TSN football analyst Chris Schultz breaks down all the teams and each division in the NFL leading up to the regular season. Next up, the Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Pittsburgh Steelers, and Cleveland Browns in the AFC North.
In 2014, the 8-8 season that the Baltimore Ravens experienced was to be expected. Coming off the 2013 Super Bowl, the absence of Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and others, a quarterback that now receives a about a million dollars a game, it was just football logical that a regression of success would happen. The good news is that was then, this is now.
In the AFC North there are three teams that could finish anywhere between first and third. Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Baltimore are all very similar but with head coach John Harbaugh and Ozzie Newsome now in his 19th year as a key decision maker, it is difficult to think this will be anything but a first place division winning team. Especially coming off a playoff-absent year with a younger and hungrier team.
Joe Flacco did not have a good year last year. Ray Rice had a terrible off-season. Both players will bounce back by mid-season. In free agency, by acquiring Steve Smith the Ravens acquired emotional leadership. In the draft, by taking CJ Mosley they found a "ready to play" linebacker. And Torrey Smith as a receiver and Jimmy Smith as a cornerback are as good as any in the league. There is just too much football talent on an individual basis not to be optimistic about this season.
An absolute key will be Week 1, 2 and 3: Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and at Cleveland. If Baltimore is 3-0 everyone in the division will be chasing them. If they go 0-3 they will be chasing everybody. Baltimore can make or break their season in September.
Someone has to step in and replace Michael Oher at right tackle and they may need a fullback as both Shaun Chapas and Kyle Juszczyk are only second year players and not proven over a 16-game schedule. But if you believe in the trickledown effect, that if the strength of an organization is at the very top and because it is so strong everything else trickles down, Steve Bisciotti, Ozzie Newsome and John Harbaugh are just too good at their chosen profession not to have the Ravens bounce back in a big way here in 2014. Ravens will finish first in the AFC North.
The Bengals have been a remarkably successful team during the regular season. In 2011 they went 9-7. In 2012, they finished 10-6. And last year, they had their best season of the three, finishing 11-5. But the Bengals have been a remarkably unsuccessful team in the playoffs. Under Marvin Lewis, who is a proven NFL coach, they are 0-5 in the postseason. And in those games they have not scored more than 17 points and have been outscored 132 to 64. Are the Bengals due this year to turn it around after the 16 games of the regular season? We won't know until January of 2015.
This year they are off to a good start by wrapping up QB Andy Dalton and signing him for a lot of years and a lot of money. Dalton has his critics but who else is out there? Nobody. I think Cincinnati will finish second or third in the AFC North. They lost a very good defensive coordinator in Mike Zimmer and a very good offensive coordinator in Jay Gruden. Both received head coaching opportunities in Minnesota and Washington, respectively, and that says a lot. It is one thing to go from coordinator to coordinator from one team to another but to both receive head coaching positions means their value is in the extreme. Cincinnati has some great young talent. Giovani Bernard on offence and Vontaze Burfict on defence. And they do have a top-5 receiver in AJ Green who has caught more passes in his first three seasons than any receiver in NFL history with 260. But can they win the division again? The most important two games in the schedule happen in the last month of the season. First there is December 7 at Pittsburgh, and then in Week 17, December 28 at Pittsburgh. With a very balanced roster those two dates could be for first, second, or even third place in the AFC North. I think it will be for second. Bengals to finish second in the AFC North.
Just like the Baltimore Ravens and the Cincinnati Bengals the Pittsburgh Steelers could finish first in the AFC North or third. It comes down to the head-to-head divisional games. Last year they split games with the Ravens and Bengals, and beat the Browns twice. On the plus side Pittsburgh finished strong last year, going 6-2 over the last eight games and 8-4 over the last 12. On the "wait-and-see" side of things the Steelers are all of a sudden a much younger team on defence. Only Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu are over age 30. It will be interesting to see how Dick LeBeau educates and manages his youth and inexperience. Sometimes the toughest aspect of winning football to create is to go from 8-8, as the Steelers did for the last two years, to 10-6 which can get you into the playoffs.
At 32 it may be up to Ben Roethlisberger to get it done by himself. The player who was the biggest surprise to me was left tackle Kelvin Beachum, number 68. He is going into his third year and was a seventh-round draft pick out of SMU. Not many seventh-round draft picks become starters in their second year and I would not say dominant but he played like an eighth-year starter. The offensive line for Pittsburgh could be a genuine strength by the end of the year. The Steelers were an old team last year but not this time around as they went through the painful process of getting younger. Now, believe it or not their oldest player is their best player in Polamalu at 33. How many years he has left is unknown - or maybe how many years he has left playing the style of football he plays - which I call "dangerous". Dangerous for himself and his opponent.
Pittsburgh does have impact players on offence with Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell but their impact player on defence is still Troy Polamalu. If the Steelers do not make the playoffs this year it will be the first time since 1998 to 2000 that there were three consecutive "down years" for that franchise. The competition in the division is as good maybe as the NFC West. And because of that, the Steelers will finish third in the AFC North.
In the last five seasons the Browns have won either five or four games, depending on the year. Overall the argument can be made that Cleveland is the most dysfunctional team in all of NFL football. The reasons are simple. Too many owners, too many head coaches and too many quarterbacks. Continuity has been a challenge but maybe, just maybe, it changes this year. All the attention is on Johnny Manziel but there are other aspects of Browns football that are more than respectable. The loss of Josh Gordon is the same for the Browns as if Detroit lost Calvin Johnson. Gordon changes games. But Miles Austin, Nate Burleson, Andrew Hawkins and Earl Bennett are all proven receivers. And that is the frustration with the Browns, they have talent. They have two good cornerbacks in Justin Gilbert and Joe Haden, and Joe Thomas and Alex Mack at tackle and centre. Jordan Cameron is a Pro Bowl player at tight end.
But for whatever the reason it never comes together for more than five wins. With that, Mike Pettine has his challenge. The newest head coach does have a defensive system that is proven and has an offensive coordinator in Kyle Shanahan who is experienced. But somehow it all has to come together beginning on September 7 in Pittsburgh. Who will be at quarterback? I am betting on Brian Hoyer. He only played in three games last year but it forced Brandon Weeden to Dallas and he played well. Manziel's time is coming but Hoyer's time is now. It's all new again for the Browns: head coach, offensive and defensive coordinators and general manager in Ray Farmer. It's all new again, except for one thing - they will finish fourth again in the AFC North.