JOE KAY, AP Sports Writer
CINCINNATI (AP) — Round 1 was a raw affair in Pittsburgh on Nov. 1, when the Bengals rallied to win after a week of long-distance name calling.
The rematch on Dec. 13 at Paul Brown Stadium was even nastier, starting with a pregame brawl at midfield and ending with Pittsburgh pulling away after Andy Dalton broke a thumb.
The trashy trilogy was completed in the first round of the playoffs. The Bengals rallied for a late lead, fumbled the ball away, and the Steelers pulled off an improbable 18-16 victory. Vontaze Burfict committed a personal foul by hitting receiver Antonio Brown in the head after an incompletion, and Adam “Pacman” Jones got an additional 15-yard penalty for bumping an official, moving the Steelers in range for the winning field goal.
They’re not finished. The Ohio River rivals have kept up the stream of bad-mouthing on social media in the offseason.
“It’s not surprising, especially the way the game ended and just emotions running high and all that stuff,” Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert said. “It’s not stuff that we would want to lag on like that, but given the circumstances, I guess it’s not surprising.”
The rancorous rivalry will be at the top of the list of things to watch in the AFC North this season. The Ravens will try to get it together after a season scuttled by injuries, and the Browns will be starting over again with a new head coach and quarterback — sound familiar?
But that Steelers-Bengals rivalry is the most riveting dynamic. It resumes with the Bengals playing in Pittsburgh during the second week of the season; Burfict will be serving a three-game suspension from the league for his hit on Brown. They’ll meet again in Cincinnati on Sunday night Dec. 18, with the playoffs most likely on the line.
No other division has sent as many teams to the playoffs lately: The North has gotten 17 teams into the playoffs in the last eight seasons. It’s had multiple playoff teams in seven of the last eight seasons.
Some things to watch in the AFC North this season:
PLAYOFFS AND BUST: The Bengals won the division and tied the club record with 12 victories, but frittered away everything with the one of the worst meltdowns in postseason history. They haven’t won a playoff game in 25 years, sixth longest such stretch in league history. They’ve lost a first-round playoff game in five straight seasons, an NFL record. And coach Marvin Lewis fell to 0-7 in the playoffs, also a record.
Only two other teams have longer active streaks of playoff appearances. New England and Green Bay have gone seven straight seasons. Denver also had made it five straight. The difference: Those other teams have reached the Super Bowl.
“We’re pleased with what we have accomplished,” owner Mike Brown said. “We are fully aware there is one more step to go.”
MIA STEELERS: Ben Roethlisberger missed significant time last season with a knee injury. Le’Veon Bell tore up his knee in that first game against Cincinnati on a tackle by Burfict. Brown missed a playoff loss to Denver because of the hit by Burfict. Tight end Heath Miller retired after the season. Receiver Martavis Bryant was suspended for 2016 for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. Bell got a three-game suspension for missing multiple drug tests. Tight end Ladarius Green was signed to replace Miller, but has been limited by ankle surgery. The NFL’s third-ranked offense has a lot of questions.
“The key is always staying healthy,” Roethlisberger said. “We’ve had a hard time doing that the last few years. But if we can stay healthy and be a selfless team, I think we’ve got a chance.”
HEALED RAVENS: Baltimore fell to 5-11 — its first losing season under coach Jim Harbaugh — with an avalanche of injuries. Eight starters and 20 players overall went on injured reserve, including quarterback Joe Flacco with a left knee injury. Linebacker Terrell Suggs missed most of the season with a torn left Achilles tendon. Some players were still working their way back during camp, including receiver Steve Smith and linebacker Elvis Dumervil.
“I think you always want to play at full strength,” Flacco said. “But in the NFL, that’s not a reality. You go out there, you play your best, and do your best with what you’ve got.”
BROWNS RETOOL (AGAIN): Cleveland hired Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson as its eighth head coach since 1999, when the Browns returned as an expansion team. They cut ties with Johnny Manziel and brought in Robert Griffin III, Cleveland’s 25th starting quarterback in the last 17 years. During that span, the Browns have had two winning seasons.
“I like challenges,” Jackson said when he arrived in Cleveland. “And boy, what a challenge.”
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: Steelers, Bengals, Ravens, Browns.
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