AFC North Predictions

Posted: 09/07/2015 by levcohen in Football

The AFC North was surprisingly good last year, with three teams finishing with double-digit wins and the division ending at 26-13-1 for the season in games outside of the division. Now, a lot of that had to do with the fact that the AFC North absolutely pummeled the weak NFC South, but the division was still pretty darn good, as the Ravens, Steelers, and Bengals all finished inside the top-12 in DVOA. It’s certainly an interesting division again this season, as the three teams at the top of the division seem likely to be extremely competitive again. As for the Browns… who knows? They too will be interesting to watch, if only because they seem like a train wreck waiting to happen.

Baltimore Ravens (11-5): The Ravens are simply one of the best-run teams in the NFL. The GM and coach combination of Ozzie Newsome and John Harbaugh is possibly the best in the NFL outside of New England, where Bill Belichick is the czar. And guess what? The infrastructure just got better. Marc Trestman was undeniably a bad head coach, but he’s also a great offensive mind who will aid the team’s already-solid offense. The team is just all-around solid. Quarterback Joe Flacco is solid. Running back Justin Forsett is solid. Steve Smith is solid. The offensive line is very good, and the special teams is probably the best in the NFL, led by kicker Justin Tucker. The same goes for the defense, which ranked eighth in DVOA last year. The strength of the defense is undoubtedly the group of linebackers, led by Courtney Upshaw, C.J. Mosley, Terrell Suggs, and Elvis Dumervil. I expect the pass rush to be extremely good and deep. Meanwhile, the secondary should be much better – and healthier – than it was last year, especially at the end of the season. Cornerbacks Ladarius Webb and Jimmy Smith, each of whom is solidly above-average when healthy, are back to full health after being banged up throughout last season, while Kendrick Lewis should be the Ravens’ best safety since Ed Reed. And Kyle Arrington might be the best nickle corner in the NFL. This defense is really solid and really deep. I don’t see a way that the Ravens fall out of the top-10 defensively, and I think they’re more likely to enter the top-five. That, along with another good offense and great special teams, should be enough to bring the AFC North crown back to Baltimore.

Cincinnati Bengals (9-7): The Bengals went 10-5-1 last year, but it was an extremely lucky 10-5-1. Their point differential was just +21, which should only have been good enough for 8.5  wins, so the Bengals outperformed their expectation by nearly two wins if you count the tie as .5 wins. And the teams who have historically been that lucky (1.5-2 wins better than expectation) one season have lost, on average, 2.2 wins. There’s a lot to like about the Bengals in terms of their roster. I expect them to go to a run-heavy style this year, as they should. Jeremy Hill is an absolute beast, as he averaged 5.1 yards per carry and ran for 1124 yards in his rookie season despite not starting the year as the starter. The offensive line is good, and quarterback Andy Dalton is, well… not. He’ll throw his annual 150 balls to A.J. Green, who will do a lot with the poorly thrown passes because he’s A.J. Green, and then he’ll do absolutely nothing on the other throws. So if they run the ball more, I could see the offense improving to the point that they are at least an average offense. The defense lost its heart and soul in Vontaze Burfict, but it still has a ton of talent. There are five first round picks in the secondary alone, and Dre Kirkpatrick, a first round pick last season, is just the team’s fourth cornerback. If there’s one thing the Bengals can hang their hat on, it’s the depth they have on defense. This is a really solid team, and if they had a good quarterback, they could be a 12 win team. But Andy Dalton is not a good QB and never will be one. Is this the last year of the Dalton era in Cincinnati? I think it might be.

Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8): The Steelers have what is the definition of a stars and scrubs team. If the stars stay as healthy as they did last year, when the Steelers went 11-5, this eight win projection will seem stupid come January. But already, the stars are getting hurt or suspended. Running back Le’Veon Bell, who was the second best running back in the NFL last year behind DeMarco Murray, is suspended for the first two games of the season. Martavis Bryant, who had a ridiculous 49/8 target to touchdown ratio last year and averaged 21.1 yards per catch while being compared to Randy Moss, is suspended for the first four games. And center Maurkice Pouncey, one of the best centers in the NFL and the All-Pro first teamer, is out for the season with a broken ankle. In Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown, the Steelers still have some healthy and available studs. But Roethlisberger always seems to miss games, with the exception of last season, when the whole team stayed abnormally healthy. Brown is the best receiver in the NFL, but the Steelers need their whole stable of offensive studs healthy if they want to remain the second best offense in football. The defense will probably be better, if only because the young members of the front seven seem likely to improve. Pittsburgh has spent their last three first round picks on linebackers, and I expect one or two of Jarvis Jones, Ryan Shazier, and Bud Dupree to break out. But the secondary is shambolic, as the only addition the Steelers made was a marginal trade for slot corner Brandon Boykin. Even if the defense improves a little, I still expect the pass defense to be among the worst in football. So less health and a similarly bad defense means an overall worse season for the Steelers. Am I being pessimistic? Perhaps, but don’t forget that they are going from having the fourth easiest schedule to likely having one of the tougher ones in football. Regression is coming.

Cleveland Browns (5-11): How Brownsy is this Browns team? Starting with the quarterbacks, it’s so Brownsy. I mean, when you are talking about a team that signed Josh McCown to a three-year, $14 million deal to be your starting quarterback, you know it’s probably the Browns. Oh, and the backup had to go to rehab this offseason. The Brownsyness doesn’t stop at quarterback. They have no running backs of note, and their head coach recently said that nobody was doing anything to try to win the job. Dwayne Bowe is the team’s best receiver, and Brian Hartline is the second best. Gary Barnidge is the team’s starting tight end. He’s about to turn 30 and has 44 receptions.. in his six year career. What makes the offense so weird is the fact that the offensive line is so good. With Alex Mack back and the left side of the line as solid as ever, the Browns could have one of the three best lines in football, with All-Pro left tackle Joe Thomas leading the way. But when you have no offensive talent around the line, how much good can it really do? This is going to be a bad offense. The defense, which ranked 11th in DVOA last year, should be respectable again. It’s a solid all-around defense, especially in the secondary (Joe Haden, Tramon Williams, Tashaun Gipson, and Donte Whitner), so they should stop the pass well, just like they did last season. But the run defense ranked 31st in football this year and probably won’t make a huge leap this season, and the pass defense might not be quite as elite this year. This team is going to take a step back offensively and might take a small one defensively, and when you add in their bad QB and Brownsyness, you have a 5-11 team.


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