As we build up to the new NFL season, this week’s instalment previews the competitive AFC North, which is always one of the most difficult divisions in football to predict.
Key Player: AJ Green
Last Season: 11-5, 1st in the division, lost in the Wildcard round.
At times last season Cincinnati looked like a team that had all the tools to challenge for a title. Their rookie RB Gio Bernard was making highlight plays week in week out. Their defence had very quietly become one of the toughest units in the NFL, with no apparent superstar. They had the best WR in the league not named Calvin Johnson. For stretches it seemed as though QB Andy Dalton was maturing into a solid, capable NFL QB.
In this league solid and capable is not enough from the QB position. Ultimately it was the limitations of Andy Dalton that ended Cincinnati’s title dream last season. What have the Bengals done to improve their fortunes this season? Not much.
Cincinnati will hope their defensive starters can stay healthy this season. If they can then the Bengals ‘D’ should have another excellent season. The Andy Dalton/ AJ Green combination is another year more mature and the chemistry that these two have already shown should have grown further. Giovanni Bernard should be ready to carry the load in the back field. The Bengals have not made any significant personnel upgrades outside of the Draft. The hope is that this core of young players has developed enough to take Cinci to the next level.
Prediction: The Bengals will continue to play well and have a 10 win season which should be enough for a playoff berth.
Key Player: LeVeon Bell
Last Season: 8-8, 2nd in division, missed playoffs.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are famous for their physical play on both sides of the ball. In recent years the Pittsburgh Defence has lost some key personnel from the Superbowl winning teams of 2006 and 2009. As a result this version of the defence is not quite as fast and physical as in years gone by. The Steelers are reliant on the offence to pick up the slack.
In Ben Roethlisberger the Steelers have a veteran QB who is big and very hard to tackle. Big Ben’s size sees him regularly extend plays when other QB’s would be sacked. There are still some question marks about Roethlisberger’s accuracy and decision making, but if he is in the right frame of mind the Steelers are in good hands here.
The Steelers main issue is finding people for Roethlisberger to pass the ball to. Last season Antonio Brown was the only Steeler Roethlisberger had any chemistry with. The addition of Lance Moore from New Orleans and a healthy Heath Miller should provide more options for Big Ben. The Steelers will need good production from second year RB LeVeon Bell if they are to challenge for a playoff spot.
Prediction: The Steelers are a team that should never be written off. With a small bit of luck they could win 10+ matches and challenge for a playoff spot.
Key Player: Joe Flacco
Last Season: 8-8, 3rd in division, missed playoffs
The Ravens are the front runners for the most turbulent off season of any NFL team award. At this point five Ravens players have been arrested this offseason for an array of offences. Since winning the Superbowl following the 2012 season the Ravens organisation has not had much success.
Two years ago the Ravens decided to pay Joe Flacco BIG money. So far that appears to have been a bad move, but maybe this season will be different. Following the Superbowl win Baltimore lost big name players like Ray Lewis, Anquan Boldin, Danelle Ellerby and others.
Last year also saw the demise of Ray Rice as he looked like a washed up, old Running Back. What can the Ravens hope for this year?
The answer is not a lot. The addition of WR Steve Smith should help both Flacco and WR Torrey Smith. The Tight End duo of Dennis Pitta and Owen Daniels will be a key component to the Ravens passing game, but if Ray Rice continues his downward trend it could be another tough season for Baltimore.
Prediction: Off field trouble usually translates to on field trouble. This could be a very poor year for Baltimore yielding less than 5 wins.
Key Player: Josh Gordon Ben Tate
Last Season: 4-12, 4th in division, missed playoffs.
Cleveland’s 2013 season was one of the more hopeful 4 win seasons in recent NFL history. The Brown’s duo of WR Josh Gordon and TE Jordan Cameron emerged as two legitimate superstars in this league. The Browns were active in free agency adding veteran WR Miles Austin and a potential steal at RB in Ben Tate. Then the Browns landed Johnny Manziel in the draft and suddenly football in Cleveland looked like it could be on its way to a winning season.
Cue Josh Gordon getting suspended for the entire season for breaching the NFL’s substance abuse policy (appeal is pending). Add to that the news out of Cleveland that Brian Hoyer will remain as starting QB and even the most optimistic of Browns fans struggles to see a winning season. Cleveland has a solid defence, even with the loss of leading tackler D’Qwell Jackson. Joe Haden is one of the top CB in the league and the front seven is solid.
Cleveland’s playoff hopes are in the hands of Tate and Manziel, whenever he takes over as starting QB (it will happen before Week 5).Ben Tate has played second string to Arian Foster in Houston his entire career and it remains to be seen if he can succeed as the number one back. If Gordon’s suspension is overturned the Browns could be the dark horse of the 2014 season.
Prediction: As things stand the Browns are looking at an improvement to 6 wins but still no playoff football in Cleveland. If Josh Gordon’s suspension is lifted than the Browns could have a shot at making the playoffs as a wildcard.
Eoin Purcell, Pundit Arena.
Read More About: afc north, aj green, andy dalton, baltimore ravens, ben roethlisberger, ben tate, cincinnati bengals, cleveland browns, gio bernard, joe flacco, josh gordon, leveon bell, NFL, Pittsburgh Steelers