Cincinnati Bengals (11-5). This is the Bengals’ time. They have made the playoffs the last two seasons, and are trending up – the two playoff losses to the Houston Texans notwithstanding. QB Andy Dalton is improving. WR A.J. Green is a freaking stud. And the defense is getting better and nastier. Anytime a team adds a vet like James Harrison, it is going to revel in his special brand of “nasty” and feed off of it.
Here’s another way in which Cincy has improved: its drafting. As much as I loved their first round pick (Notre Dame TE Tyler Eifert), I REALLY loved their second round pick (North Carolina RB Giovani Bernard). Suffice it to say, the Bengals put their 10 draft picks to fairly good use.
This is as good a year as any for the Bengals to finally make their move in the AFC North. My Steelers are “Team Geritol”, the Ravens purged the hell out of its roster, and the Browns are well, …the Browns.
Toughest Games: the opening three-game stretch at Bears, vs. Steelers (Monday night) and vs. Packers as well as both games against the Ravens. Cincy’s season will hinge on how it performs in those first three games of the season. They could ill afford to lose two of those games.
Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6). My Steelers are a team of transition. Our salary cap jail has resulted in the loss of leadership (James Harrison and Casey “Big Snack” Hampton) and good, talented players (Mike Wallace and Keenan Lewis). The Steelers are perilously thin at important positions such as the secondary, linebacking corps, and running backs. While their draft improved their depth in some of those areas, it was curious to see the Steelers not draft an offensive lineman.
At any rate, years like this where Pittsburgh is counted out is when it is at its most dangerous. They have an easier schedule this year, hosting the Titans and the Lions, a road date with the Raiders (hopefully the Steelers will win out there for a change), and the AFC East (which is pathetic sans New England). Plus, you can’t count out a team led by Ben Roethlisberger.
Toughest Games: both games vs. the Bengals and Ravens, at Patriots, at Packers. Both games against Cincy and Baltimore will provide a litmus test as to where the Steelers will stand in the AFC North.
Baltimore Ravens (10-6). The Ravens are the defending Super Bowl champions. Hate to say it, but good for them – it was well deserved. But man, did they undergo a facelift or what? Aside from Ray Lewis retiring, they let go of iconic safety Ed Reed, Bernard Pollard, Paul Kruger, Dannell Ellerbe, and trading Anquan Boldin for practically nothing (to the 49ers for a 6th round pick).
While the Ravens did do well in the draft (I loved their first two picks Matt Elam and Arthur Brown), I believe in not losing the ultimate intangible: leadership. Lewis, Reed, Pollard, and especially Boldin brought that leadership to the Ravens locker room.
The Ravens are going to be fine, at least on paper. And cats like Joe Flacco, Ray Rice and Terrell “T-Sizzle” Suggs will have to step up and lead. I think all those other things – as well as a tougher schedule – will cause the Ravens to take at least one step back in this division.
Toughest Games: both games against the Bengals and Steelers, at Broncos, vs. Packers and Patriots. Those divisional games are going to be bruisers, man. But how messed up is it for the Ravens to open on the road as the defending Super Bowl champs at Denver?
Cleveland Browns (5-11). Things are looking up for Cleveland – sort of. The good news is the Browns have a stud in RB Trent Richardson. The bad news is they are still the Browns. Say hello to another year of “dead freaking last” in the AFC North.