The AFC North is looking to bounce back as a division after only producing one playoff team (Cincinnati) who were once again one and done. The Bengals won the division with an 11-5 record while no other team finished with more than 8 wins. But just how much of a bounce back season can the division have as a whole? I have my predictions on that very precarious situation right here:
1. Cincinnati Bengals (10-6) – The Bengals are looking to make the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season with the most balanced roster in the division but they have two new coordinators. Andy Dalton’s stats were not bad last season throwing for over 4,200 yards and 33 touchdowns and he still has A.J. Green as a main option. Consistency and cutting down turnovers are a must for Dalton whose interceptions have increased each season. The back field will be deep with the versatile Gio Bernard and short-yardage back, BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
Like the rest of the division the defense will be strong. A healthy Geno Atkins is back along with undrafted star Vontaze Burfict who had 171 tackles in 2013 . Draft pick Darqueze Dennard adds youth to the veteran filled cornerback position that already features Terrance Newman, Adam Jones and Leon Hall.
With the 23rd ranked strength of schedule anything less than nine wins would be a disappointment.
2. Baltimore Ravens (9-7)– The Baltimore Ravens were a shell of themselves last season after winning the Super Bowl. Granted they were handicapped by Joe Flacco’s contract but there were plenty of underachievers as well. Flacco threw 19 touchdowns which as drowned out by the 22 interceptions he also threw. Ray Rice only averaged 3.1 yards per carry, partially due to the struggles of the offensive line. Steve Smith and a healthy Dennis Pitta will provide more targets for Flacco and Gary Kubiak’s system will help the run game.
The defense, while maybe not as good as old Ravens’ defenses, was still not bad last season ranking 12th in total defense. They still have Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil while adding C.J. Mosley in the draft. Baltimore also has the fifth easiest schedule so 9 wins and a Wild Card berth are both possible.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers (9-7) – This is another season of transition for the Steelers. The defense is going for more of a youth movement and there are key players no longer on the team. Antonio Brown had a breakout season last year but his counterpart Emmanuel Sanders is gone and it will be up to Markus Wheaton to replace him. Pittsburgh should be able to run the ball effectively with Le’Veone Bell and LeGarrette Blount. Filling out the running game is Dri Archer who can be a Darren Sproles type of player.
The defense can no longer be criticized for being old with only two players over 30 (Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor). Rookie Ryan Shazier shows promise at the linebacker position next to veteran Lawrence Timmons and Mike Mitchell should be solid next to Polamalu. Cameron Hayward and Steve McClendon look to be contributors next season on the line and Stephon Tuitt is an interesting prospect.
The Steelers are not a bad team at all and they do have the eighth easiest schedule which helps. The question though is whether the offense can be explosive enough and how will the young players on defense play. Nine wins is a good possibility when you add all of these factors up.
4. Cleveland Browns (6-10) – The Browns are actually starting to show that there is a light at the end of the tunnel of mediocrity. The offense will continue to struggle this season, no matter who starts at quarterback. Even if Johnny Manziel winds up as the chief signal caller before the end of the season, there are not many weapons besides his own legs and Jordan Cameron. Brian Hoyer was impressive in just a few games last season before season ending injury but if Josh Gordon is suspended the Browns will struggle. Without Gordon, Miles Austin will be the number 1 receiver and he has been plagued with injuries. Former Texans running back Ben Tate will help the running game and rookie back Terrance West has also impressed.
The Browns do have a top ten caliber defense. Mike Pettine is a Rex Ryan guy whose 3-4 system could help make this defense even better. The browns were 9th in the NFL last season in total defense and add Karlos Dansby at middle linebacker and Donte Whitner at safety. The front seven fills out with guys like Desmond Bryant and Paul Kruger. The secondary will be tough with Joe Haden on one side and first round pick Justin Gilbert on the other. With Whitner patrolling the airs deep in the secondary, passing on this team will not be easy.
The Browns will be better than seasons past. The defense will be able to keep them in games but there is just not enough offense to put them over the top.
This is a division with plenty of question marks on the offensive side of the ball. Each team’s defense will be key to how successful they are.