After next Sunday, the 2015 season will officially be in the books, and we'll be looking at a long offseason, pondering the results of various scenarios that may unfold in the coming months.
In the months ahead, there will be free agency and the NFL draft, offseason training activities, minicamp and eventually, the 2016 preseason. That's all between two to eight months ahead, so it may seem too early to predict what the future may hold for the Bengals and the rest of the AFC North in 2016. So take everything I say here with an extreme grain of salt as I look ahead to what 2016 may hold for the Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers.
In 2015, every team in the AFC North had quarterback injuries, something that could have been a horrible, comical farce had we not lived out the harsh reality of what that meant to the Bengals. So, before free agency and the draft, where does each team stand and what do we have to look forward to from the AFC North in 2016?
After continual quarterback injuries starting in Week 1 and enduring on through Week 17, Browns fan once again had to suffer through an awful season of lost promise. They were near the bottom of the league in almost every statistic, most notably their porous rush defense. Seven months from now, we may very well look back and say that the hiring of Hue Jackson was their best move. Jackson brings a creative fire to an offense that's been lacking in a big way. It'll be interesting to see who the Browns target to take over at quarterback, but I'm expecting some solid growth from the Browns in their first two years under Jackson, that is, as long as they give him two years.
Injuries to Joe Flacco and Justin Forsett made a bad season for the Ravens even worse. But those injuries weren't what did Baltimore in. This was simply a very, very off year for the typically annual playoff contenders. There were a lot of close losses, indicating that the Ravens couldn't finish off their opponents. Their 5-11 record was, if anything, deceiving. The team managed the 8th best overall defense, and their passing attack was ranked 8th as well. In fact, all but two of their losses this season were by less than eight points, meaning one-score games.
The Steelers had arguably the most talented roster at full health in 2015. Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, they were dealt a tough hand of injuries to key players. In the playoff game, the team was working without their starting running back, without the running back who replaced their starting running back, and at times, a hobbled Ben Roethlisberger. The fact that Roethlisberger missed so much time this season and that DeAngelo Williams was asked to hold down the fort just with the running game, speaks to how much depth the Steelers' offense has. Combine that with a solid rush defense and the Steelers had a recipe to win a lot of games. If healthy, the Steelers would have been my favorite to represent the AFC in this year's Super Bowl. In 2016, I think they get another shot at that.
The Bengals. Oh, the Bengals. An immensely promising season was derailed when Andy Dalton was injured in Cincinnati's second meeting against the Steelers. AJ McCarron showed moxie, but there's only so much you can ask from a first-year quarterback. The Bengals lost in heart-breaking fashion in the playoffs to the Steelers, but they'll be back in 2016. Like the Steelers, health is the key to this team. The talent is incredible, and there will be interesting storylines this offseason about how to best utilize that talent going forward. The draft will likely be all about depth, as there really aren't too many weak spots on this team.
2015 was a rough year. We all witnessed that. Going forward to next year, health is most certainly the biggest factor. The Browns will be in a rebuilding year (as per usual), and the Ravens will need to remember how to win close games. 2016 very well could come down to the Bengals and Steelers winning the division, just like it did in 2015. Both teams are replete with talent at almost every position. Ironically enough, it's the pass defense for both teams that seems to be the most in need of depth. We'll see how each team addresses that need in the coming months. For now, I'm going to put the Steelers at an early advantage for 2016.
Pittsburgh is just too dangerous with all of their starting players healthy. That's not to say that the Bengals aren't, but history doesn't lie. And history has a vile trend of biting the Bengals in their backsides. I'd bet on another big year for the Bengals and Steelers and maybe even a rematch at some point in the next year's postseason.