Winning back-to-back division titles is no easy feat for any NFL club. With the exception of the AFC East, virtually every NFL division seems to have a competitive race for the division title each season. And because the AFC North may well be the NFL's most competitive division, it's no surprise that NFL analysts think the Bengals will need to claw their way to the top if they intend on delivering back-to-back division titles. That being said, suggesting that Cincinnati may be facing an uphill battle may be a bit too extreme.
In an intriguing piece, NFL.com's Gil Brandt listed the Cincinnati Bengals as the NFL's most vulnerable 2015 division winner, naming the Pittsburgh Steelers as Cincinnati's biggest threat to repeating a division champtionship.
This might be a bit of a surprise, since the Bengals won 12 games last year, including 10 of their first 12. And yes, they'll get quarterback Andy Dalton, who missed the last four games (including a wild-card loss to the Steelers) of the 2015 season due to a fractured thumb, back healthy. But they also lost quality receivers in Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones to free agency and -- perhaps even more importantly -- will have to replace former offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, now the Browns' head coach. Jackson was a very innovative and creative mind in Cincy, and he did a very good job. Thus, I expect this team to take a step back. But my pessimism regarding the Bengals' ability to hold on to the division has less to do with them and more to do with my confidence in Pittsburgh.
The bottom line is, the Steelers have a very imposing set of triplets in quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, running back Le'Veon Bell and receiver Antonio Brown. When all three are healthy, this is easily the best team in the division. Of course, injuries to Big Ben and Brown in 2015 and Bell in 2014 and 2015 are exactly what have stopped Pittsburgh. I cannot believe that the Steelers will be so unlucky as to be sabotaged by the injury bug for a third year in a row. And so I am confident we'll see a new AFC North champ in 2016.
Remedying the losses of Jones, Sanu and Jackson, as well as countless defensive assistants and five defensive starters, will certainly be a daunting task for the Bengals. But throughout Andy Dalton's tenure, Cincinnati has proven that it can contend in the AFC North on a yearly basis, no matter the circumstances.
2014 may have been the best example of this, when the Bengals made a playoff appearance sans several key contributors. Sure, the Bengals were unable to defend their title, but they proved that coaching and roster turnovers aren't big enough obstacles to prevent Cincinnati from a playoff appearance. I don't want to get into hypotheticals, but I think the Bengals would've been able to better compete for the division title in 2014 had they been able to stay healthy. Ultimately, they didn't defend the title, so that's that.
By no means are the Bengals locks, or even favorites, to repeat as AFC North champions, but I don't think they're the most vulnerable 2015 division champion. In fact, I'd argue that the Redskins, Cardinals, Vikings, Texans and Broncos are all more vulnerable than Cincinnati.
While I totally agree that Pittsburgh, and even Baltimore, can compete for the division, I'm still just as convinced that the Bengals will win, at the very minimum, 9 or 10 games, barring an absolute meltdown. That could easily become 11 or 12 wins if the Bengals, like they've done in the past, can win the winnable games on their schedule.
I'm not as sold on the Redskins as most NFL experts seem to be. Washington barely escaped as NFC East champions last season, and that was without Tony Romo starting for the Cowboys. I'm not guaranteeing Dallas will win the division, or even break .500, but I think that Romo's presence alone is enough to turn the tides in the NFC East. To me, the NFC East is wide open, and all four teams are capable of coming out of the season with a division title.
The Cardinals were fantastic in 2015, and they deserve every ounce of respect they're currently getting. But the Seahawks, who lost four games by less than seven points last season, are bigger threats to the Cardinals than the Steelers are to the Bengals. Carson Palmer is 36, and I don't buy him having as great of a season in 2016 as he had in 2015. Russell Wilson has shown massive signs of improvement in each of his NFL seasons, and I fully expect him to push Seattle past Arizona next season. The Rams, who finished 7-9 with shaky quarterback play all season long, could also present a challenge for Arizona, even if it's just in head-to-head matchups.
I have no idea why the Vikings weren't higher on Brandt's list. Adrian Peterson can only carry his team for so long, and even if he repeats his 2015 success, I can't see the Vikings besting the Packers. It took a Week 17 head-to-head contest to decide the NFC North champion last season, and the Packers will welcome back Jordy Nelson in 2016. Aaron Rodgers is still Aaron Rodgers, and now he has his No. 1 weapon back. If Eddie Lacy shows any signs of improvement after working out with P90X creator Tony Horton, that'll help, too.
Like the NFC East, the AFC South is wide open, and I'm not even buying the Texans being the best team in the division. Though they have J.J. Watt and one of the league's most expensive quarterbacks, I'm not convinced they have the best roster in the division, not to mention Brock Osweiler may be the worst quarterback in the division.
Finally, I'm not sold on the Broncos either. They may have a solid roster, but like the Texans, they might have the worst quarterback in their division. I could see the Chiefs, Raiders or even Chargers winning the division. Kansas City was the league's hottest team down the stretch last season, and that was without Jamaal Charles. The Raiders' flashy spending, coupled with anticipated progression from Derek Carr and Khalil Mack, makes the Raiders a more exciting and competitive team. And the Chargers, who have the division's best quarterback, should finally be healthy again. Let's not forget that the team was down essentially an entire offensive line, as well as Keenan Allen last year. Philip Rivers was on pace to break NFL single-season passing records before the injury bug decimated San Diego's roster.
I can understand why Brandt thinks the Bengals are vulnerable. But when you consider how wide open many NFL divisions truly are, coupled with the fact that Cincinnati has been able to contend despite losing players and coaches in years past, there's no reason the Bengals should be on top of this list.
Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and perhaps even Baltimore could easily be NFL powerhouses next season, and the race for the AFC North crown will surely be competitive and exciting. But tabbing the Bengals as the league's most vulnerable division winner, though somewhat understandable, is drastic. Hopefully the Bengals will prove Brandt wrong in 2016 and repeat as AFC North champions for the first time since the Ravens won back-to-back titles in 2011 and 2012.