In the game of quarterback survivor, the AFC North was the ultimate loser. Three quarterbacks suffered significant injuries in a span of three weeks and failed to finish the season. The only one left standing was Ben Roethlisberger, and he wasn't exactly the picture of health. He suffered a knee sprain, a mid-foot sprain, a concussion and a sprained shoulder.
The AFC North was the only division where every starting quarterback missed a game due to injury. The total missed starts was 22, which are four more than any division. Compare that to the NFC North and NFC South, where there was only one missed start for each.
The quarterbacks in the AFC North had built a reputation for being as tough as their teams. Flacco had the fifth-longest consecutive games streak by a quarterback in NFL history, starting 122 in a row. Dalton had the 21st-longest such streak, playing in 77 straight games.
Chalk this season's injuries up to bad luck in most of these instances. Flacco tore his anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments against the St. Louis Rams when backup left tackle James Hurst was pushed into his left leg. Dalton broke his right thumb when he threw an interception in the red zone and attempted to tackle Steelers defensive end Stephen Tuitt.
As for McCown and Roethlisberger, they were simply injured in bad collisions. McCown broke his collarbone after taking a hard shot in the chest by Ravens defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan and getting shoved to the ground by linebacker Courtney Upshaw. Roethlisberger banged up his shoulder on a sack by Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who appeared to drive his knee into Roethlisberger's shoulder.
How much did these injuries affect the division? Even though the Bengals and Steelers advanced to the postseason, the AFC North was 9-13 (.409) in games started by backup quarterbacks in 2016. The Bengals can only wonder how far they could've gone with a healthy Dalton, and the Steelers can only think what might have been if Roethlisberger had his full arm strength at Denver.
It's probably not a coincidence that three of the four teams playing in the conference championship games had quarterbacks (Tom Brady, Cam Newton and Carson Palmer) who played every game this season. The lone exception was Peyton Manning.
The AFC North now hasn't had a team in the conference championship game for three seasons. If the division wants to return to prominence, teams have to do a better job at protecting their quarterback.