AFC North Predictions

Posted: 09/03/2014 by levcohen in Football

These next two divisions, the AFC North and the AFC South, have something in common: no elite teams. In fact, they might be the only two divisions without a team considered elite heading into the season. The NFC East might not have an elite team, but I think the Eagles are better than any of the teams in these two, so the point stands. That’s not to say that these two divisions are all that similar, because they really aren’t. Today, I’ll focus on the AFC North, a division that was long considered one of the tougher divisions in football but recently has been downgraded thanks to the decline of the Steelers and Ravens. Now, the rivalry between those two is still fiery, but it’s not as enticing when neither team wins double-digit games. But while neither of them are great, there are no terrible teams in this division, and three of the four have good defenses and solid home-field advantages. It’s not one of the most top-heavy divisions, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see any non-Browns team win it. Now onto the predictions.

1. Pittsburgh Steelers (9-7): There are a few reasons that I’ve picked the Steelers to shock the Bengals and take this division with an underwhelming 9-7 record. The first is simple: I’m picking the best quarterback in the division to win it. That’s often a safe bet, as most divisions are going to be won by the team with the best QB. Ben Roethlisberger isn’t always flashy, but I’d take him over most quarterbacks, including Brian Hoyer (and Johnny Manziel), Joe Flacco, and Andy Dalton. Another reason I’m picking the Steelers is because they finished last year on a hot streak, winning six of their last eight games and outscoring opponents by 61 points in that stretch. Over a full season, a +122 point differential would have been seventh in football. I think the fact that they finished strong should help them start the season strong. They also have a super easy schedule. While that’s mostly true about the entire AFC North (they all have schedules ranked  between the third and 11th best by Football Outsiders), it’s especially true about the Steelers. Like the rest of the division, they play against the NFC South and AFC South, and they play the four best teams in those divisions (in my estimation) at home. That includes the Saints, who have perhaps the biggest split between their home and away play. The Steelers’ extra games are against the Jets and the Chiefs. The Chiefs are another team with a big home-field advantage, but the Steelers lucked out (again) and get to play them in Pittsburgh. Best QB in division + easiest schedule usually equals success. I’m going to stop talking about the schedule now, because I think I’m putting too much stock into it and because I think there’s other stuff to like about the Steelers. Chief among the reasons I’m picking the Steelers (besides Big Ben) is wide receiver Antonio Brown. Partly because his build (he’s 5’10”), I think Brown is the most underrated receiver in football bar none. He finished second in the league in receiving yards behind just Josh Gordon, and second in catches behind just Pierre Garcon. So he finished ahead of Calvin Johnson, A.J. Green, and Dez Bryant in both catches and yards. You wouldn’t have known that based on the lack of hype he’s getting. Despite the loss of Emmanuel Sanders, the passing offense should still be solid, thanks to Brown, safety valve Heath Miller (Miller should have a bounce-back year after playing hurt last season), and youngster Markus Wheaton. Le’Veon Bell isn’t the most exciting running back, but he’s a good pass catcher and probably won’t turn into the next Trent Richardson. All in all, this should be an above-average albeit not elite offense. The defense isn’t what it used to be, but it still has some pieces after finishing in the top half last season. They have slowly been revamping the aging defense, and in particular the linebacker core. 28-year old Lawrence Timmons is one of the better linebackers in football, and he’s joined not by James Harrison but by Ryan Shazier and Jarvis Jones, who were first round picks this year and last year respectively. Make no mistake about this: while Troy Polamalu, Brett Keisel, and Ike Taylor are still there, this is a revamped defense. It’s not going to be the top-5 unit it used to be, but it should still be in the top half of the league, which is fine. I almost gave the Steelers 10 wins, but realized I was focusing too much on their schedule. They’ll have to live with 9-7 and the division championship.

2. Cincinnati Bengals (9-7): I have the Bengals taking a pretty big step back from last season, but I still think they’ll sneak into the playoffs as a wildcard. Why do I think they’ll fall from 11-5? That’s a good question, one which I don’t really have many great answers to. Maybe it’s a gut feeling, but a lot of it also has to do with Andy Dalton. Dalton had some terrific games last year, but he’s “Bad Andy” far too often for me to trust him to lead them to double-digit wins again. Could you see a scenario where the Bengals start 2-4 or 3-4 and Dalton loses confidence before being benched? I don’t think that’s incredibly likely, but given Dalton’s volatility, it’s possible. I think his supporting cast should be good enough to lead the team to a winning record, though. It’s really, really good. On offense, the Bengals have A.J. Green, Giovani Bernard, and an above-average offensive line. They don’t really have a good receiving target besides Green, but Bernard’s pass-catching prowess from the backfield should help offset that. Defensively, I don’t think they’ll be top-5, but they won’t be far off that. In Geno Atkins, Vontaze Burfict, and Leon Hall, they have a star on the line, a star linebacker, and a star corner. They are also very deep defensively, particularly in the secondary. It’s not often the case that a first round pick from this very season is buried on the depth chart, as is the case with Bengals cornerback Darqueze Dennard. The Bengals tied for fifth-best in points allowed last year, and I think they’ll be around there again. The more I look at this, the more I think this is a double-digit win team, so before I finish up the Bengals, I’ll say that their extra games this year are about as bad as possible: against the Broncos and Patriots. Remember, the Steelers have the Jets and Chiefs. That’s a humungous difference. Oh, and they are away against New Orleans, which means that they play three games against elite teams while the Steelers play none. The Bengals are stocked with more all-around talent than the Steelers, but the difference in schedules and quarterbacks are enough to ensure a tie for first that the Steelers will win on some tiebreaker.

3. Baltimore Ravens (7-9): There’s just not much to get excited about with this Ravens team, which makes the fact that they won the Super Bowl just two years ago even more shocking. What is there to be excited about with this team? Ray Rice certainly isn’t exciting. Steve Smith isn’t at this point in his career, and neither is Joe Flacco. At the same time, a team doesn’t necessarily have to be exciting to succeed. And while Flacco probably isn’t one of the 12 best QBs in football, he’s competent, which is something. The offensive line, which was so good in the championship season and has slowly declined since, is still anchored by right guard Marshall Yanda. And the weapons, from Smith to Pitta to big-play threat Torrey Smith, are solid if unspectacular. I know I’m searching to find some positives on a team that will go 7-9, but there are some positives to find. Still, this isn’t a great or even good offense. It finished 25th in points and 29th in yards last year, and should again be in the bottom third of the league this season offensively. The defense isn’t what it used to be, but it should remain in the top half of the league, much like Pittsburgh’s. Like Pittsburgh, it is a combination of the old guard (Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata) and the new (C.J. Mosley, Courtney Upshaw, Matt Elam). It should be as effective as Pittsburgh’s, with the difference between the two teams lying in the offense. It must be said that John Harbaugh is a pretty good coach, and I might be underestimating his impact here. I’d place him in the top-5 of all coaches, if not even higher. I might also be underestimating Baltimore’s special teams, which includes Jacoby Jones (nine career return touchdowns including the playoffs), Justin Tucker (tied for first with 38 field goals and six of more than fifty yards), and  Sam Koch, an above average punter. When you add together a good coach with a good special teams, an average defense and a poor offense, you get a pretty average team. Maybe they’ll finish 8-8, but I’ll go with 7-9.

4. Cleveland Browns (5-11): The Browns were another of the teams in my “overrated” post, so I won’t go in depth here. I don’t think Brian Hoyer will be the starting quarterback for long, but I also don’t think Johnny Manziel will lead this team to the playoffs or even the seven wins it would take to go over their Bovada over/under total. The defense is fine (definitely not great like people have been making it out to be), but the offense is going to be terrible without Josh Gordon. I’m pretty confident about this prediction.

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