(Antonio Brown & Le'Veon Bell photos courtesy of the Pittsburgh Steelers)
Talk of Fame Network
The Pittsburgh Steelers didn’t win the AFC North in 2015, but they’ll win it in 2016.
That’s the verdict from last week’s Talk of Fame Network poll in which we asked our listeners and readers to identify the best team in the AFC North. Pittsburgh won in a landslide.
The Steelers received a whopping 84.7 percent of the vote -- one of the most lopsided winners in our nearly two-year history of these polls. The defending AFC North champion Cincinnati Bengals received 8.5 percent of the vote, followed by the Baltimore Ravens at 6.8.
The Cleveland Browns did not receive a single vote.
The Steelers qualified for the playoffs last season as an AFC wild card with a 10-6 record despite having to start three different quarterbacks -- and winning games with all three of them. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger missed five starts. The Steelers also played the final eight games without Le’Veon Bell, the 2014 AFC rushing champion. Left tackle Kevin Beachum missed the final 10 games with an injury.
Despite all those absences, the Steelers still finished third in the NFL in offense and upset the Bengals in the opening round of the playoffs. How much better would the Steelers be with 16 games out of both Bell and Roethlisberger? Based on our poll, a bunch.
Tight end Heath Miller has retired, and Beachum jumped to the Jacksonville Jaguars in free agency. But the Steelers signed tight end LaDarius Green away from the Chargers in free agency and invested heavily in defense in the draft in an attempt to restore some glitter -- and efficiency -- to the NFL’s 21st ranked unit.
Pittsburgh used its first three picks and and five of its seven selections on the defensive side of the ball. First-rounder Artie Burns pencils in as a walk-in starter at cornerback. And Roethlisberger still has NFL's best receiver Antonio Brown around to torment defenses.
Talk of Fame co-hosts Clark Judge and Rick Gosselin both agreed with the voting.
"The Steelers beat the Broncos during the season last year and should've beaten them again in the playoffs," Judge said. "Forget the AFC North. Next to New England, they're the best team in the AFC, period."
The Ravens also were dogged by injuries last season, losing both quarterback Joe Flacco and running back Justin Forsett for the final six games. Lead receiver Steve Smith also missed the final eight games with an Achilles tear. Pro Bowl pass rusher Terrell Suggs missed the final 15 games with a torn Achilles, and center Jeremy Zuttah missed the final seven games with a torn pectoral muscle.
The Ravens finished 5-11 last season with a lineup in tatters but should return to playoff competition in 2016 with a healthy roster.
The Bengals won the division with a 12-4 record last season and got bigger on defense with the selections of tackle Andrew Billings and linebacker Nick Vigil. They also got faster with the selections of cornerback William Jackson in the first round and wide receiver Tyler Boyd in the second.
Talk of Fame Network co-host Ron Borges cast his vote for the Bengals as the best in the division.
"Cincinnati has the most talent even though they're as crazy as the stripes on their helmets," Borges said.
The Browns remain a work in progress.