Predicting a team which has averaged 10.4 wins per season for the past five years to go 11-5 is one of the more conservative approaches one could take, and it's exactly what Pro Football Focus has done this offseason, ranking the Bengals as the fourth-best team in the AFC.
4. Cincinnati Bengals (11-5)
The Bengals have spent each of the last four years hovering between 10 and 12 wins, and this year should be no different. They lost a few veteran players over the offseason, but for the most part, they were either underperforming, or defensive backs over the age of 30. The biggest concern is the lack of depth at wide receiver, but it helps when they have A.J. Green and tight end Tyler Eifert, who were both among the top four players at their respective positions. At the positions where they lost players, they have high draft picks in waiting whom they have groomed to take over. While we don't know if those players will live up to expectations, the Bengals have enough going right for them to expect at least another trip to the playoffs.
Unsurprisingly, the Steelers and Patriots topped PFF's list of the best AFC teams, while surprisingly, the Raiders snuck ahead of Cincinnati. The Bengals got jobbed by being listed as the fourth-best team in the AFC; here's why.
The criteria and system in which many individuals and sites use to predict teams' future success has always been a mystery to me. Year in and year out, people believe the Steelers will be the best team in the AFC. Make no mistake, the Steelers are a great team. They haven't had a losing season in 12 years. But predicting Pittsburgh to go 13-3 simply because in theory, they're amazing when healthy doesn't make sense.
When was the last time the Steelers were fully healthy? If there's one thing the Steelers are not, it's healthy. So to me, taking the "in theory" approach when it comes to Pittsburgh just needs to get thrown away. If things ever happened "in theory," the Bengals--who have been down Andy Dalton, Jeremy Hill, A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert, Clint Boling, Geno Atkins, Vontaze Burfict, Kevin Huber and many other key players in playoff games--would've likely won a playoff game by now. But the fact of the matter is that AFC North teams beat each other up. Neither Pittsburgh nor Cincinnati has managed to stay healthy over the past three seasons. If either team had been able to stay healthy in 2013, 2014 or 2015, both teams would've been competitive enough to make a potential Super Bowl run; there's no doubt in my mind.
The last time a team in the AFC North was able to stay fully healthy occurred in 2012, when the Ravens won the Super Bowl. So while everyone knows AFC North teams are Super Bowl contenders when healthy, people still need to consider that these teams won't be able to stay fully healthy for a 16-game season. The battle for the AFC North crown will be much tougher than Pro Football Focus seems to consider; the Steelers lost three divisional games alone last season.
Most of what's been said is common knowledge to fans of the AFC North, so let's move on to the more surprising PFF prediction, which is of course that the Oakland Raiders will go 11-5 in 2016. Oakland is quickly becoming one of the most overhyped teams in football, but for good reason. The team has excellent personnel and an exciting young quarterback-receiver duo, just as the Bengals had during the beginning of Andy Dalton and A.J. Green's respective careers.
But is anyone really buying that the Raiders will be better than the Bengals next season, let alone an 11-5 team? The last time the Raiders had a winning record was in 2002, and now they'll suddenly go 11-5? Oakland played well last season, and the team made some offseason progress, but there are still plenty of weaknesses on the Raiders' roster.
From Week 9 on, Derek Carr only posted a 100+ passer rating in one game, which came against the Titans. Oakland's running back corps is one of the worst in football. The Raiders have pieced together an offensive line that looks great on paper, but Donald Penn is getting older and Gabe Jackson will need to transition from left guard to right guard, which is a more difficult transition than people make it out to be. Additionally, Austin Howard is still a weak link on the offensive line, which people seem to forget. Oakland also has two weak links on the defensive line and a weak link or two in the linebacking corps ("weak links" are worse than just below-average starters; they're bad starters). Finally, none of the team's four starting defensive backs played for Oakland in 2015, which indicates that there will be a significant learning curve for the secondary. The Raiders might be good next season (which I'm not necessarily buying), but assuming they'll go 11-5, let alone win the AFC West, is a bolder prediction than most seem to think. I love what the Raiders did in the offseason, but it takes more than a year for a team that has been a perennial loser to transition into an 11-win team.
This has turned into a more Raiders-centric blog post than I had planned on making it, but the fact that PFF, a site that usually hits the nail on the head with this sort of thing, seemed to be so off on this really got under my skin. The Bengals weren't the only team who got jobbed; the Colts and Chargers, who have two of the AFC's top five quarterbacks, were predicted to win six games apiece. Meanwhile, the Texans, Ravens, Bills, Jaguars and Jets were all predicted to outperform Andrew Luck and Philip Rivers' respective squads. Where each team will finish next season is obviously a subjective topic, but that's just how I see things. Here's a look at how I see things shaking up in 2016.
Ultimately, I think the three best AFC teams, in alphabetical order, are the Bengals, Patriots and Steelers. I think the Colts will be close behind, barring another injury to Luck. From there, it's anyone's game. The Bengals and Steelers play in the AFC North, so they'll both get beat up (both by each other, the Ravens and the Browns). It's hard to imagine either of the two teams winning 13 or more games for that exact reason, but it's hard to see either team winning less than 10. The 2016 season is getting closer and closer, and I'm as excited as ever. This season should be a fun one.