The AFC North has backed into being one of the most historic divisions in football, it’s basically the Paul Brown division given the assorted teams in it. Below is our preview of the division. As with all things unprovable, we are 100% correct all the time and should not be questioned.
Expected Record: 6-10
Really, the only thing I don’t like about the Browns is the situation at quarterback. There’s nothing interesting or special about Josh McCown, Johnny Manziel looked pretty damn good in the preseason, and once he’s healthy, will the Browns be bold enough to make him the outright starter? I don’t know, but I think it’s distracting enough to keep them from grabbing some winnable games. Oh, and two members of their staff, including the GM, are currently suspended.
Key Matchups: November 5 at Cincinnati & November 15 at Pittsburgh: These are the last two games before Cleveland’s bye, both of which are division opponents, both of which are on the road. Because their bye week is so late (11), I imagine Cleveland will have just found their groove by the time they reach these two games, and with only six games remaining after the bye, Cleveland should want to make a statement on the road.
Key Matchup: September 20 vs Tennessee
Maybe it’s just me, but I’d really love to see Johnny Manziel replace McCown as early as week two, just in time to face Marcus Mariota (aka a better version of Johnny Football). Tennessee is a team Cleveland should feel capable of beating, and if they don’t, and lose an easy game this early in the season, they may not recover as the schedule becomes more difficult.
Impact Player: Duke Johnson (RB)
I think the faster he takes over as the starting back, the better for Cleveland. Isiah Crowell has flashes of big-play potential, but between Trent Richardson, and other inconsistencies at the running back position in the past, Cleveland is in desperate need for a stable, productive back, and I think that will be Duke Johnson.
Expected Record: 8-8
I think the Bengals will start off really strong, probably 4-2 in their first six, but they face a really tough stretch at the end, finishing against Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Denver and Baltimore. They are fully capable of winning all four of those games, but that late in the season, will we be in the midst of beginning the AJ McCarron era in Cincy? Probably not, but I’m still no Andy Dalton believer.
Key Matchup: September 27 at Baltimore
This is the Bengals’ only division game before the bye in week seven, and I don’t imagine they’ll be interested in entering week 8 with a losing record within the division. Expect Cincy to come out with a sense of urgency, despite the fact they’ll be on the road.
Other Key Matchups: November 1 at Pittsburgh and November 5 vs. Cleveland
Speaking of their bye week, they return to back-to-back divisional games, and depending on how the first six games go, they may need to take both of these if they want to contend for a playoff spot. I believe the AFC North will be the most competitive division in the AFC, if not the league, and because of that, every division game means that much more.
Impact Players: Jeremy Hill (RB) & Giovanni Bernard (RB)
Hill has been given the starting nod, but Bernard will see enough time that I felt I should include him, too. The Bengals have arguably a top-3, definitely top-5, receiver in A.J. Green, but a receiver is only as good as the pressure the running game can take off of him. Andy Dalton is consistent enough that the ball will find A.J. Green, but Hill and Bernard need to perform well enough that the safeties cheat a little.
Expected Record: 9-7
In addition to their own division, the AFC West, and the NFC West, the Steelers will also face the New England Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts, arguably the two favorites to come out of the AFC. They have some big shoes to fill on defense, but otherwise their offense looks fairly similar. Big Ben will have to do Big Ben things and continue to find Antonio Brown to keep the Steelers in the postseason conversation.
Key Matchups: September 10 at New England: OPENING NIGHT!
Now that Tom Brady’s suspension has been nullified, it’s no longer about facing the defending the Super Bowl Champions, but about facing the “cheaters” who got away with it. Brady’s win in court was a huge loss for Goodell and the league’s front office. The Steelers don’t want to be the team to lose this game and extend the Patriots’ reign.
Key Matchups: Every Game After the Bye
Following their break in week 11, the Steelers return to finish the season against (in this order), Seattle (away), Indianapolis, Cincinatti (away), Denver, Baltimore (away), and Cleveland (away). Ideally the Steelers will be atleast five or six games above .500, because I don’t see them doing better than 2-4 during this stretch.
Impact player: Ben Roethlisberger (QB)
I was leaning toward Le’Veon Bell, or even Will Allen, now starting at strong safety in place of the retired Troy Polamalu, but the truth is, this team goes as Ben goes. He’s a veteran now, and now as evasive as he was, but if he can execute in the pocket, then the rest will fall into place.
With a week nine bye, I believe the Ravens will experience an incredibly balanced season. I see them starting 5-3, taking the bye week to rest, then finishing 5-3. Joe Flacco looked a little rusty in the preseason, but I’m a big Flacco believer. And though Ray Rice didn’t play in the regular season last year, this presence or lack thereof hovered throughout the media coverage of the Ravens. I don’t believe that will be the case this year. They still have a solid defense, a reliable back in Justin Forsett, and shiny new receiver in Breshad Perriman. Besides, Baltimore seems to rise when a player announces their retirement.
Key Matchups: September 13 at Denver: Two years ago, following their Superbowl win and Joe Flacco’s massive pay raise, the Ravens were embarrassed in their opening game against Denver. This year, they aren’t defending a title, but the rosters are mostly the same. In a competitive division with a prideful roster, the Ravens will be looking to win this one.
Key Matchups: October 18 at San Francisco & November 15 vs. Jacksonville
I mention San Francisco because of the offseason acquisition of Torrey Smith. Baltimore’s Super bowl victory over the 49ers coupled with Boldin’s and Smith’s presence on San Francisco’s roster mean there will be some unavoidable tension. Whether it be on the field or in the commentary, the story is there. I bring Jacksonville up because they are not a team to laugh at this year. Though they may not contend for a playoff spot, the Jaguars are a team on the rise and very possible set up for a surprise loss after coming off a bye week.
Impact player: Breshad Perriman (WR)
The rookie out of UCF is poised to be a huge weapon for Joe Flacco. as soon as he’s healthy. At 6’2 and speedy, he could take over Steve Smith for the number one spot, but it looks like as of now he isn’t ready for week one, and may miss more games than that.