In our third 2016 NFL Preview roundtable, we’re discussing the AFC North, which is almost always considered to be the nastiest division in the league–we all remember how physical that Steelers/Bengals playoff game was last year, right?
In addition to being physical, the AFC North projects to be one of the more competitive divisions in 2016. The Bengals, who won the division last year after a 12-4 campaign, could be considered the favorites. But, as usual, they’ll face still competition from the usual suspects…Pittsburgh and Baltimore. However, while both of those teams should be in the playoff hunt (yes, even Baltimore, who is poised to improve after an uncharacteristic 2015 season), they have concerns. Pittsburgh could be dealing with two major suspensions if Le’Veon Bell’s four game ban holds up and who knows how effective Joe Flacco will be after ACL surgery. As for the Browns…well, suffice it to say they might be in for another long year.
Who will take the AFC North crown? Hempdad, Manod, and Fronte make their picks.
Call me crazy, but I’m choosing the Baltimore Ravens to take the AFC North. Baltimore usually gets overlooked a lot, but with John Harbaugh at the helm, the Ravens are ready to improve following last season’s disappointment. For starters, they have Justin Forsett, who–in addition to being a solid on all of my fantasy teams–is one of the more versatile running backs in the league. On the outside, Joe Flacco will have big targets in Kamar Aiken and Mike Wallace to throw to; and in the trenches, Marshal Yanda–the best guard in football–and that Ravens offensive line will give defenses problems per usual.
Moreover, I think that star-power brings a lot to teams in football; not just for their performance, but for their football knowledge and experience. That’s why I like the addition of former All-Pro safety Eric Weddle to help bolster that secondary. Plus, a healthy Terrell Suggs will cause his usual raucous alongside Elvis Dumervil. Also, when I take a look at this division and investigate the versatility and personnel depth on both sides of the ball, it looks like Baltimore has the edge. The Steelers may have arguably the best receiver on the planet right now in Antonio Brown, but they will be without Martavis Bryant for the season and Le’Veon Bell is a wild card to me. When I look at the Browns, I see absolutely zero potential. As for Cincinnati, they will be their closest challenger and will more than likely take a wild card spot.
I just think it’s going to be one of those years for Joe Flacco; not a Super Bowl year (which most people have forgotten about anyway), but definitely a playoff year.
Bold Prediction: If Joe Cool shaves his mustache, he’ll throw 30 touchdowns (his career-high is 27)
It too me a while to come to a decision, but I’m picking the Steelers to win the North. Even without Martavis Bryant, and potentially Le’Veon Bell for the first four games as well, Pittsburgh has an elite offense. Keep in mind that the Steelers dealt with significant personnel losses throughout 2015, including a stretch when Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t even healthy, and they still managed to finish tied for first in yards per play with Arizona. I also am pretty high on their defense, which has an emerging star in linebacker Ryan Shazier and one of the NFL’s better run defenders in DE Cameron Heyward.
Meanwhile, the Bengals are one of the safer bets in the league to make the playoffs. However, I see them declining by two, maybe even three, wins after last year’s 12-4 season because they lost a couple of impact defensive players such as safety Reggie Nelson (eight INT in 2015) and cornerback Leon Hall. Moreover, even though I project Baltimore to return to their usual selves, they still don’t have quite enough talent on either side of the ball to leapfrog Pittsburgh, or even Cincinnati for that matter.
Regardless of whether the Steelers take the division in 2016, I expect it to be another competitive year in the AFC North: Each team will beat up on one another and the division won’t be settled until very late in the season.
Bold Prediction: The Browns actually surprise some people this year
This is the year for Cleveland sports, right? Even though the Browns have no chance to make the playoffs, I suppose it’s in the cards that they will at least start heading in the right direction under new coach Hue Jackson. After all, they weren’t quite as bad as you think last year: They were unlucky in one score games (1-5) and faced the league’s toughest schedule. They’ll hover around the 5-7 win mark in 2016.
I think the Steelers come out on top in what will be one of the most competitive divisions in football this year. A healthy Ravens squad is set to rebound off a down year and the Bengals have untapped potential. But in the end, it will be Pittsburgh’s offense that separates them from the pack.
Missing Martavis Bryant and possibly Le’Veon Bell for the first four games of the season? No problem. This Steelers offense proved last year that even without their top offensive weapons, they can still be a top team in the AFC. In the absence of Bell last year, DeAngelo Williams exceeded expectations and provided the Steelers with a constant running attack. Even if Bell- who is one of the best running backs in football when healthy- is forced to miss the first four games, Williams has shown he is a more than capable replacement. More importantly, this Steelers’ aerial attack is top notch. With Ben Roethlisberger at the helm and the league’s best wide receiver in Antonio Brown, anyone who plays along side them will reap in the benefits (Sammie Coates is a fantasy football sleeper this year).
The main thing holding Pittsburgh back is their defense, but I expect that unit to improve in 2016. The Steelers have a young, emerging defensive core than consists of Stephon Tuitt, Lawrence Timmons, Ryan Shazier, and Jarvis Jones. With the addition of 28th overall pick Artie Burns, I expect this athletic defense to begin to blossom. Again, they won’t run away with the division, but I expect the Steelers’ elite offense and their improved defense to lead them to the AFC North title.
Bold Prediction: Antonio Brown sets NFL single-season records for receptions and yards
If he did, would you be surprised?
Dalton photo courtesy of Don Wright/Associated Press