The NFL offseason has yet to really get going, but change amongst AFC North rivals has already made the Bengals big winners.
Performing well in and eventually winning your division is the simplest path to big-time success for any NFL team. The offseason is still young and the Bengals are finishing filling out their coaching staff.
However, the goal of winning the AFC North is as realistic as it has been in a few years, at least on paper. The two franchises that have been rock solid for most of the last decade are making changes for the worse. Here is a look at each.
Over the course of the last year, one of the NFL’s model franchises has turned in to a complete circus. A season that took place with the backdrop of star multipurpose running back Le’Veon Bell sitting out due to contract issues ended without the Steelers in the playoffs for the first time since 2013. Bell is set to become a free agent.
Wide receiver Antonio Brown has seven trips to the Pro Bowl under his belt. He also wants out of Pittsburgh and recently demanded a trade. It does not appear the relationship can be salvaged.
James Conner did an admirable job in Bell’s place last year and JuJu Smith Schuster has 169 catches in his first two years as an NFL wide receiver Even so, Bell and Brown are just 27 and 30 years old respectively. They have eight All Pro designations and ten Pro Bowls between them. There is no way to adequately replace that kind of production.
As long as Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Tomlin are around, the Steelers will remain competitive. However, no team is happier to see them losing two out of three offensive centerpieces than the Bengals. Cincinnati is 9-31 against Pittsburgh since 2000. We still have no clue what the Bengals will look like in 2019, but we know the Steelers will be worse. That is a huge positive for Cincinnati.
The Ravens have not troubled the Bengals nearly as much as the Steelers. The series is dead even since the franchise came into existence in 1996, but the Ravens are the reigning division champs, but they have made the massive mistake of choosing to build around a quarterback who can’t throw.
Lamar Jackson certainly gave the Ravens season life last year leading them to six wins in seven games while filling in for injured starter Joe Flacco. Jackson is a great athlete but a team that runs the ball well over half of the time and has a quarterback that only completes 58% of his passes has no chance at long-term success in the NFL. We have seen it before with the Tim Tebow led Broncos and the “Wildcat” happy 2008 Dolphins. The rest of the league catches on eventually. Sure, Jackson can improve, but accuracy is tough to work on at this level.
Say what you will about Flacco, but he was the only guy on the roster who threw an NFL looking ball and he his on his way to Denver next month via trade. It will be tough for the Ravens to replicate last year’s winning formula, especially if they lose defensive pieces in free agency.
The Cleveland Factor
The Browns have been so bad for so long. Thus, seven wins last year has some predicting big things next year. Dig deeper before believing the hype. Cleveland went 5-3 after the coaching staff was overhauled midseason. All three of the losses were to playoff teams and the five wins were against Carolina, Atlanta, Denver, and Cincinnati twice. Those teams went a combined 26-38. The Browns are absolutely done being a doormat, but still a long ways away from owning the AFC North.
The Bengals have two elite offensive weapons in Joe Mixon and A.J. Green. They also have a fresh energy on the sidelines with young head coach Zac Taylor. Taylor cut his NFL teeth mostly as a quarterbacks coach. Given everything above, If he can find a way to get just a little something extra out of Andy Dalton and the right group of minds to turn the defense into anything more than awful, Cincinnati will be AFC North champions in 2019.
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