Another step closer to the NFL season we go and it’s again time to take a look at another NFL division and make my controversial predictions. This time, we look to the North, the AFC North that is and breakdown what will be one of the most competitive divisions in football. The AFC North consists of some of the most hard-hitting and fierce competitors in sports. Though, many of the familiar faces of the past have moved on and retired, there will be no loss of hatred and competition.
Let’s start at the top with the reigning division champion:
The Steelers have always been one of the leagues most successful teams. Even since the days of Terry Bradshaw and his 4 Super Bowls, the Steelers have remained at the elite of the elite in the NFL. Pittsburgh has had their more recent success under the leadership of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. With Big Ben still under center, the Steelers will always have a chance. Last year, however, it was clear that Roethlisberger was not the lone offensive weapon for the Steelers and that they could be as dangerous as any team in the league. Young target Antonio Brown came into his own at wide receiver last season, having a career year as one of the NFL’s premiere pass catchers. In the backfield with Big Ben is running back Leveon Bell, who has also emerged as a top threat for running back of the league. Bell is special because he is not only a tenacious runner, but his receiving abilities make him top notch. Roethlisberger also will have other young receiving targets to work with in the likes of Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton. Watch out for the Pittsburgh offense this year because it could be scary good.
The Steelers look set on offense, but their normally stout defense has some question marks. Out with the old and in with the new seems to be the theme for Pittsburgh this season on defense. Possible hall of fame defensive backs and long time Steelers Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor both announced their retirement this offseason and it is time for the young defenders to step up with the only true veteran Steeler presence of Lawrence Timmons and James Harrison. Players like Ryan Shazier, William Gay, Cortez Allen, and draft pick Bud Dupree will have to carry the load for the Pittsburgh defense. It remains to be seen if this defense can, in fact, rise up, but that will be an interesting story to follow when watching this Steeler team.
With the offense, most likely doing most of the work for the Steelers, it may be tough for them to win. This does not mean that they won’t though, and I believe Pittsburgh will have another successful winning season, but may only be able to sneak into the playoffs again in a difficult division.
Record Prediction: 10-6
Edelman to Amendola! Touchdown!
Just thought I had to mention one of my favorite plays in Patriots history when talking about the Ravens from the divisional playoff round in 2014.
Looking ahead at 2015, the Ravens again look similar to the squad that was put into play last season. Joe Flacco aka Admiral Unibrow, will once again captain the ship on offense for Baltimore. It always seems as if this team will go as far as Flacco will take them. Baltimore is always somehow sneaking into the playoffs after some abysmal regular seasons from Flacco and then all of a sudden he turns it on in the playoffs. This year appears no different, as the Ravens look like they will be competing hard for the AFC North title. The two questions I have for the Baltimore offense is who will be the second receiver behind the aging Steve Smith and will Justin Forsett be able to repeat his career year from 2014. If those questions can be answered quickly for the Ravens, then they will be in great shape heading into 2015.
As for the opposite side of the ball, Baltimore continues the post- Ray Lewis and Ed Reed phase and will hope to be even more comfortable without them. Terrell Suggs will hope to lead his defense to become even more dominant. With pass rusher Elvis Dumervil chomping at the bit to break the sack record of 22.5 set by Michael Strahan, the Ravens defense could be scary once again. The only true concern for Baltimore is their secondary. This secondary seemed to be their downfall in the 2014 playoffs as Tom Brady absolutely ripped them to shreds en route to the Super Bowl. If they can get these issues fixed, then watch out for the Ravens in 2015.
Baltimore will be in high competition for the division crown with Cincinnati and Pittsburgh and nobody knows what could happen there. The Ravens will be a tough team to beat as usual and will have another winning season. We will have to see if they can squeeze into the playoffs with this record prediction.
Record Prediction: 9-7
The Bengals reputation over the past few years has been put into one, single phrase: playoff one and done. Ever since Cincinnati selected Quarterback Andy Dalton with the 35th pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, the Bengals have been notorious for being good enough to make the playoffs, but not good enough to win a playoff game. This has happened to the Bengals for the past 4 years and this year will again be a question of whether or not they can get over their first playoff game troubles. All the focus has been put on Andy Dalton and this year will be no different. The Bengals offensive weapons appear to be plentiful with Giovani Bernard and rising running back Jeremy Hill manning the backfield while all-pro wide out A.J. Green is Dalton’s main receiving target. The Cincinnati offense should be dangerous once again, but will they be able to figure it out once the regular season has come to a close.
On the other hand, the Bengals defense has been average at best. Theirs defensive line and linebacker corps has appeared to be their strength as of last year. The defensive secondary looks to improve to slow down some of the potent passing attacks of the AFC North. If the defense can hold strong enough, then their offense should be able to carry the load and win some games.
I believe the Bengals will again have some success and win enough games to be competitive in the AFC North. Of course, their fate will have something to do with how the other 3 teams in the division perform. Cincinnati will have a difficult time with their schedule this year, however, which could lead to some problems with a playoff berth. This year will again be much focused on Quarterback Andy Dalton and if he can lead the Bengals to a playoff win, but that again remains to be seen.
Record Prediction: 9-7
Oh Cleveland, what will we do with you? At least you have your golden boy Lebron James back in the fold, but unfortunately for the Browns, he is busy trying to bring an NBA title back home. Cleveland’s football team has another golden boy to be concerned with and that is “Captain America” Johnny Manziel. With Bryan Hoyer out of the equation, and the only other competition as lifetime backup who had a few good games and got a starting job in Tampa, Josh McCown. It seems as if this is Manziel’s team to lose. The supporting cast surrounding Manziel is the real story. Josh Gordon has once again been suspended and this time it’ll be for the entire year. Cleveland’s offensive weapons are limited and this could lead to some problems against some good defenses in the division.
The Browns defense will have to step up and they do have the ability to do so. Veteran leaders Joe Haden, Donte Whitner, and Paul Kruger will set the tone behind a solid defensive front that include rising star Barkevious Mingo. This defense will have to carry the load for the Browns and that may be difficult to do against the 3 other high powered offenses in the division. It’s not impossible, but it won’t be easy.
The Browns rose up to playoff contenders in 2014, but just fell short. They have the potential to do the same in 2015, but it is my belief that they will not get over the hump just yet, although they are trending in the right direction.
Record Prediction: 7-9