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AFC North Team Previews and Predictions

Matt BarbatoCorrespondent IJune 18, 2016

AFC North Team Previews and Predictions

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    The AFC North was one of the toughest divisions in football last season. The Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals all won more than nine games and clinched playoff berths. The division was characterized by tenacious defense as all four members of the division were in the top ten in overall defense a year ago.

    Last season the Ravens went undefeated within the division and clinched the division title, but how will things play out this year?

    Can the Ravens find a number-one threat at wide receiver?

    Will the Steelers survive without running back Rashard Mendenhall?

    Can Andy Dalton and A.J. Green repeat their outstanding rookie campaigns?

    Will newcomers Trent Richardson and Brandon Weeden finally get the Browns back into relevancy?

    All these questions and more will be answered in the AFC North division preview.

Baltimore Ravens

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    To begin the breakdown of the AFC North, we will start with the reigning division champions. Last year, the Ravens finished 12-4, and were a Lee Evans dropped touchdown away from going to the Super Bowl. Can Ray Lewis and Ed Reed get one last shot at a Super Bowl this season?

    Offense: The Ravens' offense is led by do it all running back Ray Rice. Rice rushed for more than 1,300 yards last season and also earned more than 700 receiving yards. Despite Rice's outlandish numbers, quarterback Joe Flacco was just average. Although he threw for more than 3,600 yards, he only threw 20 touchdowns and was intercepted 12 times.

    The receiving core is thin, but Torrey Smith could emerge as a gem for the Ravens' air attack. With Anquan Boldin regressing, Smith will have his opportunity to become the Ravens' primary target.

    The offensive line is decent but did allow Flacco to get sacked 31 times. A stronger season from Flacco could be the key to the Ravens getting to the Super Bowl.

    Defense: The Ravens' defense was once again one of the strongest in the league last season. Led by Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, the Ravens allowed an average of 16.6 points per game.

    The Ravens possess a daunting pass rush that ranked third in sacks last year, but the pass rush will take a big hit without Terrell Suggs, who will miss at least the first six games of the season with a ruptured Achilles' tendon. The Ravens did add former Alabama linebacker Courtney Upshaw who could make an immediate impact to an already stacked front seven.

    The weakness of the Ravens defense is their secondary. The Ravens only recorded 15 interceptions last season and eight of those came from Reed and cornerback Lardarius Webb. As long as their key players stay healthy, the Ravens are still one of the elite defenses in the NFL.

    Prediction: I think the Ravens are one of the most talented teams in the AFC. They have the stud running back, and Flacco has shown signs of greatness. Flacco's biggest problem is his tendency to play inconsistent. If Torrey Smith can emerge as more than a deep-threat, the Ravens could make a Super Bowl run.

    The defense, even without Suggs, is still outstanding.

    Lewis and Reed are hungrier than ever after that heartbreaking loss in Foxboro last January. Outside of their tough divisional games, the Ravens also have match-ups against the Philadelphia Eagles, New England Patriots, Houston Texans  and defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants. Although the schedule is challenging, I see the Ravens coming out of the regular season with a record of 11-5.

Cincinnati Bengals

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    The Bengals were the team that surprised everyone around the league last season.

    Rookies Andy Dalton and A.J. Green were the key connection that led to Cincy's remarkable season. The Bengals also had one of the league's most underrated defenses which was anchored by linebacker Thomas Howard. But can the Bengals be a threat to the Ravens and Steelers, or will Dalton and Green go through a sophomore slump?

    Offense: The Bengals offense needs Dalton and Green to repeat their excellent seasons if they want to have any chance at a playoff spot.

    Dalton threw for almost 3,400 yards as a rookie, and more than half of those yards went to Green or former Bengal Jerome Simpson. The Bengals wide receiving group is thin, and that is being polite.

    Other than Green, their next best option is their tight end Jermaine Gresham. Gresham is a solid tight end, but not one that defenses will key on. Green is going to be dealing with a lot of double teams, and it will be tough to repeat last season's numbers if nobody else rises to the occasion. The receiver to watch is Brandon Tate. Tate was a punt returner last season, but did not catch a single pass.

    The running game may have been upgraded by acquiring Ben Jarvus Green-Ellis. The 'Law Firm' is a consistent scorer, but he didn't get much of a chance to run in New England's pass-happy offense. The offensive line should be able to help Green-Ellis as they helped Cedric Benson rush for more than 1,000 yards last season. The Bengals' offense will need more than a couple of players to step up and help Dalton and Green.

    Defense: The Bengals' defense had a great campaign last year. The Bengals ranked seventh in average yards allowed per game and gave up just more than 20 points per game last year.

    Cincinnati also sacked the quarterback 45 times thanks to their fearsome pass rush led by defensive tackle Geno Atkins. They also forced 20 fumbles during the season, which ranked fourth in the league.

    The downside of the Bengals' defense was that they only picked off 10 passes, which ranked almost at the bottom of the league. The Bengals' defense consists of a lot of players that football fans might not have ever heard of.

    Guys like, Atkins, Thomas Howard, Domata Peko, Manny Lawson and Leon Hall are all guys that are young and quickly improving. Unlike the Ravens and Steelers, the Bengals' defense is full of young players that have a great upside in the future.

    Prediction: The Bengals are a very interesting team to evaluate this season. Their defense is so solid and so young that it is hard not to like this team in the future. But right now, I have some doubts.

    Their schedule is very favorable in the early going, with games against Cleveland, Washington, Jacksonville, and Miami, but every game after the bye could be against teams contending for a playoff spot. The Bengals finish the season against Dallas, on the road against Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and finally Baltimore at home. 

    My next reason for concern is that Cincinnati's offense does not have a legitimate playmaker outside of A.J. Green. Green-Ellis is a decent option at back, but has not shown that he can shoulder the load of a NFL running back.

    I think Andy Dalton is a good quarterback, but I think he will stumble a bit this season with his thin wide receiving core. If guys like Gresham and Tate step up, this team is a contender, but I don't think they will. The Bengals' defense is good enough to help this offense along, but a playoff spot is very questionable. I have the Bengals' taking a step back this season, finishing at 8-8.

Cleveland Browns

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    Next on the AFC North team preview is the Browns. The Browns started the season 2-2, but fell apart in their final 12 games, finishing 2-10 including a six game losing streak to end the season.

    The Browns were one of the biggest headline makers in the draft, selecting former Alabama running back Trent Richardson in the first round, and then selecting Oklahoma State gunslinger Brandon Weeden in the same round. The Browns are hopeful that these two players can be the spark that their offense needs. Backed by an extremely underrated defense, can the Browns' new toys make a similar impact like Dalton and Green made for their division rivals?

    Offense: Last season the Browns offense was atrocious to say the least. Quarterback Colt McCoy threw only 14 touchdowns and running back Peyton Hillis, who the Browns parted ways with in the offseason, was an absolute bust.

    The Browns wide receiving corp was not very helpful to their struggling signal caller. Their leading receiver, Greg Little, was outside of the top-40 among the league leaders in receptions with 61, and earned a mediocre 709 yards.

    One of the bright spots on the offense is left tackle Joe Thomas, who is the leader of Cleveland's offensive line. Weeden and Richardson will be under a lot of pressure to perform early, and if they don't it will be another long year in Cleveland.

    Defense: Their record may not reflect it, but the Cleveland defense was actually pretty darn good last year.

    The Browns only surrendered an average of 19.2 points per game, which was better than the Bengals, Bears, Falcons, Packers, Jets and super bowl champion Giants. The Browns' top players on defense are linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, who was second in the league in tackles, and cornerback Joe Haden, who has six career interceptions in three years in the league.

    The glaring issue with the Browns' defense last season was the same as their offense's, there is a lack of play making capability on the field. The Browns forced only 20 turnovers the entire season, which was ranked 12th in the AFC. If the defense can accumulate some more big plays, it will only help the offense.

    Prediction: Spoiler alert, the Browns are not a playoff team right now. But the key phrase is right now.

    The Browns had a great draft and Richardson and Weeden should make significant impacts this season. Their schedule is very tough early on, and there is a chance they could start the season 0-6. The Cleveland defense is not to be taken lightly, and has a good mixture of youth and veteran leadership.

    I think Trent Richardson will be a feature back for Cleveland in the future, but I am not entirely sold on Weeden. He is very good, but predicting a season for a rookie quarterback is a crap shoot. Some perform well right away like Cam Newton and some sputter like Jamarcus Russell.

    Overall I see the Browns as an improving team, but still not a very good one with a record of 5-11.

Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Last, but certainly not least, is the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers went 12-4 last year, but were stuck with a wild-card spot because of two losses to the Ravens.

    The Pittsburgh defense is still as intimidating as it gets, but the offense has some big questions going into this season. The Steelers hired Todd Haley as their offensive coordinator, and head coach Mike Tomlin hopes that Haley will put an emphasis on the running game. But can the running game be efficient enough to get the Steelers back to the top of the division?

    Offense: The Steelers got a big boost to their offense when star wide receiver Mike Wallace signed his franchise tender and ended his holdout. The Steeler passing game could be very explosive this season. Wallace will be the primary option, but youngsters Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders have great potential to emerge as second and third threats on the offense. Ben Roethlisberger is trying to repeat his 4,000 yard season and could have the best weapons he's had in his career.

    The Steelers' running game could be a big setback for their offense. Rashard Mendenhall is injured with a knee injury, and backup Issac Redman has little experience as a starting back.

    The offensive line did not help the running game either and allowed Roethlisberger to get sacked 40 times a year ago. If the running game can not figure it out, it will drastically affect the aerial attack, and could cost Pittsburgh some games.

    Defense: When you think of the Pittsburgh Steelers, the first thing that comes to mind is defense.

    The Steelers' defense was very strong last season. They were first in points allowed per game and have numerous players that can make a big impact. What worries me about the Steelers is that their defense is aging.Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, Ike Taylor, Ryan Clark, Brett Keisel and Casey Hampton are all in their thirties.

    Despite all of the impact players the Steelers have on their defense, they only forced 15 turnovers last season, which was dead last in the AFC. If the Steelers expect to win back the division from Baltimore, they have to create more turnovers.

    Prediction: I'm not as high on the Steelers as I have been in previous seasons. Last year I thought they would go to the Super Bowl and instead they were beaten by Tim Tebow in the first round. Pittsburgh's schedule isn't too difficult outside of the division, so there are a handful of very winnable games.

    The Steelers defense is getting older but will still be one of the best in the league. The turnover production can only go up as long as their core players stay on the field. 

    The running game is the major concern for Pittsburgh, but the Steelers drafted two offensive linemen in the first two rounds, and also selected Florida running back Chris Rainey, who could make a difference if given a shot. The Steelers are still a very good team, but an aging defense, a new offense, and a poor running game could spoil their season. Despite the struggles of their running game, I think Roethlisberger will have a very good season with the great weapons at his disposal and he will carry the Steelers to an impressive 10-6 season.

AFC North Prediction

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    When the regular season ends this is how I see the AFC North shaping up...

    1. Baltimore 11-5

    2. Pittsburgh 10-6

    3. Cincinnati 8-8

    4. Cleveland 5-11

    I didn't go out on a limb with this division, but there isn't much reason to. Baltimore has the most balanced offense and arguably the best offensive player in the division in Ray Rice. The entire division is loaded defensively, but I give the Ravens the slight edge over the Steelers because they can generate more turnovers than Pittsburgh.

    The Bengals and Browns are both young and improving but both need to add to their depth on offense. Can both teams be a few wins better than I predicted?

    Absolutely.

    They both have great defenses, but you can't win if you can't score, and I don't see Cleveland or Cincinnati lighting up the scoreboard. Pittsburgh will give Baltimore a run for the division title just like they have the past few seasons, but in the end Pittsburgh's running game is up in the air and although Pittsburgh might have the better quarterback and wide receiver group, Baltimore will win games on the ground and have Rice to create game changing plays.

     If you love defense, you'll love the AFC North, but I think the Ravens have enough firepower on offense to repeat as division champs.

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