NFL Preview: AFC North
Jun 11, 2014; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals owner Mike Brown (left) walks with quarterback Andy Dalton (14) during minicamp at Paul Brown Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports
With training camp beginning this week for all 32 teams, NFL fans everywhere are thinking Super Bowl for their team. Why not? This is the one time of year fans get to be excited about all the new prospects and see what additions are going to step up and be the new face of the franchise.
This is all fine and good, but wins and losses is what separates a team, and once again, the AFC North will more than likely be one of the power divisions in the NFL. Arguably the best division in football over the past decade, the AFC North doesn’t seem to get caught up in flashy hype. The AFC North is all about taking care of business.
With that said, the offseason additions for all four teams have made them bigger, faster and stronger at key positions. However, there are enough losses on these teams to make them all interesting. Is the AFC North up for grabs? Cleveland might come out of nowhere and surprise a lot of people, or Pittsburgh could rebound from its off-kilter year to win it all. Here is how I believe the AFC North will stack up when it’s all said and done.
1) Cincinnati Bengals (10-6): Yes, Andy Dalton this and Andy Dalton that. Truth is, the guy isn’t all that bad. His 33 touchdowns and 4 yards short of 4300 passing yards certainly helped the Bengals to their first AFC North title since 2009. The Bengals certainly got faster at Cornerback with drafting Jim Thorpe award winner Darqueze Dennard. Also, returning is All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins, and a guy on a lot of top 25 possible breakout players lists, Emmanuel Lamur. Don’t forget about A.J. Green, Marvin Jones, Tyler Eifert, Jermaine Gresham, and Giovani Bernard. This team is young, fast, hungry and complete. Look for a 4th straight playoff trip and back to back AFC North titles.
2) Baltimore Ravens: (9-7): Wild Card. Baltimore is only two years removed from a Super Bowl, and the Ravens, who are one of the best run franchises in the NFL should rebound nicely in 2014. Production from running back Ray Rice will determine the offense since he is easily Joe Flacco’s favorite target. Steve Smith should be a nice addition at wide receiver, and they are hoping to catch the second coming of Ray Lewis by drafting Alabama linebacker CJ Mosley. Look for Baltimore to bounce back, but Flacco’s huge Super Bowl winning contract is going to hinder them for years to come. The Bengals open up in Baltimore for Week 1. Tickets are available for as low as $91 and Baltimore hotels from Hipmunk start at only $99.
3) Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8): The Steelers had an off year last year, or was it. The Steelers have added a few key pieces, but losing Emanuel Sanders to Denver might hurt them more than they now. Antonio Brown is a dynamic, game changing receiver, no doubt about it, and the Steelers still have Big Ben and a winning culture. All that said, they are slower at key positions on defense and with age comes health. Can the Steelers stay healthy enough to be contenders late in the season? If the answer is yes, then they have a shot at winning the AFC North, or beating out Baltimore for a wild card spot. The Steelers play the Bengals twice in the last 4 weeks of the season. Those games could be pivotal and end up determining who goes home or who goes to the playoffs.
4) Cleveland Browns: (6-10): Yes, Johnny Football has arrived in Cleveland. Would be nice if he had Sammy Watkins to throw the ball to, or anyone for that matter. The Browns defense is stout, no doubt about that. However this is a league that favors the offense and big plays. As Manziel learns behind Brian Hoyer, his success hinders on when he gets to play. If they wait and wait and then start Manziel, this season might be a wash, but if they can get him in early and let him have a chance, he might do well enough to lead this team out of the cellar. Until then, the Browns just have too much to overcome, dealing with new personnel and off the field issues to get out of the AFC North basement. Don’t forget, the AFC North is one of the best divisions in football, and with it being such a powerhouse; the Browns are just in the wrong division.
Winning the AFC North is no small feat, and the only team who seems poised to do so is Cincinnati. The Bengals were 8-0 at home last season and won the division by 2.5 games. The rest of the division could go either way, honestly. Injuries are a big part of this and so is overall recovery time for aging players. However, the AFC North will not disappoint, and at least 1 wild card will come out of there this season.
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