While it may be the current off-season in the NFL, it is never too early to make bold predictions about who will win their respective divisions.
Without further ado, here are my early pre-season picks for the always-rugged AFC North.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers– They got back to what’s made them the Steelers and that’s running the football efficiently and playing stingy defense.
Big Ben had a bounce-back season and Antonio Brown has become one of the top receivers in the league. Le’Veon Bell also had a great 2014 campaign. With these three on the field, the Steelers offense will move the ball. The defense will have a different feel to it.
Long time defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is gone and Troy Polamalu is retired and a very undervalued piece in the secondary is retired as well in Ike Taylor. The Steelers will look to get back to the playoffs and make a run.
2. Baltimore Ravens- When I watch the Ravens, I see a team that tries to balance things out on the offensive side of the football. When Joe Flacco takes cares of the ball, they do well. He had a very nice bounce-back season in 2014 and got the Ravens back to the playoffs for the first time since winning the Super Bowl.
One guy that really flourished in Baltimore was Justin Forsett who became the starting running back after Ray Rice was released. Steve Smith adds some grit to this offense and he’s shown no signs of slowing down. From a defensive standpoint, they have the best pass rushing tandem in the league right now in Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil. They both make getting to the quarterback look easy.
One thing the Ravens will look to have is a healthy secondary. Last year, so many guys were decimated with injuries in the back end of Baltimore’s defense.
3. Cincinnati Bengals– Since Andy Dalton was drafted in 2011, it’s been the same episode repeated with the Bengals: They do well in the regular season, grind some tough games out, dominate in the division and when the playoffs come around, they are nowhere to be found. Marvin Lewis has yet to win a playoff game as Bengals head coach.
The key to a successful season in Cincinnati is A.J. Green who has become one of the best wide receivers in the NFL. Everybody will be back on defense which always seems to be a consistent force for the Bengals each year. This is a make or break year for Marvin Lewis who is on the hot seat in 2015.
The talent is there to make a run in the playoffs and win games when it truly matters in January.
4. Cleveland Browns– They were one of the surprise teams last season. They were competitive throughout the AFC North. They would eventually start Johnny Manziel after then starting quarterback Brian Hoyer was benched and it didn’t work out. This offense will have to change its identity without its key playmaker on the field this year. Josh Gordon has been suspended for an entire season after testing positive once again for drugs and alcohol.
I really like this Browns defense because they can do so many things to stop you. They can shut the run down and they have a shut down corner in Joe Haden. It’ll be interesting to see what Cleveland does in 2015.
1. Steelers (11-5)
2. Ravens (10-6)
3. Bengals (9-7)
4. Browns (6-10)
AFC North division prediction: Pittsburgh Steelers: I like the Steelers to win the AFC North. Having a healthy Bell in the line up is vital because he opens up the field, he’s versatile and he’s key in blocking for Ben Roethlisberger.
The defense is younger at key positions and they will experience growing pains throughout the season. But as the season progresses they have the potential to improve and become a decent defensive squad.