No NFL division was more competitive than the AFC North last season. Three teams — the Pittsburgh Steelers, Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens — all won at least 10 games and made the playoffs. Even the Cleveland Browns, who finished 7-9, were in contention for most of the season.
It’s a new year, but don’t expect the competitiveness to change. The Steelers, Bengals and Ravens all could easily win the division and make the playoffs again.
Here’s how the AFC North should shake out this season, in predicted order of finish.
1. Baltimore Ravens
Baltimore boasts one of the top defenses in the league, with a strong linebacker corps of Terrell Suggs, C.J. Mosley, Daryl Smith and Elvis Dumervil. Those linebackers, along with a strong defensive line, were the reasons why the Ravens held their opponents to a fourth-lowest 88.2 rushing yards last season.
The Ravens also boast a proven winner at quarterback in Joe Flacco and a dynamic running back in Justin Forsett. The main question mark — and it’s a big one — is to whom Flacco will throw. The Ravens will have to rely heavily on rookies Breshad Perriman and Maxx Williams in the passing game. That shouldn’t stop Baltimore from making the playoffs, though.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers have been in the news for all the wrong reasons lately. They will be without running back Le’Veon Bell (two games) and wide receiver Martavis Bryant (four games) because of suspensions. Also, center Maurkice Pouncey suffered a leg injury during the preseason and won’t be available until Week 9 after being placed on the physically unable to perform/reserve list.
Those noticeable absences and a shaky defense won’t be easy to overcome. However, the Steelers might have the best offense in the league, thanks to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, wide receiver Antonio Brown and Bell. This team is capable of putting up big numbers, which should propel Pittsburgh to at least a wild-card berth.
3. Cincinnati Bengals
Oh, the Bengals. The team that seemingly has it all on offense — except for a quarterback who can perform in the playoffs. They have a two-headed monster at running back with Giovanni Bernard and Jeremy Hill. They have A.J. Green, one of the best receivers in the league.
But quarterback Andy Dalton still has yet to win a playoff game. However, he has been consistent enough to get the Bengals into the postseason. That, along with a middle-of-the-pack defense, means this still is a potential playoff team.
4. Cleveland Browns
No offense to the Browns, but they’re probably the easiest of the four teams to predict. They’re almost there, but with the three aforementioned teams in their division, the Browns most likely will be riding in last place for the time being.
The Browns might have the league’s most famous backup quarterback in Johnny Manziel, but his immediate future is murky because of injuries and off-the-field drama. That means this is Josh McCown’s team for the foreseeable future.
Thumbnail photo via Eric Hartline/USA TODAY Sports Images