The AFC North is one of the most fascinating divisions to watch out for this season. Any of the four teams could take home the division title, and few people would be surprised. The North features the Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens, who lost key starters. Additionally, the up and coming Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns, are destined for a solid year. And finally, the Pittsburgh Steelers will be looking to reach the playoffs for the first time in three years.
Here is how I think the teams will finish in the division:
- Cincinnati Bengals (Last season 10-6, 2nd in the AFC North)
The Bengals will be a top contender in the AFC this season. They have made the playoffs the last two seasons; however, they have yet to win a playoff game under QB Andy Dalton. He has struggled mightily in playoff games, going 14 for 30 for just 127 yards and no touchdowns against Houston last year. I feel that Dalton will be much better this season, along with star WR A.J. Green. The team acquired long time Steeler James Harrison this offseason. They drafted RB Giovani Bernard, who will help Ben-Jarvis Green-Ellis carry the load on offense. Plus, Cincinnati drafted TE Tyler Eifert, to compliment Jermaine Gresham. The defense will be solid as usual, and Dalton will carry this team, with the improved offensive weapons, to a division title and a playoff win this season.
Season prediction: 10-6, division title, loss in Divisional Round after earning first playoff win under Dalton.
- Baltimore Ravens (Last season 10-6 won division and Super Bowl)
The reigning Super Bowl champions will struggle this season. A team that was champions in February, have lost 9 starters since then. Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Bernard Pollard, Paul Kruger, Dannell Ellerbe, Anquan Boldin, Vonta Leach, Cary Williams, and Matt Birk are gone. That is a lot to try to make up for. However, Ozzie Newsome always seems to get the job done in Baltimore. The Ravens drafted star safety Matt Elam from Florida, who was the leader of the defense at UF. They also drafted Arthur Brown, an excellent LB from Kansas State. They gave Super Bowl MVP QB Joe Flacco a huge extension worth 120 million over 6 years. The pressure on Flacco is more than ever; he is going to have to lead the team and be more consistent. The Ravens are truly going to struggle this season. It doesn’t matter who is at QB, replacing almost half of your starters is a challenge.
Season prediction: 9-7 6th seed in the AFC, first round playoff loss)
- Cleveland Browns (Last season 5-11, last in North)
Bit of a shocker here at number 3? The Cleveland Browns are going to be a much improved football team this season. They lost a bunch of close games last season; also, I think they will be even better this year. I know it was preseason, but their defense was excellent. 1st round pick Barkevious Mingo was an excellent player at LSU, and will have a good season in Cleveland. The Browns also signed former Raven Paul Kruger to help the pass rush. Brandon Weeden will continue to get better as a QB; however, the Browns will be in a lot of low scoring, boring games. They will rely heavily on star RB Trent Richardson. But I expect them to win 7 games this season.
Season prediction 7-9, no playoffs
4. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8 3rd in North)
Finally, we arrive at the Pittsburgh Steelers. It may seem crazy, but the Steelers have not been in the playoffs since their Super Bowl loss to Green Bay two seasons ago. The last two seasons, the Steelers have struggled mightily, especially on defense. The team has not been able to stay healthy either. Troy Polamalu has been a rare sighting, and James Harrison is gone. All of the guys that made this defense so great are gone, injured, or aging. Ben Roethlisberger will need to be even better this year, as they have lost their top WR, Mike Wallace, to Miami, and have lost rookie starting RB Le’Veon Bell to injury in the preseason. The offensive line is in shambles; injuries, departures have hurt them. I struggled to find games Pittsburgh will win.
Season Prediction 6-10 last in division, no playoffs
Let’s give out some awards
MVP: Ray Rice
Best offensive player: A.J. Green
Best defensive player: Rey Maulaluga
Rookie of the year: Matt Elam
Biggest surprise player: Torrey Smith
Biggest letdown: Joe Flacco
This division is one of the most intriguing in football, anything could happen…
But for now, Cincinnati is the team to beat.