Over the past decade, the AFC North has been the most competitive division, spawning some of the fiercest divisional rivalries. This season we should expect more of the same, as three teams in the division have a really good chance of making the playoffs or more. The Bengals have won two straight titles, but this year the competition looks like it may be even tougher.
Division Winners – Cincinnati Bengals (10-6)
The Cincinnati Bengals have been one of the toughest regular season teams in the NFL over the past few seasons. Their problem, however, has been once they reach the postseason. They have made the playoffs each of the last four seasons, which is every season QB Andy Dalton has been in the league. But with all their regular season success, they have yet to win a playoff game. Cincy hopes to reverse their fortunes this season.
The Bengals extended LB Ray Maualuga’s contract, along with OT Eric Winston. They picked AJ Hawk up in free agency, making a fierce defense that gets after the quarterback just a little bit meaner. The draft this year looked more like a push for the future, but because the Bengals are so loaded at most positions, this was possible without having a negative effect on the here and now. This team will be good again this year, and in years to come.
Second Place – Baltimore Ravens (9-7)
The Ravens are just three seasons removed from a Superbowl title and they are looking to make a strong push to get back there. Joe Flacco continues to improve, and he may have a pair of new weapons from this year’s draft class. They spent their first round pick (#26 overall) on WR Breshad Perriman and their second round pick (#55 overall) on TE Maxx Williams in hopes they will replace the production of the departing WR Torrey Smith.
While the Ravens were not a major player in free agency, and they lost one of their best defenders in DT Haloti Ngata, this is still a very good defense. And we know that the offense can move the ball and put points on the board. If this Ravens team stays healthy, they are easily one of the teams to beat in the AFC, and possibly the best team in the North.
Third Place – Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8)
The Pittsburgh Steelers parted ways with longtime defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, the originator of the Blitzburgh zone blitzing defensive scheme that has wreaked havoc on the league for years. Then, they resigned James Harrison, former NFL Defensive Player of the Year. They also signed HB Deangelo Williams and WR Darrius Heyward-Bey to give them more weapons on offense. But I am unsure if these pickups make them a better team.
LB Bud Dupree, the Steelers first round pick (#22 overall), along with Harrison, look to add more of a pass rush this season. WR Sammie Coates, the third round pick (#87 overall) out of Auburn hopes to be another wideout to add to the list of very productive receivers the Steelers have drafted. But with LeVeon Bell being suspended to start the season, I fear this offense will slip. The team will struggle this season, and will most likely be on the outside of the playoff race.
Cellar Dwellers – Cleveland Browns (3-13)
The Cleveland Browns played tough last year, but had a quarterback controversy that basically tore the team apart. This season, Brian Hoyer is gone, but Johnny Manziel still has some competition. The Browns currently have Josh McCown listed as the starter. Either way, they are not ready to be a team that will compete, though they might give some teams a tough time.
Whoever the quarterback is, he will have some new weapons. Cleveland picked up WRs Dwayne Bowe and Brian Hartline. They also drafted RB Duke Johnson in the third round (#77 overall), who they hope will be the steal of the draft. This offense should be improved over last season, and the defense is still pretty good. But this is still a bad team, potentially the worst team in the league.