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BALTIMORE (AP) — As long as Mike Tomlin is standing on the Pittsburgh sideline
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, watching Ben Roethlisberger pass to Antonio Brown or give the ball to Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers will be favored to win the AFC North.
It makes no difference that Randy Fichtner is the new offensive coordinator, or that Roethlisberger turned 36 in March.
The Steelers are going to score points, and they’re going to play their best against division rivals in big games.
Baltimore knows this all too well. Two years ago, Bell rushed for 122 yards and Roethlisberger connected with Brown for a last-minute touchdown in a 31-27 victory that clinched the AFC North title.
Last December, Roethlisberger threw for 506 yards and two TDs, Bell scored twice and the Steelers beat the Ravens 39-38.
Baltimore hopes to turn things around this year, but if the Ravens are to break a run of three straight years without a playoff appearance, it will likely be as a wild card.
There are, by the way, two other teams in the division. Cincinnati and Cleveland deserve mention only because one will likely finish in third place and the other will occupy the cellar.
In Cincinnati, coach Marvin Lewis got a two-year extension despite his NFL-record 0-7 mark in the playoffs. After two straight losing seasons, he’s getting a 16th chance to finally get it right.
Cleveland is coming off an 0-16 embarrassment and can only hope to be respectable. Since the creation of the current AFC North in 2002, the Browns are the only team never to finish in first place.
Some things to know about the AFC North:
FOR WHOM THE BELL TOILS: Pittsburgh and its “Killer Bs” — Roethlisberger
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, Brown and Bell — have reached the playoffs four straight years. Yet all those trips to January have turned into just three postseason wins and no trips to the Super Bowl.
While the rejuvenated Roethlisberger believes he can play until he nears 40, this may be his last legitimate shot to win a third championship. Bell is likely in his final year in black-and-gold after being unable to come to terms with the club on a new long-term deal.
Bell is one of the most versatile backs in the league and not easily replaceable. He won’t lack for motivation. He believes he’s a unique talent and wants the paycheck to prove it.
Pittsburgh’s best chance to return to the Super Bowl will rely heavily on having Bell at the top of his game and will certainly take the tradeoff of seeing Bell elsewhere in 2019 if it means hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in February.
FAREWELL TOUR: Ozzie Newsome is the only general manager the Ravens have ever had, running the show in Baltimore since the team arrived from Cleveland before the 1996 season.
Newsome will be stepping aside after this season, to be replaced by current assistant GM Eric DeCosta, who in 2019 will finally get the job he wanted after spurning offers from several other clubs.
The Ravens have won two Super Bowls under Newsome, who in his final season has assembled a team that appears better than last year’s model.
Having provided quarterback Joe Flacco with a new receiving group, Newsome addressed Baltimore’s most glaring weakness in 2017.
BENGALS ON THE LINE: Cincinnati’s offense finished last in the league in yards last season, the worst showing in franchise history. The focus of their offseason was overhauling the line, which failed to protect Andy Dalton or open holes in the running game.
The Bengals fired line coach Paul Alexander, traded with Buffalo for left tackle Cordy Glenn, signed right tackle Bobby Hart and drafted center Billy Price in the first round from Ohio State. Despite all that, the right side of the line struggled against the Cowboys in the second preseason game, renewing concerns that problems remain.
GOTTA BE BETTER, CAN’T GET WORSE: Cleveland coach Hue Jackson is 1-31 in two seasons with Cleveland
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, but Browns owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam still believe they hired the right coach in 2016. Time will tell, but the pressure is on Jackson from the get-go to win or there could be more changes in a team that has known mostly upheaval for 20 years.
The Browns drafted quarterback Baker Mayfield with the No. 1 overall pick, but the Heisman Trophy winner will begin the year as a backup to Tyrod Taylor, who helped Buffalo snap a 17-year postseason drought last season.
A nine-game stretch against the National League’s three last-place teams — Miami, Cincinnati and San Diego — seemed like a chance for the St. Louis Cardinals to fatten their record and make a surge up the National League Central ladder.
Instead, St. Louis wasn’t even able to tread water. It went 4-5 in that span, including consecutive 4-2 losses Tuesday and Wednesday night to a San Diego Padres team that currently looks like a cellar-dweller in name only, having won five straight series.
Now the Cardinals (36-30) will have to get their work done against better teams. Beginning with the opener of a three-game series Friday night in Busch Stadium against the Chicago Cubs (38-27), they play 19 straight games against teams that currently have winning records.
What’s more, they’ll play this weekend without their most consistent hitter, first baseman Jose Martinez, who leads the team in all three Triple Crown categories (.321 average, 10 HR, 42 RBIs). He’ll miss the series on paternity leave in Venezuela.
“It’s a big series for us
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, but that’s a monumental life event,” St. Louis manager Mike Matheny said.
Luke Voit will be recalled from Double-A Springfield to replace Martinez on the roster. The big right-handed hitter could get a couple of starts this weekend as Chicago will trot out left-handed starters Jon Lester and Jose Quintana.
Lester (7-2, 2.22 ERA) gets the call in the series opener, which, if this year’s form is any indication, may become a pitcher’s duel. He’ll be opposed by right-hander Michael Wacha (8-1, 2.47), who will seek his ninth straight win.
Lester is coming off a 2-0 win Saturday at Wrigley Field against Pittsburgh, allowing only one hit in seven innings with two walks and five strikeouts. In his last eight starts, Lester is 5-1 with a 1.63 ERA, and he hasn’t permitted a run in his two starts this month.
He’s 1-0 in two starts this year against the Cardinals, permitting only two earned runs in 11 1/3 innings. In his career against St. Louis, Lester is 6-4 with a 2.22 ERA in 16 starts, limiting hitters to a .220/.282/.344 slash line.
Wacha hasn’t lost since March 31 against the New York Mets and is building a case for his second All-Star appearance. In his last start on Saturday
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, Wacha beat Cincinnati 6-4, permitting four hits and two runs in 5 2/3 innings with three walks and six whiffs.
He has faced the Cubs once this year, working 5 1/3 innings and yielding two runs (one earned) on May 6 in a no-decision as the Cardinals won 4-3 in 14 innings. But Wacha has been rocked most of his career against Chicago, as he’s 4-7 with a 6.12 ERA in 17 outings, including 15 starts.
Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo has had his way with Wacha, going 18-of-40 in his career with three homers. Chicago teammates Ian Happ, Kris Bryant and Willson Contreras also have two homers each against Wacha.
The Cubs lost two of three in Milwaukee this week, suffering 4-0 and 1-0 losses in the series’ final two games and falling 1 1/2 games behind the Brewers in the Central.
“We almost should be grateful we won one of three,” Chicago manager Joe Maddon said. “We played well the first game, then shutout, shutout.”
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