We’re only months away from the start of another football season. Fans love talking the smack and painting a pretty picture about their team. Who doesn’t want to have the best team in the NFL? Or at least think they do! Here at NFL Chalk Talk, we decided to sit down and discuss the best division in football, the AFC North.
We could give you bold predictions or biased outcomes, but instead we elected to provide you with realistic expectations for each team in the division, starting with our projected record.
Aaron: 9-7. The division has been theirs for quite some time. A team that is so good yet so incapable of winning a playoff game. Andy Dalton is a good QB, but when it comes to how good, his playoff record full of one and done games doesn’t help his case. It’s easy to blame fumbles and misfortunes for why this team shy’s away come playoff time, however, when will the excuses end? They lost Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu in free agency, two of their main WRs behind A.J. Green. Add several others and this team is depleted of some talented players. I’ve heard the trumpet sounds of fans saying that these losses won’t serve a big plate of cause and effect, but I beg to differ. Anytime you lose your number 2 and 3 receivers, it takes a toll. That’s two guys your QB will be without, and not to mention, both of them did have significant roles on the offense. The defense lost a few pieces as well and because of this, I can’t see the Bengals winning the division again this year. I think they will take a step back and possibly miss the playoffs, depending on how big of a step back they take.
Michael: I have to agree. 9-7 seems like a solid landing place for a team that has to be demoralized after tasting the first playoff victory in 26 years, and seeing it all slip away in the final moments. Even given the regular season success that they have had, especially in recent years, every NFL team goes through ebbs and flows, and I think it’s time for Cincinnati to take a step back. I’ve seen many fans claim that Sanu and Jones weren’t big time impact players for the team, but when you’re replacing them with Brandon LaFell and Tyler Boyd, you have to wonder how effective that offense will be. You can bank on A.J. Green being double-teamed more often than not, and the Bengals face some stout run defenses this season, which makes them fairly one-dimensional in those games. Eifert is a great option, but how long will he remain healthy for? Given Andy’s propensity for failure in primetime games, I think a couple fluke losses are in store, as well. If they make the playoffs, it will be in a battle for a Wild Card spot, and they will need help from another team to do so. I also think they split with the Ravens, ending the streak. (More specifically, they lose at home on New Year’s Day. I’ll be there. So, football gods, if you could make this happen..)
Aaron: 11-5. Pittsburgh is loaded on offense like a baked sweet potato from Texas Roadhouse. They have the best offense in the NFL and there is no reason to think they won’t make it deep into the playoffs. In fact, they should be the division winners this season. They had a decent draft, and they didn’t lose serious pieces in free agency. The biggest loss was that of WR Martavis Bryant. We all know how confident Steelers fans are that their offense will do just fine without him and while they do have some decent depth, I can’t personally agree. Sammy Coates will definitely see more snaps, his speed is superb and his potential is high. Let’s not forget AB and Markus Wheaton still reside as what should be the number 1 (obviously) and number 2 WR’s. This should be a fantastic season for the Steelers and if their defense can improve, they could very well be on their way to ring # 7.
Michael: First, Aaron, the fact that you eat at Texas Roadhouse makes me question your taste buds. Anyway. Ravens fans are going to hate me for this. But I think the Steelers go 12-4, with the division title. They lost Bryant, which is a hit, but they have enough weapons to make up for it. (Maybe not with big plays, but definitely with consistency.) AB will continue to be AB, unless Ben goes down. Coates will be a decent-but-not-great option. Wheaton continues to grow, and impresses this year. One question mark is at RB. Can Le’veon Bell stay healthy, and if not, can DeAngelo Williams continue to produce at 34? Without a running attack, again, it makes it easier for opposing teams to control the passing game, especially with the Steelers facing some good pass defenses this year. Which brings up the real question mark in Pittsburgh.. the secondary. They were far below average last year, and they have not made any real moves in the off-season. Artie Burns is a solid man-to-man CB, but they primarily run a zone scheme, which he tends to flounder in. But, the coaching staff in Pittsburgh is fairly good, so if they get those two pieces in place, the Steelers are in line for a solid run up the stairway to seven.
Aaron: 8-8. Baltimore is entering 2016 with a bad taste in its mouth. After a fluke of a season, finishing at 5-11, the Ravens will look to improve this season. I’m not one to solely blame injuries on such a poor season. I’m sure losing Joe Flacco, Terrell Suggs, Steve Smith and Justin Forsett by week 17, had an impact one way or another. When you look at where things went wrong, it starts from week one at Denver and continues all the way to the end. The team had horrific issues with consistency, regardless of who was playing. The offense couldn’t finish games and the defense couldn’t come up with last minute clutch stops. They had the heart because they somehow managed to stay within single digits in almost every loss, but they lacked the killer instinct to finish out games. Why think these issues won’t carry over into 2016? Baltimore won’t have another consecutive losing season under John Harbaugh, however, don’t expect them to churn out 11 wins. I give them an 8-8 record because that’s an improvement from 5-11 and even though Ravens fans might be disappointed with a .500 finish, it’s realistic with all things considered.
Michael: Okay, maybe I was wrong. Ravens fans are going to be mad at you, not me. I’ll call our boys at a hard-fought 10-6, with a Wild Card. 21 players coming off of IR, and we’ve cut dead weight (Marlon Brown, Eugene Monroe, etc.). Joe was on pace for 4,400 yards last season before he was injured, though his passing TDs were lacking, and his INTs were not. That does need to change, but you have to take into consideration the shoddy play from the offensive line, and the lack of WR options. This will be Joe’s first year with the same offensive coordinator in recent memory, and I think Marc Trestman has a more stable handle on our offense than he did last year. I don’t think that we will get the Steve Smith of old, but I do think that he will be a great supplemental receiver to Kamar Aiken, Chris Moore, Breshad Perriman, and even Mike Wallace. (Let’s not forget Jeremy Butler.. kid has a lot of potential.) Where it gets shaky is the fact that the offense is working on 4 tight end sets, which could go really well, or really badly. But our TE corps is the best in the league. (Best CORPS in the league, not best TEs.) Pitta used to be Joe’s bread and butter, and if he is at 3/4ths of the player that he used to be, he will be a massive weapon. Benjamin Watson is coming off of a career year in New Orleans, and will prove to be a game-changer in Baltimore. Crockett Gillmore, Maxx Williams, and Nick Boyle (after his suspension) are all great young tight ends. There’s also Darren Waller, though his roster spot is in question, with 5 TEs and 5 RBs on the roster. Which brings me to the next two points. We’ve made upgrades at the offensive line, which should help the run game, as well as protection for Joe. Justin Forsett, Kenneth Dixon, Javorius Allen, Lorenzo Taliaferro.. they’re all great backs, and they’re all meant for different situations. (Yes, I know we have Trent Richardson.. do you REALLY think he’s making the roster?) The secondary was the big problem last year, as you mentioned, Aaron, but great improvement has already been seen. LaDarius Webb plays better at safety than he ever has at cornerback. Eric Weddle is already making waves as the leader of the defensive backs. Jimmy Smith should finally be 100%, and Shareece Wright impressed with 250 yards allowed over TEN games last season. I know I said teams go through ebbs and flows, but I think a resurgence is in order for the Ravens. Ozzie and Co. haven’t had back to back losing seasons in a long time, and Harbaugh/Joe have yet to miss the playoffs in consecutive seasons. Add the fact that they play the Browns twice, and the NFC East, plus a couple other beatable teams, and 10-6 is fairly realistic. (Bold prediction, we win the Steelers/Ravens Christmas game.) Besides, we always play better when nobody believes in us. In closing, R.I.P. Tray Walker.
Aaron: 6-10. The Browns are like the runt in the group. They never seem to get things right. I think this is the season where their fortunes begin to turn. After years of loss, they finally show some bright spots. I expect an improved 2016 campaign after their decent draft and solid front office moves. Sometimes the best moves are up top. A franchise that needed the right characters to pull the strings has been granted its wish. I think the Browns offense will struggle under RG3, but the defense will shine. This will be this QB’s last stop in the NFL but the fresh start of a future star in rookie WR Corey Coleman. Maybe the Browns will become contenders within the next few seasons.
Michael: If the Bengals are the bouncing baby brother of the AFC North, the Browns are the special needs cousin. 0-0 in the offseason is always their best record of the year. They are truly the definition of insanity.. trying the same thing over and over, with the same result. And here it is, 2016, and they’re giving RGKnee full reign. I call them slightly improved at 5-11, but continuing the trend of living in the basement. I think Corey Coleman impresses, and immediately wishes he was drafted by anybody else. But I also think that Hue Jackson waits and watches, and sees what he needs to do to make the Browns a contender over the next 5 years. The Browns have been rebuilding since 1999, and this is the season that we actually see viable improvement from it.
Credit: Aaron Krug and Michael Telford, Original article on NFL Chalk Talk