AFC North Preview

AFC North Preview

In the past couple years the AFC North has completely flipped from one of the toughest, most competitive divisions in football to one of the weaker ones.  This year looks to be one of the last good shots for the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers.  The Bengals look for their second straight divisional title and third straight playoff berth, while the Browns are… well the Browns.

Baltimore Ravens

2013 Record: 8-8

2014 Predicted Record: 9-7

2014 Predicted MVP:  Linebacker Elvis Dumervil

Although Ozzie Newsome did make some great picks in the 2014 NFL Draft to improve Baltimore’s defense picking up Alabama’s C.J. Mosley and Florida State’s Timmy Jernigan, the Ravens did lose some rather significant pieces this offseason.  Jameel McClain, Arthur Jones, Corey Graham, James Ihedigbo and Rolando McClain all left in free agency leaving some holes on the defensive side.  For a couple years now, the Ravens have really just been a decent defense with big names.  They seem to be the same type of unit this year, retaining key players like Haloti Ngata, Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs.  The Ravens will be a formidable team on the defensive side of the ball; just not great as they continue to age.

On the offensive side of the ball, look for running back Bernard Pierce to lead the way.  Not only will he take over the starting role during Ray Rice’s 2-game suspension, but he will also look to pick up a lot of the slack afterwards as Rice has certainly taken a step back the past 2 seasons. New offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak has stressed improvement in the running game since the Ravens ranked 30th in the league last season in rushing yards per game.   The Ravens did lose right tackle Michael Oher to the Titans, so 5th round pick Ricky Wagner will start in his place.

Overall, the Ravens’ offensive line looks average at best even with the acquisition of former 3rd round center Jeremy Zuttah from Tampa Bay.  Joe Flacco did get some new weapons in veteran wideout Steve Smith and tight end Owen Daniels this offseason in addition to the always-reliable Torrey Smith and Dennis Pitta.  But with no one to protect him, look for an average season from a good-not-great QB facing some tough defenses this year.

The Bottom Line: The Ravens will have another mediocre season if they do not get off to a hot start and beat the Bengals and Steelers in Baltimore.

 Cincinnati Bengals

2013 Record: 11-5

2014 Predicted Record: 9-7

2014 Predicted MVP: Wide Receiver A.J. Green

The Bengals would love to take the next step this year and actually get to the Divisional Round, and that journey begins with quarterback Andy Dalton. Dalton has helped his team to the playoffs the last 3 seasons, but still has not won a playoff game. Andy Dalton got the big bucks this offseason, signing a 6 year, $115M contract, despite being overwhelmingly average in the regular season (33 TDs, 20 INTs, 55.5 Total QBR) and a huge disappointment in the Bengals’ third consecutive Wildcard Round exit from the playoffs (29/51, 1 TD, 2 INTs)

On the positive side, 2nd round pick Giovani Bernard had a fantastic 2013 season and a sophomore slump is not eminent for the running back this year.  Also, wide receiver A.J. Green looks to have another great, pro-bowl caliber season.  The Bengals will need to search for more receivers in years to come since the departure of Andrew Hawkins leaving Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu and Brandon Tate behind Green in addition to the tight end duo of Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert.

The Bengals definitely want to build their offense around Dalton, as they drafted tight end Tyler Eifert to give Dalton another target. The strong tight end tandem of Jermaine Gresham and Eifert makes up for the lack of receivers the Bengals have after A.J. Green.

The offense is slowly coming together but the defense looks to remain strong despite losing lineman Michael Johnson.  In drafting Darqueze Dennard in the 1st round the Bengals look to have a top 5 defense in the league this season.

 

The Bottom Line: Cincinnati has a tough schedule and if Andy Dalton doesn’t get his youknowwhat together, the Bengals won’t even make the playoffs.

 

Cleveland Browns

2013 Record: 4-12

2014 Predicted Record: 5-11

2014 Predicted MVP: Cornerback Joe Haden

After being irrelevant for years, this season the Cleveland Browns will… still be irrelevant.  But mark my word it will not stay that way for long.  The Browns are quietly building one of the best young teams in the league.  Given Josh Gordon’s year-long suspension, the Browns won’t amount to much this year, but the future looks very bright for Cleveland.  Adding guys like Miles Austin, Andrew Hawkins and Nate Burleson to their wide receiving corps and adding Justin Gilbert and Donte (W)Hitner to an already talented secondary can only mean great things for the Browns.  Ben Tate can be a bit injury-prone in the backfield, but he is quite the upgrade over Trent Richardson.  The Browns also have a fantastic O-Line.  All the Browns are missing is a quarterback.  Johnny Manziel can be that quarterback if they develop him right.  He won’t be a superstar but he can be a good or even very good talent in the league. (But not GREAT)

The Bottom line: Let’s be honest, no one expects anything from Cleveland this year.  Just hope for a good draft pick and keep building because the Browns really are just a QB away from an AFC North Title or – Dare I say it – A Superbowl.
Pittsburgh Steelers

2013 Record: 8-8

2014 Predicted Record: 11-5

2014 Predicted MVP: Wide Receiver Antonio Brown

The Steelers were a booth review from making the playoffs last season.  Not that they would have made it all that far once there, but the Steelers are probably looking at their last season to contend for a title for a couple years at least.  Both the backfield and receiving corps have greatly improved adding LeGarrette Blount, Lance Moore and Darius Heyward-Bey in free agency, not to mention drafting Dri Archer and Martavis Bryant.  Look for Markus Wheaton, second year receiver from Oregon State to step up in a big way in the absence of Emmanuel Sanders.

The defense just about broke even this offseason, but it also got younger which is key for a team like Pittsburgh.  The Steelers ended up losing Ryan Clark, Ziggy Hood and LaMarr Woodley, but replaced them with veteran Mike Mitchell along with rookies Ryan Shazier and Stephon Tuitt.  The team also added cornerbacks Brice McCain and Shaq Richardson, so the defense is definitely on the upward trend this season.

The offensive line is still a mess, but that has never really bothered Ben Roethlisberger.  This season won’t be pretty but it should be pretty successful for the Steelers.

The Bottom Line: The Steelers will excel with a relatively easy regular season schedule and if they can pull off a win against Tom Brady and the Patriots, they will likely be a Peyton Manning choke job in January away from the Superbowl.

 

Division Awards

 

AFC North MVP: Antonio Brown WR Steelers

AFC North Offensive Player of the Year: A.J. Green WR Bengals

AFC North Defensive Player of the Year: Joe Haden CB Browns

AFC North Rookie of the Year: Ryan Shazier LB Steelers


Bold Prediction: Johnny Backup will become QB 1 as Johnny Manziel will be named the Browns starting QB shortly after their week 5 loss to the Titans, beginning his good-not-great career as an NFL quarterback.

 

Photo: http://thesportsquotient.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/AFC-North.jpeg

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