In the past years it seems like the AFC North has been a fight among three teams: the Steelers, Ravens, and Bengals. Of course, the Browns are “there” but really haven’t made an impact since 2007. It’s always been a division built with hatred among the four squads and you have some very competitive games among at least three out of the four teams.
This year, there seems to be a vibe that the AFC North isn’t really going to be as fun or exciting to watch. The holes of the teams are becoming gaping. You have issues with certain players in Pittsburgh, a team that is starting to clean the slate in Baltimore, a team that needs to clean the slate in Cincinnati, and a team that is just trying to find anything go their way in Cleveland. And a debate can be made that the AFC North may be one of the worst divisions in all of football in 2018. So we will see how things line up for this group. But who knows what will happen.
Onto the preview.
(1) PITTSBURGH STEELERS
LAST SEASON: 13-3, 1ST PLACE; LOST TO JACKSONVILLE IN AFC DIVISIONAL PLAYOFF
KEY ADDITIONS: LB-Jonathan Bostic (FA-Indianapolis), S-Morgan Burnett (FA-Green Bay), S-Terrell Edmunds (Draft-Virginia Tech), QB-Mason Rudolph (Draft-Oklahoma State), T-Chuks Okorafor (Draft-Western Michigan), WR-James Washington (Draft-Oklahoma State)
KEY LOSSES: T-Chris Hubbard (FA-Cleveland), WR-Martavis Bryant (Trade-Oakland), S-Mike Mitchell (FA), CB-William Gay (FA-New York Giants)
The Steelers have that feel of a house of cards franchise. Yes, I know they have been one of NFL’s staples for years and have a front office second to none. I get it. However, Pittsburgh has a running back who is unhappy and has threatened to hold out from time to time and no telling what mindset he is in. The Steelers franchise quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger has been playing the “maybe, maybe not” game of retiring. However, he said he would come back after the loss in the playoff to Jacksonville, but the Steelers wasted no time in drafting quarterback, which has made him unhappy. The defense is not going to be mistaken for the Steel Curtain in the 70’s or even the ones in the 90’s with Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene, and Rod Woodson, or even the recent ones of seeing James Farrior, Troy Polamalu, Casey Hampton and others. Yes, the stats looked nice (top 10 against the pass) and 10th in yards allowed, but the Steelers were sliced up by the Jags running game of Leonard Fournette & TJ Yeldon while Blake Bortles played like a top-notch quarterback on them. Now it seems like there are questions abound this year of how well the Steelers can be as they had hiccups despite being a 13-3 squad. And with ALL OF THIS said, the Steelers are still one of the most talented squads in the NFL with having a running back in Le’Veon Bell when on his game, he is the best in the league. They have the best WR in the game in Antonio Brown despite all his flashiness and swagger and Roethlisberger has done everything and seen everything. Given that the AFC North may be in a bit of a rebuild with the other squads while they see two NFL powers come to the Steel City in 2018 (Falcons & Patriots), they could have another great record and quite possibly take the top seed. It will all depend if the defense gets more consistent. KEY QUESTION: If the Steelers start to bicker like they had last year, could it call come crashing down on them? Well, yes and I think regardless, the window for this run for Pittsburgh is starting to shrink so it is somewhat of a now or never. But that said, I don’t see Pittsburgh, even if they have a crash, fall out of the top spot in the division. They are too talented and too good while the others have major issues around. MY PREDICTION: 12-4. Pittsburgh has a good home schedule and can still run the table in the AFC North. Key games at Jacksonville and New Orleans will test them though.
(2) CINCINNATI BENGALS
LAST SEASON: 7-9, 3RD PLACE
KEY ADDITIONS: QB-Matt Barkley (FA-Arizona), T-Cordy Glenn (Trade-Buffalo), T-Bobby Hart (FA-New York Giants), DT-Chris Baker (FA-Tampa Bay), LB-Preston Brown (FA-Buffalo), C-Billy Price (Draft-Ohio State), S-Jessie Bates (Draft-Wake Forest), LB-Malik Jefferson (Draft-Texas), DE-Sam Hubbard (Draft-Ohio State)
KEY LOSSES: QB-AJ McCarron (QB-Buffalo), RB-Jeremy Hill (FA-New England), T-Andre Smith (FA-Arizona), DE-Chris Smith (FA-Cleveland), LB-Kevin Minter (FA-New York Jets), CB-Adam Jones (FA)
Cincinnati in general has been that team that is just flat and plain in the NFL. They aren’t great to compete for a Super Bowl. They aren’t exciting or flashy to even be super-competitive in the AFC. But they aren’t terrible like we remember in the 90’s when they were the Bungles and have the likes of David Klingler, Akili Smith, and others crashing on them. And the players like Andy Dalton, is not regarded as being a great quarterback or a guy to lead them to the promised land (though if you’re a Bills fan last year, he led the Bills to the promised land…), but he isn’t a guy that will keep the Bengals from crashing and burning. Coach Marvin Lewis, the same thing. After surprising many after the season ended, Lewis stayed on, which many feel the Bengals will keep the status quo of being not good but not terrible. And that’s the problem. At some point, the Bengals will have to make some tough decisions and that is I think what the management has been afraid of. Dalton at this point is not an answer. Lewis has coached teams that have had misfits and malcontents on the squad and still has some that is more of a headache than a help. The team is “okay” enough to win games, especially against the lesser teams especially at home, but facing off against the likes of the Falcons, Saints, Chargers, and Steelers, I think they will be easily overmatched and some of those road games with talent that is on their level or slightly better, they will not be able to take those games. So I think while the Bengals have kept the status quo going for the last few years, I think the fall is going to happen soon and it may start this year. KEY QUESTION: Do the Bengals consider drafting a quarterback in the first round next year? I think so. While Andy Dalton hasn’t done anything overly wrong in Cincinnati, he isn’t that guy that can just take over a game. The Bengals need that especially with AJ Green climbing north of 30 now. MY PREDICTION: 6-10. Cincinnati may fight and have pieces to do it, but really will be overmatched in a lot of areas.
(3) BALTIMORE RAVENS
LAST SEASON: 9-7, 2ND PLACE
KEY ADDITIONS: QB-Robert Griffin, III (FA), WR-Michael Crabtree (FA-Oakland), WR-John Brown (FA-Arizona), WR-Willie Snead (FA-New Orleans), QB-Lamar Jackson (Draft-Louisville), TE-Hayden Hurst (Draft-South Carolina), T-Orlando Brown (Draft-Oklahoma)
KEY LOSSES: RB-Danny Woodhead (retired), RB-Terrance West (FA-New Orleans), WR-Mike Wallace (FA-Philadelphia), WR-Jeremy Maclin (FA), TE-Benjamin Watson (FA-New Orleans), G-Ryan Jensen (FA-Tampa Bay), T-Austin Howard (FA-Indianapolis), G-Luke Bowanko (FA-New England)
The writing is on the wall in Baltimore, notably for Joe Flacco. The days of him being the franchise guy is coming to a close after the Ravens selected Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson, who has been impressing the coaches in Baltimore. And really, you just have a sense of a rebuild coming there with the push for a youth movement. While the defense is decent, it is a far cry when Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, and others were there dominating the field and having those classic duels with the Steelers. CJ Mosley is a great linebacker and probably underrated at his spot while Terrell Suggs has been an underappreciated player throughout his career and the defense is fine, but it doesn’t have that mystique they had when Lewis was there. They do have some great youngsters like Marlon Humphrey, Matt Judon (keep an eye on him), and Tony Jefferson so the defense will develop, but maybe one year away. On the offensive side, it is still a major work in progress with Baltimore especially of the impending switch from Flacco to Jackson. The running game will be their butter, but Alex Collins needs to be that guy the Ravens can rely on to take pressure off of Flacco or Jackson. KEY QUESTION: When does Lamar Jackson start? If Flacco gets injured, underachieves, or the Ravens are eliminated and that Week 17 game is more of a “tryout” for next year. I think Baltimore will give Flacco a last stand before handing it over to Jackson. MY PREDICTION: 6-10 Baltimore’s defense will win them games, but I think the offense, especially the passing game, is non-existent.
(4) CLEVELAND BROWNS
LAST SEASON: 0-16, 4TH PLACE
KEY ADDITIONS: QB-Tyrod Taylor (Trade-Buffalo), QB-Drew Stanton (FA-Arizona), RB-Carlos Hyde (FA-San Francisco), WR-Jarvis Landry (Trade-Miami), WR-Jeff Janis (FA-Green Bay), TE-Darren Fells (FA-Detroit), T-Chris Hubbard (FA-Pittsburgh), T-Greg Robinson (FA-Detroit), DE-Chris Smith (FA-Cincinnati), LB-Mychal Kendricks (FA-Philadelphia), CB-TJ Carrie (FA-Oakland), S-Damarious Randall (Trade-Green Bay), CB-EJ Gaines (FA-Buffalo), CB-Terrance Mitchell (FA-Kansas City), P-Justin Vogel (Waivers-Green Bay), QB-Baker Mayfield (Draft-Oklahoma), RB-Nick Chubb (Draft-Georgia), CB-Denzel Ward (Draft-Ohio State), DE-Chad Thomas (Draft-Miami), G-Austin Corbett (Draft-Nevada)
KEY LOSSES: QB-DeShone Kizer (Trade-Green Bay), RB-Isaiah Crowell (FA-New York Jets), G-Marcus Martin (FA-Dallas), LB-Josh Keyes (FA-Houston), DT-Danny Shelton (Trade-New England), CB-Jason McCourty (Trade-New England), QB-Cody Kessler (Trade-Jacksonville), QB-Kevin Hogan (Trade-Washington), CB-Jamar Taylor (Trade-Arizona), WR-Corey Coleman (Trade-Buffalo), T-Joe Thomas (Retired)
Mark my words: the Browns will win GAMES. Key word: GAMES. Last year the talent level while still down, was better than what an 0-16 team has (I know you really can’t compare teams that are 0-16 but only 2 have done it-the 08 Lions who were incredibly bad and the Browns). People blasted the Mayfield pick at #1, but honestly, I think Mayfield fits perfect for a team like Cleveland. Yes, he’s brash. He’s arrogant, and he does let his emotions get the best of him (which is a negative). But being a quarterback, you need to have that arrogance to help you. And two things that I think people forget on Mayfield in college: the guy busted his butt to make the teams at Texas Tech and Oklahoma; and he also is one tough player, physically and mentally. If he starts week 1, great. But I think he is the right guy for the job in Cleveland, who has struck out time after time on quarterbacks ever since they drafted Tim Couch. That said, the team is still patchwork and with a coach who is in way over his head in Hue Jackson. His play-calling I thought really doomed Cleveland in games they should have won and his personality doesn’t really mesh well with the team. They added a lot of pieces in the off-season notably Jarvis Landry to give Mayfield (or Tyrod Taylor) a target and a jolt to the running game in Carlos Hyde and Nick Chubb, but the Browns lose their tackle Joe Thomas to retirement so that will sting as he also provided leadership. The bottom line on Cleveland is, they are still going to take their licks, but with the feel that Baltimore and Cincinnati being down and they get the Jets at home, they could win those games as they are feasible. KEY QUESTION: What would it take for Hue Jackson to get fired? If Cleveland starts 0-4 and they lose that game to the Jets at home. There are people who can make it as a head coach in the NFL and there are people who can’t. Jackson has proven he can’t because that team last year had enough talent to win at least 4-5 games. Instead he is a measly 1-31 so far in his career. Nobody survives that unless you have a front office who has no idea what they are doing (which may explain why the Browns are the joke of the NFL for the last few seasons). MY PREDICTION: 5-11. Again, Cleveland will win games, but they will have that monkey on their backs early. I think it may be if Cleveland parts with Hue Jackson in the season that things will get going for them.
-Fan in the Obstructed Seat