NFL season preview – AFC North

 

1. Baltimore Ravens

A Lee Evans drop is all that separated the Ravens from going back to the Super Bowl for the first time in 11 seasons.  Sheer heart break.  Some teams after coming so close to success will digress the following season and never make it back.  Look at the 98 Vikings for example.  But at the end of the day it’s hard to imagine Ray Lewis would allow that to happen to his team. 

Flacco didn’t set the world on fire last season but to me (and not many others) he proved himself time and time again in big moments.  He is a QB who seems to play up to his competition.  When he is playing the Jacksonville’s and Miami’s of the world he plays like he is at best a backup.  When he plays teams like the Steelers and Pats, it’s not like he plays like a hall of famer but he plays well and steps up in the clutch.  So I believe Flacco is the guy that can lead the Ravens to a Super Bowl title.  He has some decent weapons to work with, of course Ray Rice has emerged as one of the top RB’s in the league.  Anquan Boldin is a very solid WR, he isn’t that superstar number 1 guy but he is complemented well on the outside by Torrey Smith.  Smith is a total burner and should take another step this season towards stardom.  A guy I would look for to take a big step this year would be 3rd year TE Ed Dickson.  He has all the tools to be a very good TE in this league. 

The famous Ravens defense is getting very long in the tooth, but Lewis just seems to never run out of gas.  He’s not what he was 10 years ago, but he’s still one of the best.  Ed Reed is in the same boat.  These 2 are hall of fame players, amazing leaders, and will get the most out of talent they have on that side of the ball.  Haloti Ngata is perhaps the best nose tackle in the league and makes their front 7 one of the best in football.  Won’t help that Terrell Suggs is out (and if you ask me he is done of the year), but they got guys like 2nd round pick Courtney Upshaw who will try to fill that void.  The secondary is thin after Reed, but I do like 2nd year corner Jimmy Smith.  He is a very talented corner and if he can make a significant jump this season it could be huge for their D. 

I have the Ravens taking this division again this season. Pittsburgh is older and Cincy is still too young.  But the big question for them isn’t the division, it’s can they take that next step and get back to the Super Bowl?  I say they are a serious threat to do so.

 

2. Pittsburgh Steelers

They’re old and they’re beat up.  Ben Roethlisberger is already hurt coming into the season.  Things don’t feel too good for the 6 time Super Bowl champions.  But the one thing about this organization is that they draft extremely well and they’ll always be in the mix.  I LOVE Mike Tomlin.  He brings intensity, intelligence and a work ethic 2nd to none.  He will be a coach that will always get the most out of his team. 

As I already said Roethlisberger comes into the season beat up (rotator cuff) but this guy just seems to thrive on stuff like that.  Maybe the bigger question mark will be how Ben and new offensive coordinator Todd Haley will co-exist?  When Haley was first hired they didn’t speak for a while and there is a lot of speculation out there that Roethlisberger wasn’t a big fan of the hiring.  What he SHOULD be a big fan of is that Mike Wallace ended his holdout.  Wallace has emerged as one of the best deep threats in the NFL and teamed with Antonio Brown they have quickly made Steeler fans forget about losing Santonio Holmes a few years back, and Hines Ward retiring this offseason.  Traditionally the Steelers love to run the ball and wear down defenses.  The o-line had been average for a few years now so in the draft they went out and snagged David DeCastro out of Stanford and Mike Adams out of OhioState with their top 2 picks.  But DeCastro has run into injury troubles andAdams has looked bad so the jury is still out on them.  RB is no better with Mendenhall being hurt, Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman being completely unproven.  Expect the Steelers to air it out a ton this season. 

And you can also expect them to have one of the leagues top defenses because they always do.  James Harrison is getting up there in age but is still one of the most feared LB’s in football, in fact it might be the best LB core in the league.  Troy Polamalu is still maybe the best safety in football, and when you add in Ryan Clark and Ike Taylor it’s one of the best secondary’s in the league.  So there really isn’t much to say about the Steelers defense, it should be status quo this season. 

But overall this team is aging and that can’t be ignored.  Not saying they can’t be 10-6 or even 11-5, for sure they can be.  But age is going to catch up with this team sooner rather than later.   

 

3. Cincinnati Bengals

 The surprise of the 2011 NFL season.  I had this team pegged for 3-13.  I thought for sure there was no way a team led by a rookie QB that wasn’t even a 1st round pick, and a rookie wide out was getting to 6 wins let alone the playoffs!  But that’s what happened and now the Bengals are perhaps the best young team in football. 

I don’t believe Andy Dalton will become a superstar QB, but he can be good enough to some day get this team to a Super Bowl.  The kid just has the head for the game, the leadership skills, good mobility, good pocket presence, and a good enough arm to get the job done.  Oh yeah, he also has A.J. Green.  This guy is Randy Moss 2.0, and unlike Moss he has a work ethic.  It is unreal just how talented Green is, all Dalton has to do is throw it up and he will go get it.  It’s the same luxury that Matthew Stafford shares in Detroit with Calvin Johnson.  No corner will be able to cover this guy 1 on 1.  And if Green weren’t enough, I really believe one of these years Jermaine Gresham is going to break out in a big way one of these seasons.  I believe he has taken a while coming back from the knee injury he suffered at Oklahoma, but if he stays healthy he could easily become a top 10 if not a top 5 TE in the league.  Not much on offense though after those 3.  They brought in the man who I believe has the best nickname in the NFL this offseason….the law firm, BenJarvus Green-Ellis.  And while he is solid and dependable (he literally has never fumbled), he was never a great back in New England.  Granted, OC Jay Gruden’s offense is more run friendly than what he had in New England, but we will have to wait and see if he can become a feature back that can go for 1,000 + yards in a season. 

There is a ton of talent on their d-line.  A lot of head cases too…but a lot of talent.  Carlos Dunlap took some big steps last season, as did Michael Johnson.  The Bengals need them to continue progressing but it is encouraging for them.  I’m not a fan of Rey Maualuga at MLB.  This kid was expected to be a 1st round pick, expected to be a star, has all the talent in the world and just seemingly doesn’t care.  He is ok, but underachieving.  And if his knee gives him problems this season they will go with undrafted wack job Vontaze Burfict who has talent, but wack job might not begin to describe him.  The secondary I like a lot.  Leon Hall is very underrated at corner, Nate Clements and Terrance Newman aren’t what they were but they bring a ton of experience, and 1st round pick Dre Kirkpatrick (tell me if you’ve heard this in regards to a Bengal before) has a boat load of talent but is immature and has a lot of red flags about his character. 

This team is coming, no doubt.  In a lot of other divisions they would contend for the division title.  But don’t forget, they only beat 1 team last year that was over .500.  So some of the success they had was due to a weak schedule.  Couldn’t beat the Ravens, couldn’t beat the Steelers, and I don’t see them surpassing either of those teams this season.

 

4. Cleveland Browns 

The Browns have setup shop in the basement of the AFC North and it appears their lease doesn’t run out anytime soon.  New ownership might help change things for the Browns, but for this season it will have very little effect. 

The big problem for this organization is that Brandon Weeden is now the 16th QB to start for the Browns since their return in 1999.  The hope is that Weeden isn’t the next Tim Couch, Doug Pederson, Ty Detmer, Kelly Holcomb, Spergon Wynn, Jeff Garcia, Charlie Frye, Luke McCown, Trent Dilfer, Derek Anderson, Brady Quinn, Ken Dorsey, Jake Delhomme, Seneca Wallace or Colt McCoy (really Jonas, THIS is the team you picked to be “your team”?!?)  Weeden has his work cut out for him as the AFC North isn’t the Big 12 when it comes to defenses.  Add to it, the receiving core is extremely young.  Greg Little, Josh Gordon, and Mohamed Massaquoi are all pretty raw talents at this point.  Josh Cribbs is one of the elite return men in the league, but not that effective in the passing game.  Ben Watson is just OK at TE.  It finally looked like in the draft they got themselves an elite offensive talent in Trent Richardson, but he just had his knee scoped for the 2nd time in 6 months so with no training camp he will likely need time to get his game going. 

But if the Browns are this suspect on offense then they must be great on defense right?!  Well, not really.  The d-line isn’t great, although I do like Phil Taylor at DT.  The LB core isn’t scaring anyone, though D’Qwell Jackson is pretty good manning the middle.  The secondary has a lot of potential but is questionable at this point.  Joe Haden surprisingly dropped off last season.  He has potential to be an elite corner but didn’t look anything close to that last year.  T.J. Ward is very good, but has trouble staying healthy.  He could be the new Bob Sanders. 

Bottom line with this team is if Richardson can have an amazing rookie season that elite running backs have been known to have.  If he can, then this team could perhaps get to 8-8.  Unfortunately for Browns fans that’s as good as I think it can get, 5-11 is a lot more likely.

 

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