The outlook of the 2015 NFL season has changed significantly over the past few weeks.
From the NFL draft, to the suspension of Tom Brady, the outlook of the AFC looks vastly different than how it appeared just one month ago. The guys at Football Outsiders (via ESPN) have put out new projections for how the AFC will finish the 2015 regular season.
They're not very high on the Bengals, projecting them to go 8-8 and miss the playoffs while Baltimore wins the division:
Baltimore Ravens: 9-7 (9.0 mean wins; SOS: 14)
Pittsburgh Steelers: 8-8 (8.4 mean wins; SOS: 3)
Cincinnati Bengals: 8-8 (7.5 mean wins; SOS: 6)
Cleveland Browns: 5-11 (5.0 mean wins; SOS: 7)
The conventional narrative says that three AFC North teams rode into the 2014 playoffs thanks in part to an easy schedule built on the two South divisions. That's partially true; Pittsburgh and Baltimore ranked 29th and 30th in average DVOA of opponent last season. However, the AFC North teams were also pretty good even after adjusting for opponent strength. Baltimore finished fifth in overall DVOA, Pittsburgh was eighth and Cincinnati was 12th.
If those teams carry over that same performance, they are still going to end up with fewer wins because the schedule gets much harder this year. Instead of the South divisions, these teams get the two West divisions in 2015. They still each play one team from the AFC South, and those games actually make a big difference in the projected mean wins, because Baltimore gets to play Jacksonville while Pittsburgh and Cincinnati have to face Indianapolis and Houston, respectively.
With all four teams facing such tough schedules in 2015, it's easy to see a 9-win team winning the division. Having to face the NFC West, arguably the NFL's best division, is a daunting task. The AFC West makes a strong case for that claim as well.
Those two divisions combined to produce five teams with winning records, three teams will 11+ wins and had only two teams to finish below a .500 record in 2014. It's possible all four AFC North teams have losing records against those eight teams from the west.
In the end, the AFC North will likely come down to who does the best within the division. Last year, Pittsburgh won it after having the best mark at 4-2 in divisional play, including an undefeated mark at home. I believe whoever has the best record within the North is who will ultimately win the division again in 2015.