The PSNI has blamed dissident republicans for the bomb, which had been placed at the Crumlin Road junction with Brompton Park and was destroyed by a controlled explosion.
Speaking at the scene, Chief Superintendent Nigel Grimshaw said the bomb was a "fairly substantial cylinder-type device" that was "designed to do one thing - kill."
"It was clearly placed in a position that was designed to attack police who may have been in the vicinity," he said.
"Without question, even at this stage, I am absolutely convinced it would have killed or seriously injured police had it detonated."
Grimshaw also slammed the "absolute lack of information" to help police locate the bomb's precise location.
"What we have dealt with is a totally reckless act, compounded by an absolute lack of information," he said. "These people have no regard for their own community.
"I'm very grateful at this point in the evening that we're not dealing with severe casualties.
"We have shops to our right hand side, we have the Holy Cross monastery across the road - people would have been going about their normal business and could have been caught in an absolutely horrendous blast."
Police were alerted to the threat after a priest, Father Gary Donegan, received a warning call on Thursday night.
He said: "A man phoned me to say a device had been left for the police near a local bookmakers.
"The caller said the device hadn't gone off. A priest at Sacred Heart received the same phone call."