AFC North awards feature a black-and-gold theme

The Pittsburgh Steelers were the only AFC North team to earn a playoff berth, and their excellence this season was reflected in division awards handed out by the ESPN reporters covering the division -- Jeremy Fowler with the Steelers, Jamison Hensley with the Baltimore Ravens, Pat McManamon with the Cleveland Browns and Katherine Terrell with the Cincinnati Bengals.

Coach of the Year -- Mike Tomlin: As the Steelers prepared for their season finale against the Browns, the Cleveland media asked coach Mike Tomlin if he had any empathy for the Browns coaches dealing with a winless season.

"They have a lot of professional guys," Tomlin said. "I am not going to be disrespectful to them in any way by feeling empathy or things of that nature. We are all fighting week in and week out to win. I am sure they still are. That is just how it goes in our business."

The response showed Tomlin at his committed and competitive best. In it to win, he was the unanimous choice as AFC North Coach of the Year. In his 11th season with the Steelers, he won 13 games, a personal high. He has not had a losing season and has had at least 10 wins in each of the past four.

It's easy to point to Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell and say Tomlin should win, but nothing is given in the NFL, as Tomlin's words showed. He and the Steelers earned every win, and Tomlin was far and away the division's top coach in 2017.

As for his refusal to give empathy or sympathy, Browns defensive coordinator Gregg Williams heard of it, nodded and said: "I like that."

-- McManamon

Offensive MVP -- Antonio Brown: He was the catalyst for the best team in the AFC North, which is why this season's only unanimous All-Pro was voted the division's Offensive Player of the Year. Despite missing the final two games with a calf injury, Brown led the NFL with 1,533 yards receiving, eight 100-yard receiving games and 27 catches of at least 20 yards.

Brown's consistency, big plays and clutch catches came at a time for the Steelers when running back Le'Veon Bell averaged 4.0 yards per carry and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw 14 interceptions. How dominant was Brown? He averaged 109.5 yards receiving per game -- or 17.6 more than anyone else in the NFL. His 1,533 yards receiving rivaled what all the wide receivers produced for the Bengals (2,102), Browns (1,801) and Ravens (1,734).

This was also a historic season for Brown, who became the first player in league history to catch over 100 passes in five straight seasons. Brown starred for Pittsburgh in beating the Ravens in December to clinch the AFC North, catching 11 passes for 213 yards.

"AB is special," Steelers guard David DeCastro said. "There's no contest he's the best receiver in the world."

And, in 2017, there was no better offensive player in the AFC North than Brown.

-- Hensley

Defensive MVP -- Cameron Heyward: Heyward was named a first-team All-Pro for the first time in his career, despite being snubbed for the Pro Bowl. It's easy to see why. Heyward finished the season tied for eighth overall with 12 sacks, the second most by a Steelers defensive lineman in one season since the statistic became official in 1982. He also had three pass deflections, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. There weren't many defensive players in the division who came close to those kinds of numbers, and none on a team as dominant as the Steelers have been this season. Heyward was the best player on a defense that lost linebacker Ryan Shazier and was a big part of why the team finished 13-3. Not bad for a player who had never had double-digit sacks in his six seasons before 2017.

-- Terrell

Rookie of the Year -- JuJu Smith-Schuster: He became a clear-cut favorite for AFC North Rookie of the Year with his exceptional late-season play. Smith-Schuster broke the franchise's rookie receiving record with 917 yards, 332 of which came over the final three games.

He's become a fixture in the Steelers history books, becoming the first rookie to register a receiving and kickoff return touchdown in the same game. His 97-yard touchdown catch in Week 8 tied a team record for the longest play from scrimmage. Among a crowded stable of Steelers playmakers, Smith-Schuster separated himself with his flair for the big play. Smith-Schuster notched a catch of 40 or more yards in five games, and his seven receiving touchdowns ranked second on the team behind Antonio Brown.

His blend of strong hands, adequate speed and physicality earned trust from Ben Roethlisberger. Even teammate Martavis Bryant, who said on Instagram in October that Smith-Schuster was "nowhere near" better than him, was calling his teammate a deserving rookie of the year by season's end. Not to be discounted is the ease with which Smith-Schuster ingratiated himself in the Steelers' locker room. Players talk fondly about the exuberance of the league's youngest player (Smith-Schuster turned 21 in November). Le'Veon Bell calls Smith-Schuster the best 21-year-old football player he's ever seen.

Many AFC North rookies had fine seasons, including Bengals pass-rusher Carl Lawson (8.5 sacks) and Ravens corner Marlon Humphrey (34 tackles, two interceptions). Smith-Schuster was a cut above thanks to the way he cuts.

-- Fowler