I believe the AFC North is the best (and deepest) division in the AFC and probably all of footbal. The AFC North is the only division which contains two Super Bowl winning quarterbacks and last year put three teams in the playoffs. The Ravens and Steelers are hot picks for the AFC Super Bowl representative and the Bengals have made the playoffs four of the last four years. Who will come out on top of this division and can that team make a deep run in the playoffs?
*NOTE: All division previews were constructed prior to any games and therefore any injuries which occurred in Week 1 were not accounted for.
1) Cincinnati Bengals
2015 Prediction: 11-5
2014 Record: 10-5-1, 2nd Place
Confidence in Pick: 50%
Why they win the division:
Offensive Weapons - No other team has the depth of offensive talent that the Bengals offer at the skill positions. AJ Green is a top 5 receiver and 4x Pro Bowler. Tyler Eifert is a Pro Bowl caliber tight end. Giovani Bernard is one of the quickest and most versatile backs in the NFL. Jeremy Hill is a top five back. Marvin Jones last full seasons was a 700+ yard 10 TD campaign and Muhamed Sanu is a top notch slot receiver. Lastly is the wildcard, Rex Burkhead who is listed as a running back but may actually be the team's best slot receiver. To top it off, they have a top 5 offensive line that just added two first round talent tackles and a quarterback, who despite his detractors, has 40 wins in his first four seasons in the league and is four for four in making the playoffs.
Most balanced team - With the offense finally healthy and the defense mostly healthy, the Bengals should be top 10 on both sides of the ball in 2015. No other team in the division can boast such balance. The Steelers should have a top 5 offense but have a shaky defense at best. The Ravens should be in the top 5-10, but their offense - especially their receivers and tight ends - are big question marks. And the Browns have the best secondary in the division - possibly the NFL - but their run defense is suspect and their offense will be at the bottom of the league.
Track record - Say what you want about Dalton, but the guy took over a four win team as a rookie, had no training camp and was handed the keys to a franchise that was being blasted nationally and locally for having a quarterback refusing to play and they let their two Pro Bowl receivers go (Chad Johnson and Terrell Owens)...and he lead them to the playoffs and has done so each of his four seasons in the league. As a result, his track record says he will get the team to the playoffs - insert joke of how it will only be to lose in the first round again (because unfortunately that is the other half of his track record).
Best offseason in the division - Of the three division contenders, only the Bengals got better in the offseason. The Steelers lost a Hall of Fame defensive coordinator, one of if not their best pass rushers retired unexpectedly (Jason Worilds), three long time defensive cornerstones retired (Troy Palumalu, Brett Kiesel, Ike Taylor), their Pro Bowl center is out half if not the entire season, their franchise running back is missing the first two games and their big redzone target is serving a four game suspension to start the season. The Ravens traded away their best defensive lineman (Haloti Ngata), let their deep threat (Torrey Smith) and 2x Pro Bowl tight end leave via free agency and their offensive coordinator left for the Denver head coaching job. The Bengals on the other hand let Terrance Newman leave via free agency because their 2013 first round pick (Dre Kirkpatrick) was ready for the starting position. They brought back every other starter, signed Michael Johnson and get Marvin Jones, Tyler Eifert, Geno Atkins and Vontaze Burfict (at some point) back and healthy.
Reasons they may not win the division:
Bad Dalton - Despite the impressive wins (40) and four playoff appearances, I, along with many Bengals fans, still have some real concerns with Dalton. No quarterback in the NFL has a greater disparity between his good days and bad days and Dalton's playoff performances are of great concern - now 0-4, 55.7% completion, 873 yards, 1 TD and 6 INTs and 3 fumbles. Making the playoffs is one thing, but eventually, you have to win.
Marvin Lewis - Lewis deserves credit for what he has done to restore this franchise, but that does not hide the fact that he is now 0-6 in the playoffs and has been thoroughly outcoached in those games. The worst thing you can say about a coach is that his team looked unprepared, but in their playoff games (and other big games for that matter), Lewis's teams have looked incredibly unprepared and overwhelmed by the situation (as has Lewis).
Schedule - While schedule difficulty means little before the season, the based on winning percentages in 2014, the Bengals have the second toughest schedule in the NFL, meaning winning the division will not be easy.
This is not a "Homer" pick. This is a pick based on talent and weaknesses. The Bengals are the most talented and deepest team in this division, probably in the AFC and arguably in the NFL. They have the most balance (top 10 offense and defense) and the least amount of weaknesses. The key to how far this team goes is Andy Dalton. If Dalton plays good football and limits his turnovers, this is a legitimate Super Bowl contender. If he continues to turn the ball over and falter in big games, the Bengals could miss the playoffs.
2) Pittsburgh Steelers
2015 Prediction: 10-6
2014 Record: 11-5, 1st Place
Confidence in Pick: 50%
How they win the division:
Ben Roethlisberger - Today's NFL is quarterback driven and the Steelers have the best quarterback in the division, and as a result, they are a legit contender for the division title. Like him or not, the guy wins (career .670 winning percentage) and can never be counted out. The most impressive part about Roethlisberger - and what makes him so dangerous - is his ability to extend a play and kill teams when it looks like they have him stopped. There is not a QB in the league that extends plays as well as Roethlisberger or makes more out of broken plays. As long as he stays healthy (a big if with the way he plays and the hits he takes), the Steelers will have a shot at the division and a deep run in the playoffs.
Explosive offense - In my opinion, even at 5'10" 186 lbs, Antonio is the best receiver in the game right now - or at least the most difficult to cover. He is not your average No. 1 receiver, but his speed and elusiveness creates headaches for defenses and he is ability is a perfect match for Roethlisberger when Ben extends a play. Le'Veon Bell is arguably the best all-around running back in the game right now and Martavius Bryant proved his value as a redzone target in 2014. Lastly, the Steelers have the most underrated tight end in the league, Heath Miller, and probably the most complete tight end. Once Bryant and Bell return from their respective suspensions, this will be a top five offense.
Winning culture - The Steelers are one of those teams that is just never out of a game or the division race. The organization has been well run for the past 40 years and has bread a culture of winning that seems to spill over on to the field on Sundays.
Why they won't win the division:
Defense - When you think of the Steelers you think of Dick LeBeau and defense. Well, not this year. The Steelers let their Hall of Fame defensive coordinator go, one of, if not their best pass rushers retired unexpectedly (Jason Worilds) and three long time defensive cornerstones retired (Troy Polumalu, Brett Kiesel, Ike Taylor). While the play of Polumalu, Keisel and Taylor had dropped over the past few years, these are still three difficult players to replace - from a football and leadership standpoint. As a result, the Steelers will have at least four new starters in 2015 to go along with their rookie defensive coordinator. The Steelers offense is championship caliber, but the question with this team will be how far will this defense allow the offense to carry them?
Injuries/suspensions - The loss of Markice Pouncey is not a death blow, but he is a Pro Bowl center and arguably the best center in the league at this point, so his loss will affect the offense, the question will just be how much. If the line struggles, Ben may not have time to find his plethora of weapons and Bell may not have the running room he did in 2014. Speaking of Bell, he and Bryant are serving two and four game suspensions respectively and that will athe Steelers offense. If the Steelers struggle in those first four games, losing two or three, that may be a hole they cannot climb out of.
I have a tough time predicting where the Steelers season will go because their offense should be so good, but their defense may be equally as bad, which means it boils down to how far can the offense carry the team? I think they can carry them to 10 wins and a playoff birth, but I don't think they can carry them to a division title or a Super Bowl run.
3) Baltimore Ravens
2015 Prediction: 9-7
2014 Record: 10-6, 3rd Place
Confidence in Pick: 40%
How they win the division:
Defense - Though the Ravens have lost a lot on the defensive side of the ball - at least name wise - over the last few offseasons, they have done a good job of replacing talent. Timmy Jernigan showed enough in Haloti Ngata's absence in 2014 that the ravens felt comfortable trading the Pro Bowl defensive lineman and though Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil are on the backside of their careers, they are still studs and are one of the reasons the Ravens still possess one of the better front sevens in the NFL.
Coach - I believe John Harbaugh's teams often play down to their competition and lose games - or nearly lose games - they shouldn't lose, but he has a good track record of getting into the playoffs, and once there, his teams have performed well and I think it is a toss up between Harbaugh and Mike Tomlin as to the best coach in the division.
Why they won't win the division:
Joe Flacco - I can hear the Ravens fans screaming already, but Flacco had his best individual season last year and his team finished 3rd and barely made the playoffs. Flacco gambled big time in 2012 with his contract and won...big time. But let's look at the facts, Flacco has had one very good regular season in his seven year career, and while that was last year, that was with Gary Kubiak running the offense. Kubiak is now in Denver and Flacco will be operating under his third offensive coordinator in as many years and the question remains, who is the real Joe Flacco? The guy that threw for 27 touchdowns, just 12 interceptions and nearly 4,000 yards under Kubiak? Or the guy that averaged under 3,600 yards, 20 touchdowns and 13 interceptions in a pass happy league? If it is the former, the Ravens could win the division and make a deep run. If it is the latter, the Ravens may not make the playoffs.
Lack of offensive weapons - Torrey Smith is gone. Steve Smith is 36. Owen Daniels and Dennis Pitta are gone. Smith has been replaced by a younger and more raw version of himself (Breshard Perriman) who has elite speed but issues with drops and has a knee that will keep him out at the start of the season. Daniels and Pitta have been replaced with a talented but inexperienced tight end (Maxx Williams) and Justin Forsett, though fresh off his best season of his career, has never had a season anywhere close to that sort of productivity and is approaching the dreaded 30 year old mark. The Ravens have the "potential" to have a good offense if everyone develops quickly, but there are a lot of question marks at the skill positions.
Penchant for playing down to the level of their competition - As I mentioned above - and I am sure many Ravens fans will attest to - for whatever reason, this team under Flacco and Harbaugh have struggled against teams they have no business struggling against. It seems like once or twice a year you can count on the Ravens losing - or nearly losing - a game they should easily win, and as tight as this division is, that one game may be the difference between winning the division and missing the playoffs. In 2014 it was a 25-13 loss in Week 16 to the Texans and a near loss in Week 17 at home to a Cleveland Browns team that might as well have been starting me at quarterback - a loss that would have left them out of the playoffs. In 2013 it was a loss to the Bills and a near loss to the Vikings. In 2015, the Ravens cannot afford to lose any of those "easy" games on their schedule...because their won't be many.
As always, the Ravens are a hot pick in the AFC North, but I am not buying it. Despite Flacco's best season last year, the Ravens still finished third in the division. In fact, the Ravens have finished behind the Bengals and Steelers the last two seasons and are 1-3 against the Bengals over the last two seasons - with the only win coming in overtime. With the AFC North playing a more difficult schedule in 2015, I only see two teams making the playoffs and I believe the Ravens will be the odd team out.
4) Cleveland Browns
2015 Prediction: 3-13
2014 Record: 7-9, 4th Place
Confidence in Pick: 60%
How they win the division:
Getting a dominant performance from their defense, particularly the secondary, and a small miracle - The Browns pass defense was a top 10 unit in 2014 and they added Tramon Williams and get Tashaun Gipson back healthy. In my opinion, this is the best secondary in the NFL. If the secondary plays lights outs, Danny Shelton turns the run defense from a sieve to a top 10 unit, the Bengals, Ravens and Steelers all suffer some significant injuries and the offense performs some sort of miracle, then maybe the Browns can compete for the division. Without all of the above happening, the Browns don't stand a chance in this division.
Why they won't win the division:
Quarterback situation - The Johnny Manziel era couldn't have gone worse last year - on or off the field - however, I don't see how bringing in Josh McCown helps much in the short or long term. I believe McCown now becomes the 23rd quarterback to start a game for the Browns since rejoining the league in 1999, and like the 22 before him, I don't see him as a long term answer. In a league built on quarterbacks, the Browns are at a disadvantage.
Manziel Circus - Here is my quote from my 2014 AFC North preview: "[i]n 5 years from now, Manziel will either be a star or out of the league and I don't believe there is much in between. Put me in the camp that doesn't think the Manziel pick will pan out well and his inability to stay out of the limelight for partying will be a problem, first as the backup, but second, it will derail his ability to be a good NFL quarterback. Put aside the Browns track record of drafting quarterbacks and just focus on the fact that Manziel's immaturity combined with his fondness of playing by the seat of his pants and taking unnecessary hits at 6'0" (with 1.5" cleats on) and 210 lbs (soaking wet and with his equipment on) is a recipe for failure. Name a successful NFL quarterback who is well known for partying. Go ahead, I will wait. Hell, even Joe Namath has said he wouldn't be able to succeed in today's NFL partying the way he did. Call me crazy, but I don't see a small quarterback with concerns about maturity, accuracy, leadership and dedication to be a franchise quarterback." Sounds pretty accurate. Manziel went to rehab in the offseason and from all accounts, he sounds like a more dedicated player and better teammate and good for him, I am not going to kick a man when he is down and if he has an addiction problem, I certainly hope he gets it under control. That being said, rehab or no rehab, he still attracts a circus and until I see him stay out of the party scene for an extended period of time and play well, I believe he is still a distraction.
Lack of Play-Makers/Loss of Josh Gordon - With Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron gone and the coaching staff still trying to figure out who their No. 1 running back will be, who is going to make plays for this team and scare a defense? They don't have a No. 1 receiver - Dwayne Bowe is not a No. 1 - and they may not even have a guy that would be a No. 2 receiver on most teams. Regardless of who the quarterback is, this team is going to struggle to score points.
Management - I don't trust the vision, judgment, talent evaluation, etc. of this franchise. The Browns have had more coaches and quarterbacks in the last 16 seasons than the Duggars have children.
Coach - At 7-9, the Browns were one of the surprises of the NFL in 2014 before collapsing down the stretch. While Mike Pettine certainly does not have a roster to win with, he doesn't seem to have control over the locker room or management. To me, he seems like a puppet for management and is a sitting duck coach.
The Browns defense should be good enough that they will be no push over in 2015 and will beat some good teams, I can't see this team winning more than four or five games and could see them winning as few as two. A second year coach, journeyman quarterback and a lack of offensive firepower in the best division in football spells 4th place finish. There are still too many question marks and unknowns to predict anything better.
Final division analysis:
The AFC North may not possess the best team in any one particular area, but as a whole, it is the best and deepest division in football and contains three playoff contenders, and possibly two or three Super Bowl contenders. I see this being a close division all year long with the top two teams making the playoffs.