NFL Previews: AFC North

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Updated: July 25, 2016

Last year, I previewed the NFC North and predicted the Packers would win the division and the Vikings would finish second. I would’ve been a perfect 4-for-4 if I switched those two teams around.

This year, I switch conferences and take on the AFC North.

In 2015, the AFC North was all over the place. The Cincinnati Bengals won the division but were ousted in another first round playoff game, losing to the Pittsburgh Steelers in a defensive showdown. The Steelers easily took the Wild Card spot as the Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns weren’t competitive. But how will 2016 fare for these four teams?

Let’s start with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

They should be the favorites to win the division simply because of their offense. With Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback, Le’Veon Bell at running back, Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant at wide receiver and newly acquired Ladarius Green at tight end, this offense is about to kick a lot of teams in the mouth.

Even though Bryant and Bell are suspended for the first two and four games respectively, this shouldn’t hurt them much. Their first four games are against solid competition — at Washington, home against Cincinnati, at Philadelphia and home against Kansas City — but they could still easily win three of those games. I don’t believe the Bengals will be as feisty as they have been — I’ll get to them in a second — and I don’t believe Washington is a proven team yet either. Not to mention, they have the best receiver in the league in Brown. Regardless of the outcomes, they will have all their firepower back by Week 5 against the Jets, so they will be ready to go.

Pittsburgh’s Record: 11-5

I promised some takes on the Bengals; well here they are.

Cincinnati has been a regular season contender every year for the past half decade or so. That reason alone may help them out, but they lost a lot of talent on offense. Marvin Jones signed with the Detroit Lions while Mohamed Sanu inked a contract with the Atlanta Falcons. So what did the Bengals do to replace those guys? They signed free agent Brandon LaFell and drafted Tyler Boyd in the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft. These aren’t game changing guys and are very different in skill set from their two former receivers. A.J. Green is one of the top receivers in the game, but having guys like Sanu and Jones to complement him were vital to making it to the playoffs.

But the Bengals were able to keep their stud defensive players in Adam Jones and George Iloka. Iloka is a phenomenal safety and is only 26 years old. They got him for a bargain, too, at $30 million over five years. Jones is a middle-aged corner who can cover anybody in the game. With these two guys re-signed, and with the guys they already had on the defensive line, this defense could be top five in the league by the end of the season.

Even with the quality signings on defense, I don’t think the Bengals will have what it takes to win the division. This is really Pittsburgh’s division to win, and I just can’t see Cincy being a big threat in 2016. Their run game will be better this year than it was in 2015, but it won’t be a game-changer. They will win some games solely because of Green, but not enough to take down the Steelers.

Cincinnati’s Record: 8-8

Onto everyone’s favorite team: the Cleveland Browns!

Cleveland just won a championship in basketball, and it was the city’s first title in any major sport in over 50 years. It may be longer before the Browns have a chance at winning the Super Bowl (if football is around for that long).

Look, there’s no other way to say this, but Cleveland is the worst team in all of football. They had a solid 2016 draft, but it won’t help them enough to get into the playoffs for a long while.

The Browns have had countless problems over the past several years with Josh Gordon and Johnny Manziel. If these two players lived up to their expectations and hype, this team would be so much better. Cleveland drafted Manziel in the first round and won the Heisman Trophy while playing at Texas A&M. He was a great college quarterback, but flamed out like Ryan Leaf. It sure will make for a good 30 for 30 someday.

Just like Manziel, Gordon has had his issues as well. Resisting to smoke or drink for an addict is tough. I’ve been around it, so I know firsthand. But the money, fame and drive for success should be able to cancel it out. Unfortunately, it hasn’t for Gordon or Manziel. Although Gordon met with Commissioner Roger Goodell last week, I don’t think he will be reinstated into the NFL this season. He failed yet another drug test back in March, so it’s a long shot. If he comes back and is able to play all 16 games, maybe the Browns won’t have the first pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.

Cleveland’s Record: 2-14 

Last up is the Baltimore Ravens.

The Ravens had a disappointing 2015 season compared to 2014. They were 5-11 and third in the division. A lot of this was due to injuries. Steve Smith, Joe Flacco, Terrell Suggs and Justin Forsett were all hit by the injury bug, which led to the vast majority of those 11 losses they had in 2015.

Now with those guys healthy and ready to play, the Ravens should be much better this upcoming season. With some veteran signings in safety Eric Weddle and wide receiver Mike Wallace, this young team will be able to learn a thing or two from them. Weddle had an off-year with the San Diego Chargers last season, and you could say the same about Wallace in Minnesota, but these are players capable of being at the top of their position. Wallace is one of the fastest receivers in the game and Weddle hits as hard as any safety in the league. These are quality additions for Baltimore and I expect these two players to have better seasons this year than they did last year.

Baltimore’s Record: 9-7

This division is always one of the most exciting to watch. The in-division games are always intense and some of the best matchups to watch in football. Who do you think will win the division? Sound off in the comments below or tweet us @FanPointSports!

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