It's tough to truly say what the most competitive division in the NFL is at this very moment. The consensus opinion is that the AFC and NFC West squads have the toughest go of it, seeing the amount of teams that made the playoffs or barely missed out on them in 2013. In those two divisions alone, five teams made the playoffs last year (two facing each other in the Super Bowl) and another just missing out, even with a 10-6 record.
Still, saying that a team around the league enjoys playing anyone in the bruising AFC North would be erroneous to the umpteenth degree. Strong defenses, bad weather and physicality reign supreme--even if one of the four teams is having a "down year". The Cincinnati Bengals won the division last year and made the playoffs for the third straight season, while the perennial powerhouses in Pittsburgh and Baltimore had disappointing 8-8 finishes. Cleveland was in rebuild mode again, but still gave each team a run for their money in head-to-head contests.
Each of the four teams did interesting things in the draft a few months ago. By most accounts, each team received solid grades for their efforts in May and all four appear to have impact players that they brought on to their rosters from the college ranks.
Earlier in the offseason, media pundits proclaimed the Bengals as the most talented team in the division and expected another playoff berth. However, as Training Camp and the preseason have wore on, more and more NFL media members are jumping off of the Cincinnati bandwagon and back onto to the ol' faithfuls with the Ravens and Steelers.
On Tuesday, Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk filled in as lead radiohost on "The Dan Patrick Show". In the episode, the DPS crew previewed the AFC North, concluding with Florio's early prediction of the Bengals missing the playoffs in 2014 while the other former mainstays make it. A similar article surfaced at NFL.com, picking the Steelers to come out on top in the AFC North, and this was after an earlier piece there that said the same thing . We also can't exclude what the guys at Football Outsiders wrote about the Bengals backsliding this year either.
Why the change in heart?
Normally, I'd employ the "opinions are like you-know-whats, everybody has one" type of mantra, but the reasoning behind the opinions has been eating at me. In short, they just aren't very sound. As is often used when respectively examining the Bengals, Steelers and Ravens, the "just because they are who they are" broken record resounds.
What do I mean by that? Well, a major theme to a lot of these predictions lie in the injury category. Fears surrounding Geno Atkins and Leon Hall are valid, however Hall has already seen time in the preseason with the first team defense and Atkins is getting close to making a brief preseason appearance before the Week One kickoff.
Hm. Moving on.
Aaron Schatz's piece on the Bengals concedes this: "Our AGL metric does not account for importance of players lost to injury. The Bengals could suffer an average number of injuries this year, and -- as long as the injured players don't include Atkins, Hall, A.J. Green, Andrew Whitworth or Andy Dalton -- they'll be no worse off than they were in 2013." When you read the previous paragraph as to his explanation of the impending backslide, it rested solely on injuries and their rehabilitation. The argument seemingly collapses on itself, doesn't it?
Then there is the "vastly improved" argument. Truth be told, I really liked what Pittsburgh did in the draft this year, but the Bengals were no slouches themselves, either. Cincinnati addressed its few points of weakness (i.e. running game, age of secondary) and it has appeared to pay off. Though Russell Bodine has struggled at times in the first two preseason games, he has helped fellow rookie Jeremy Hill perform well early on. After the team struggled with a 3.7 yards per carry as a team last year, Hill has come on with nine carries, 52 yards and a 5.8 yards per carry. It's early, but should be very encouraging.
Really, the reasons that are seen in these prognostications are mostly going with the "known commodities" in Baltimore and Pittsburgh, while harkening back to the visions of their many past glories. It's not a bad idea to hang your hat on successful franchises like those, but it also shouldn't skew actual current roster make-up and immediate history. In the meantime, we'll casually gloss over the recent legal issues that have plagued some big-name players that represent these two cities.
The fact of the matter is that the Steelers have missed out on the postseason the past two seasons, and the Ravens saw a steep decline last year after winning the Super Bowl. Furthermore, the Bengals have been on the uptick the past three years, have had minimal personnel losses and are getting back the aforementioned injured players that have such a big impact on their team. Did I mention that another young star is locked up long-term?
Look, I get it--not everyone is going to have the same opinion on this type of thing. Aside from a Peyton Manning and/or Tom Brady-led team making the playoffs every year, NFL media members rarely have a consensus opinion on anything. The rigors of the 2014 schedule has daunting stretches for Cincinnati. Unfortunately, it still seems that pundits are mired in Bengals perceptions created in the mid-2000s--or worse yet, the mid-1990s.
When it comes down to it all, nobody will remember these early predictions. It will only matter what happens on Sunday, September 7th and where everybody stands after Christmas. Maybe then, some of the stale perceptions on the orange and black will have changed for the better. It's up to the Bengals to make sure that that happens.