AFC North Preview: Will Baltimore regain control this season?

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Updated: September 2, 2015
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The AFC North has been consistently viewed as one of the best divisions in the NFL. In the last four-to-five years, at least three teams have been playoff contenders during the season. At one point last season, it seemed as if all four teams would be in playoff contention.

But which team will separate itself from the expected three-way competition this time around? Here are my thoughts on this year’s AFC North division.

 

Baltimore Ravens (Prediction: 11-5)

The Ravens are the most consistent team in this division. If they’re not playing in the AFC Championship game, they’re most likely one game away from it. This offseason they’ve added depth at almost every position.

Offensively, Joe Flacco has become a very reliable NFL quarterback. He finished last season with 3,986 passing yards, 27 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. With the addition of rookie wide receiver Breshad Perriman, he’ll have another deep threat to go along with Steve Smith Sr. Running back Justin Forsett is looking to build off the success he had last season, where he rushed for 1,266 yards and eight touchdowns.

Defensively, they remain relevant and effective. Losing nose tackle Haloti Ngata is definitely a tough pill to swallow. However, Brandon Williams is a solid replacement. He had a total of 47 tackles during the last half of the season. They also have a strong linebacker corps with Terrell Suggs, C.J. Mosley and Elvis Dumervil.

My biggest concern for their defense is the secondary. Even though they added cornerback Kyle Arrington — who was very productive at times during his six seasons with the New England Patriots — I’m not sure if they have enough depth in the defensive backfield.

But I do believe the Ravens are in a great position to win the division this season, despite their secondary problems.

 

Pittsburgh Steelers (Prediction: 10-6)

The Steelers have proven to have one of the best quarterback-wide receiver-running back trio’s in the NFL. I expect them to continue to to have success on offense this season. Ben Roethlisberger (who’s often overlooked as one of the best quarterbacks in the league) was superb last year, as he finished with 4,952 passing yards, 32 touchdowns and only nine interceptions.

Antonio Brown just received a $2 million raise for this season, and everyone knows a paid receiver equals a productive receiver — well at least that’s what we (particularly the Steelers) hope for.

Although Le’Veon Bell will be suspended for the first two games of the season , I don’t see why he wouldn’t be productive on the field once he returns. Former Carolina Panthers running back D’Angelo Williams will be a solid replacement while Bell is out for the first two weeks.

The only concerns the Steelers have are at the center position, and on defense. Now that Maurkice Pouncey will be out for approximately 10 weeks, due to an ankle injury he suffered during Game 2 of this preseason against the Green Bay Packers, the Steelers will need either Cody Wallace or Doug Legursky to step up and get the job done.

Defensively, they’ll face some growing pains. Not only is defensive mastermind Dick LeBeau no longer their coordinator, but former safety Troy Polamalu has retired. The defense this preseason has given up 26 points per game. Some players have made it known that they are not in panic mode, and they have the right to remain confident — considering this is only preseason. However, giving up 26 points per contest is certainly nothing to overlook.

The offense is expected to play well, but the Steelers are depending on their defense and offensive line in order to have a good shot at winning the division.

 

Cincinnati Bengals (Prediction: 10-6)

The Bengals have pretty much the same team as last year. Quarterback Andy Dalton will either improve on his production from last season (3,398 yards, 19 touchdowns and 17 interceptions) or stay mediocre. Dalton has been productive enough to lead the Bengals to the playoffs in the last three years, but not productive enough to get them to the AFC Championship — or to even win a playoff game.

They have a nice running back duo with Jeremy Hill, who had a total of 1,124 yards and nine touchdowns last season, and Giovanni Bernard, who had a total of five touchdowns last season.

A.J. Green will likely have another productive season himself, as he’s in a contract year and wants to get paid Dez BryantJulio Jones-type money.

Defensively, they will have a healthy Geno Atkins and Michael Johnson that will help their front line. They have added linebacker A.J. Hawk and re-signed Rey Maualuga. Their secondary is solid as well. with cornerbacks Dre Kirkpatrick, Leon HallDarqueze Denard and Adam Pacman-Jones. They’ll also have strong safety play led by George Iloka and Reggie Nelson.

The Bengals have proven that they can compete in this division on a yearly basis. I expect them to be in playoff contention once again.

 

Cleveland Browns (Prediction: 7-9)

The Browns are considered a “dark horse” to many fans this season. Their biggest issue is at quarterback. Who will put this team in the best position to win this season, Josh McCown or Johnny Manziel?

McCown, who’s the more experienced of the two, had a total of 2, 206 yards last season with 11 touchdowns and 14 interceptions while in Tampa Bay. Manziel finished with a total of 175 passing yards with zero touchdowns and two interceptions. He’s also recently been diagnosed with elbow tendinitis. Who knows if that will play a role in Mike Pettine‘s decision to start him this season.

Whoever will be at quarterback can look forward to having wide receivers Dwayne Bowe, Brian Hartline and Andrew Hawkins at their dispense. Bowe has something to prove after finishing last season with no touchdowns while in Kansas City.

They have much needed depth at the running back position, with players such as Terrance West, Isaiah Crowell and rookie Duke Johnson.

Defensively, they have the chance to be top 10 in the league. Rookie lineman Danny Shelton and linebacker Nate Orchard have been impressive throughout preseason. In the secondary, they have a very solid group with cornerbacks Justin Gilbert, Tramon Williams and Joe Haden, as well as safety Donte Whitner.

The Browns could be one quarterback away from being playoff contenders.

Nishara Holmes

Nishara Holmes

Nishara Holmes is a sportswriter for Sidelines Sports Report. She resides in Prince George County, Maryland.

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