NFL Divisional Preview: AFC North

The next division I’m going to go over is the AFC North. They’re interesting, because they’ve had three teams that have all been rather competitive over the last decade… they also have the Browns, which is nice. In this division resides some of the toughest guys on (and absolutely off) the field. I think this division, more than any other, holds the most mutual hatred between all of the teams respectively. But enough with this cookie-cutter introduction paragraph.

Baltimore Ravens 

The Ravens were endangered last year (super stupid pun, sorry), as their guys just couldn’t stay off the IR for the life of them. Sure, I really liked to watch it, because I despise Baltimore football, but despite their awful season last year, they remain an outside threat to return to postseason play. Though in the regular season Joe Flacco will be responsible for as many losses as he is wins, he just needs to get into the tournament in order to make some noise; he’s just one of those guys. And, like him or not, John Harbaugh is without a doubt a top five coach in the entire NFL.

They added guys, like my man Ronnie Stanley, to help keep Flacco upright. Breshad Perriman is basically still a rookie since he decided to tear his PCL last season, and he will be welcomed with open arms based on how bad the receiving corps was last year. The Ravens also added Mike Wallace, who has been overrated for his entire career. But, his return to the AFC North makes their rivalry with the Steelers that much more interesting.

Defensively speaking, they’re okay, but they’re either old, injured, or both. Terrell Suggs got hurt last season, Jimmy Smith was hurt last season, Ladarius Webb was hurt last season, and that’s just naming a few of the guys. Baltimore could have a solid defense just because they’re always so prepared and so well-coached, but as far as injuries go, they have such a small margin for error. One or two injuries and that unit will completely fall apart. All in all, since this is football, I don’t really see them making it back to the playoffs. They’re not quite rebuilding, but they’re not quite contending – they’re just chilling in purgatory.

Cincinnati Bengals

Marvin Lewis sucks as a coach. Period. End of story. End of discussion. It’s nice that the players seem to like him. It’s nice he does charity in Cincinnati, which has become my adopted city. But that stinks, because he’s incapable of winning a game when it matters. Juuuuust when they had it wrapped up at home last season, they blew it.

They started off on fire (another stupid pun, but this time a little less stupid) on the right arm of Andy Dalton, who was living up to the monster extension the Bengals gave him. Then he broke his thumb. Oops. Well, either way, the Bengals went on with AJ McCarron, who played solid in his absence. I think that’s important, because it shows depth (more on that later). AJ Green obviously helps, and with the emergence of Tyler Eifert last year, Cincy had an excellent aerial attack. But losing both Marvin Jones and Mohammed Sanu will hurt. Tyler Boyd is okay, and he may put some great numbers up with Green and Eifert attracting most of the attention. But it isn’t fair to put him at the same level of either of the guys they lost.

Defensively, they’re a hard-nosed, tough group, led by Xavier-super fan Adam Jones, resident-thug Vontaze Burfict, and George Iloka. The rest of their secondary? Eh. Darqueze Dennard William Jackson III are both talented, but largely unproven. I’m confident in the team’s defense as a whole, as they consistently rank in the top 10-12 units of the league. Actually, I really like the offense, too. I just think they’re going to end up the same as they did last year… and the year before that… and the year before that. They’ll be between 9-7 and 11-5, but they will lose in the Wild Card round because they are the Bengals and that’s just the way things are.

Cleveland Browns

Quietly, the Browns had an excellent offseason. No, they’re not going to contend for a Super Bowl, or even the playoffs for that matter. But first and foremost, they rid themselves of Johnny Manziel. Then, they grabbed the best possible coach they could’ve in former Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson. With Paul DePodesta (Jonah Hill from Moneyball) calling the shots, the Browns are making efficient, smart, safe moves. They traded the #2 overall pick to the idiot Eagles, who overpaid for Carson Wentz. They then moved from #7 to #15 to go get Baylor receiver Corey Coleman. While the move was criticized by some at the time, the important thing to remember is that the Browns do not have an identity. By picking Coleman, whether he was the best receiver available or not, they picked a direction for their offense – an up-tempo, vertical style offense. It helps that they stocked up on more draft picks, which they desperately needed, because again, they have zero foundational talent. All the while, they avoided taking the quarterback that they would’ve been obligated to take. They didn’t like Wentz, so they moved down, and took a King’s ransom for a QB that would’ve failed in Cleveland just like every other one.

It was a better move to take a gamble on Robert Griffin III. Yes, he very well might fail. But it’s an economical contract. If they turn his career around? They just stole one of the most talented men ever to play quarterback from the Redskins (I said talented, I didn’t say best). If he doesn’t, then whatever – he just held the seat for whoever will be there when the team becomes competitive.

Defensively, they’re young, so there will be growing pains. But Emmanuel Ogbah was a good pick in the second round. Carl Nassib was a good pick in the third round. Scooby Wright in the seventh round is an excellent pick. Whether these guys pan out or not is a different story – the point is that they didn’t overpay, they found value, and they took advantage. So yay you Cleveland, good work.

The only thing they could’ve done that would’ve been better is moving the only two assets, Joe Thomas and Joe Haden, for more picks. They won’t be around or valuable by the time the team is competitive, so they might as well sell high. I can see the Browns being 2-14 just as much as I can see them going 5-11. But I think they’ll be a relatively tough team. And I think they’re finally headed in the right direction.

Pittsburgh Steelers 

The Steelers are basically the only team that consistently intimidates me, as a Patriots fan, in the AFC. Led by Mike Tomlin, whenever the Steelers seem to deal with injury struggles, which is all the time, they end up still finding their way into the playoff picture. This season, they’ve got an interesting blend between young and old faces, and they always remain a contender for the AFC crown.

The key to the offense is not Antonio Brown, who is a top-2 receiver in the entire NFL after the retirement of Calvin Johnson (Dez Bryant is better). It’s not Le’Veon Bell, who is the best all-around back in the NFL when healthy. It’s Ben Roethlisberger. Disagree with me? Watch the Steelers’ offense with literally any other quarterback. It’s repulsive. Big Ben is a Hall of Famer and a winner in every sense of the word, and he’s extremely important to the team’s success. He’s one of my personal favorite on-the-field players in the league (Off the field? “Alleged” rapist. That’s not cool). Despite Martavis Bryant being suspended for an entire season for pot, the receiving corps is still fast and dangerous.

Defensively, they’re not the same type of D the Steelers are known for. What do I mean by that? Well, they’re not very good. Their secondary hasn’t been good in God-knows-how-long, and I don’t see Artie Burns being that good. He’s fine, he’s talented, but he’s really raw, and I just don’t think his ceiling is as high as other cornerbacks in the draft. They’re in a tight spot too, because they couldn’t necessarily improve due to their cap situation. Pittsburgh is still paying money to Troy Polamalu and Heath Miller, neither of which is still in the NFL. So that sucks for them.

Ultimately, if Ben plays at least 12 games, and Mike Tomlin is coaching, they’ll be a-okay.

 

My AFC North Standings Prediction

Bengals (10-6), 4

Steelers (10-6), 5

Ravens (7-9)

Browns (4-12)

 

***Italicized number indicates predicted playoff seeding.

Cover photo from wcpo.com.

 

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