quarterback. Rookie DeShone Kizer becomes QB No. 27 since they returned as an expansion team in 1999.

Some things to watch in the AFC North this season:

BEN’S POSSE: The Steelers went 13-6 and won their second division title in three years, losing to New England in the AFC title game with a depleted offense. It’s well-stock this time around, with receiver Martavis Bryant returning from a 13-month drug suspension.

The only question was running back Le’Veon Bell, who balked at signing his franchise tender but reassured that he planned to rejoin the team as soon as the preseason games ended.

The defensive secondary has some soft spots that Tom Brady exposed in the AFC title game, but the defense overall is good enough to win another division title and challenge the Patriots for AFC supremacy if Roethlisberger can stay healthy.

OUCHY RAVENS: No team in the division has been affected by injuries more than the Ravens, who are at it again. Flacco didn’t play in the preseason because of a bad back — the opener in Cincinnati will mark his debut. A knee injury ended his 2015 season prematurely and led to a 5-11 finish. Flacco was back last season, but the Ravens struggled to an 8-8 finish, missing the playoffs for the third time in four years.

The Ravens spent the offseason upgrading the defense, but the offense is the main concern heading into the season. The offensive line is in flux because of injuries, along with the tight end position. And Flacco’s back is the wild card in all of it.

“We’ve been missing guys pretty much all the way through,” coach John Harbaugh said.

LEWIS FINISHES IT OUT: Coach Marvin Lewis enters his 15th season — there’s that AFC North continuity again — even though he’s 0-7 in the playoffs, an NFL record for futility. He failed to get a contract extension after the Bengals finished 6-9-1, leaving him on the final year of his deal. Whether he returns for 2018 depends upon how things turn out, and that likely will come down to two areas.

The offense is intact after missing A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert and Giovani Bernard for roughly half the season. But the offensive line is inexperienced and lacks depth, and younger players are moving into bigger roles on a defense that will miss suspended cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones for one game and linebacker Vontaze Burfict for five . Lewis’ fate depends upon how it all holds together.

“It probably adds a little bit of pressure and becomes a talking point,” owner Mike Brown said.

NEXT UP IN CLEVELAND: Young Kizer, it’s your turn. And good luck with it. The Browns won only one time during Hue Jackson’s first season as head coach, repeatedly letting games slip away. They’re setting themselves up for another challenging season by going with the rookie, who got the job after completing just 6 of 18 passes for 93 yards with an interception in the third preseason game. Brock Osweiler and Cody Kessler are there if he needs to be bailed out.

Kizer is the fifth quarterback to start the season opener in the past five years. The Browns are 20-60 over that span.

“I need to go out there and work hard every day to stop that tradition here,” Kizer said.

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PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: Steelers, Bengals, Ravens, Browns.

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For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP

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FILE – In this Saturday, Aug. 26, 2017 file photo, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7), left, stands beside running back James Conner (30) as they warm up before an NFL preseason football game against the Indianapolis Colts in Pittsburgh. AFC North revolves around QB longevity, except in Cleveland. With Big Ben’s return, the pecking order in the AFC North is set. The Steelers are favored again to win a division that is a model of quarterback continuity, except in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Fred Vuich, File)
http://www.wnewsj.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/22/2017/09/web1_118252577-957dd97c55c74d78a48b44770cb00fe8.jpgFILE – In this Saturday, Aug. 26, 2017 file photo, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7), left, stands beside running back James Conner (30) as they warm up before an NFL preseason football game against the Indianapolis Colts in Pittsburgh. AFC North revolves around QB longevity, except in Cleveland. With Big Ben’s return, the pecking order in the AFC North is set. The Steelers are favored again to win a division that is a model of quarterback continuity, except in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Fred Vuich, File)

FILE – In this Sunday, Jan. 1, 2017 file photo, Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco (5) looks to pass under pressure from Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins (97) in the first half of an NFL football game in Cincinnati. The AFC North revolves around QB longevity, except in Cleveland. No team in the division has been affected by injuries more than the Ravens, who are at it again. Flacco didn’t play in the preseason because of a bad back the opener in Cincinnati will mark his debut. (AP Photo/Gary Landers, File)
http://www.wnewsj.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/22/2017/09/web1_118252577-744eddf7ae2e4b349d5f9ba34ef3a51b.jpgFILE – In this Sunday, Jan. 1, 2017 file photo, Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco (5) looks to pass under pressure from Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins (97) in the first half of an NFL football game in Cincinnati. The AFC North revolves around QB longevity, except in Cleveland. No team in the division has been affected by injuries more than the Ravens, who are at it again. Flacco didn’t play in the preseason because of a bad back the opener in Cincinnati will mark his debut. (AP Photo/Gary Landers, File)

FILE – In this Saturday, Aug. 26, 2017 file photo, Cleveland Browns quarterback DeShone Kizer (7) throws against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the second quarter of an NFL preseason football game in Tampa, Fla. AFC North revolves around QB longevity, except in Cleveland. And then there’s Cleveland, where each new season brings a new quarterback and another lesson in why it’s so important to have a proven quarterback. Rookie DeShone Kizer becomes QB No. 27 since they returned as an expansion team in 1999.(AP Photo/Jason Behnken, File)
http://www.wnewsj.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/22/2017/09/web1_118252577-5a5122391c9149298a9a357fbcc1e4ae.jpgFILE – In this Saturday, Aug. 26, 2017 file photo, Cleveland Browns quarterback DeShone Kizer (7) throws against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the second quarter of an NFL preseason football game in Tampa, Fla. AFC North revolves around QB longevity, except in Cleveland. And then there’s Cleveland, where each new season brings a new quarterback and another lesson in why it’s so important to have a proven quarterback. Rookie DeShone Kizer becomes QB No. 27 since they returned as an expansion team in 1999.(AP Photo/Jason Behnken, File)

By JOE KAY

AP Sports Writer