AFC North Preview

Story by Jeremy Brener

Many will call the AFC North the most physical division in the league. With cold weather and deep-rooted rivalries, the AFC North is possibly the most enjoyable brand that the league has to offer. It also has one of the most competitive atmospheres in the league, with a wild card team coming out of the division in nine of its first 15 years of existence. While only the Steelers represented the division last year in the playoffs, there is a decent chance that multiple teams out of the division could see the playoffs, making this one of the most important divisions to keep an eye on.

Baltimore Ravens:

Baltimore was a team on a roller coaster last season. The team started out 3-0 before dropping four straight going into the bye. Then five wins in seven games lined them up to be in control of its own destiny with two games left to play. With two losses to end the season, one of them being a heart-breaker after Antonio Brown’s famous reach over the goal line, the Ravens finished 8-8. .500. Average.

The team tried to rally with a strong free agency, signing Tony Jefferson from Arizona and Brandon Carr from Dallas. On the offensive side of the ball, they added veterans Danny Woodhead and Jeremy Maclin.

The team’s problem is that it lacks offensive firepower at their skill positions. Mike Wallace had over 1000 yards receiving, but there are very few major threats outside of those. Adding Woodhead and Maclin does help that problem.

The defense has struggled to stay healthy over the past few years, but when healthy, is extremely talented. Because of the health of the defense, they will not be able to put all the eggs in the baskets of guys like linebacker Terrell Suggs and corner back Jimmy Smith. Instead, more responsibility will be placed on rookies Marlon Humphrey, Tyus Bowser, Tim Williams, and $53 million nose tackle Brandon Williams.

If the defense can perform like it did years ago then this is definitely a playoff team. The offense will keep up if the defense can carry them. The reason why they haven’t been a playoff team is the defense, but this year, the defensive upgrades make this team a contender again.

Predicted Record: 9-7

Cincinnati Bengals:

The Bengals took a step back last season and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2010. This was large in part due to a six-game absence from A.J. Green due to injury and the severe lack of production from its rookie class. First round pick William Jackson III was on IR most of the year and they had very little production the remainder of rookies drafted from the past two seasons. Despite its lack of success, Cincinnati still sent five players to the Pro Bowl. One of those was left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who left the team this offseason for the Rams.

With Whitworth gone, the starting tackle position now falls into third-year tackle Jake Fisher. With Green out for a good chunk of last season, the Bengals felt the need to upgrade, so it selected speedy receiver John Ross with its first pick to complement Green. They also took running back Joe Mixon with its second pick to join Jeremy Hill and Gio Bernard in a deep backfield. The skill players have talent galore, but they will hinge on whether or not the offensive line can stay healthy. The line anchors the Cincy offense, and if it perform well, the team performs well.

The defense has the potential to be haunted by the possible suspension of troubled linebacker Vontaze Burfict. Burfict is set to face a five-game suspension for a repeated violation of unnecessary roughness in games. He is the true leader of the defense, and his absence will hurt the team tremendously. If the defense can mimic the physicality of Burfict, but are able to rein in the abrasiveness, the team can succeed.

Cincinnati is a victim of circumstance. If it had an easier schedule in a different division, maybe the team makes the playoffs. However, four games against Baltimore and Pittsburgh will hurt them. The team is one step away from being good, but there are too many red flags that would make me think they finish over .500.

Predicted Record: 8-8

Cleveland Browns:

Let’s face it: Cleveland sucks.

We know it, they know it, everybody knows it. Cleveland is not trying to win Super Bowl LII in Minnesota come February. They have just as much of a chance as anybody before Week 1, but once the season hits, their season ends. The Browns are looking to develop guys that could play for them in the future.

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The draft Cleveland had was indicative that the team is on the right track. The team picked three guys in the first round: defensive end Myles Garrett, safety Jabrill Peppers, and tight end David Njoku. They also picked their 234th quarterback of the future in Deshone Kizer. Kizer is currently the only rookie slated to start Week One. He beat out Brock Osweiler and Cody Kessler for the job, and Hue Jackson seems to have a lot of faith in his guy.

Cleveland also signed a bunch of veteran free agents including offensive lineman JC Tretter from Green Bay and Kevin Zeitler from division rival Cincinnati. Kenny Britt, who they signed from the Rams, is slated to be their leading receiver. The team got veteran guys to ensure it won’t go 1-15 again.

The team got better, they won’t be 1-15, but four wins is the absolute ceiling. They’re still the same Cleveland Browns.

Predicted Record: 2-14

Pittsburgh Steelers:

Pittsburgh was one win away from Super Bowl LI last year. Granted, they took a not-so-small beating in the AFC Championship Game, they were still one win away. The team has unquestionably the greatest offense in the league thanks to Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. It’s quite possibly one of the best RB-WR duos ever. This season, the Steelers have a Super Bowl on its mind. Beating New England will be difficult, but this team shouldn’t have a problem with the other teams.

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On top of their insane offense, the defense performed well last season. Although the team made very few moves during the offseason, the drafting of T.J. Watt from Wisconsin was a sneaky draft pick at the end of round one.

The team also drafted wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster with its second pick and have Martavis Bryant returning from a season-long suspension in 2016. Pairing those guys with Brown in the receiving corps creates one of the deadliest combinations in the NFL. In what could be Ben Roethlisberger’s final season, he could have his most talented group of receivers to date.

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With most of the AFC Championship team returning from last season, the Steelers have a good chance to return if its execution is on point. The team will fight with the Chiefs, Raiders, and Texans to have the right to face off against the Patriots for the AFC crown. For now, there’s a good chance the Steelers could meet with New England again in January for a spot at the Super Bowl. It’s a long season, but I like their chances.

Predicted Record: 11-5

Outlook:

Pittsburgh will be a tough team to beat, but Baltimore and Cincinnati will remain strong challengers for the crown. The Steelers have the making of a Super Bowl contender and are arguably the team that has the greatest chance to come out of the AFC to represent the conference in the Super Bowl outside of New England.

This is a division that will be filled with fireworks and fierce competition, and the Steelers will set the tone for the division and provide the example in which the other three teams will attempt to follow.

 

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