Friday, August 26, 2016

NFL 2016 Preview: AFC North (One of these teams is not like the others)

After finishing my review of the major conferences (and the American) in college football it's time to turn my gaze toward the Shield. Or, the league that we all love to watch but also love to hate.  While I'm not as much of an NFL fan as I am a fan of the college game I do realize that there are many out there who will only watch the professional version of the sport.

With that in mind here's the first installment in my division by division look at American football at the professional level:

Part the First: AFC East (Same Old, Same Old)

Part the Second: AFC North (One of these teams is not like the others)

North W L
Pittsburgh 13 3
Cincinnati 12 4
Baltimore 11 5
Cleveland 3 13
Team by Team:

1. Pittsburgh Steelers. I'm putting the Steelers up this high and I'm cringing a little.  Le'Veon Bell is a beast of a running back, with the self-control of a child apparently.  But when he's right (and in the lineup) I believe the Steelers are the best team in the division by whisker. During the three weeks he's out the Steeler's have Washington (W), Cincinnati(L - maybe) and Philadelphia (W) on the schedule so I think they'll be fine.  Oh yeah, they play the Bengals at home so that will help as well.  What else do the Steelers have? Oh just Rothlisburger, the best receiver in pro football and a defense that is big, fast and nasty (albeit getting old in places).  It will be interesting to see if Harrison makes it through the entire year without being suspended for PED's but, even if he is, I don't think he's an integral piece to this defense today.  Tomlin is an OK, but not great head coach who could use a division championship to quiet the hounds.

2. Cincinnati Harambes Bengals. This team feels as if it's window is closing rapidly. I love AJ Green, the running back duo of Hill and Bernard, and the defense.  What I don't love is Andy Dalton and the coaching staff, most of the good assistants have been selected to coach other teams. I think they probably have the best O-line in the division, and Eifert is another good weapon, IF Dalton can get him the ball.  Defensively it's basically the same group from last year, but they are getting old.  And I think that is the reason I feel the window is getting closer and closer to slamming shut on the Brown family.  Although, given the team history, they probably won't care.  My question is whether or not HC Marvin Lewis can survive another good regular season, and then a flame out in the post season, which I think is on the offering for the Bengals this year. Also, can Zampese and Guenther replace Gruden and Jackson successfully at the coordinator positions.

3. Baltimore Ravens. First things first. Joe Flacco is NOT an elite quarterback. He's a good quarterback who has ridden a stiff defense to a SuperBowl. That is nothing to sneeze at but it does not make one elite. Beyond Flacco however, this team has a ton of questions on offense. Can Justin Forsett carry a full-time load?  Will Steve Smith Jr. be healthy? Is Mike Wallace a dependable #1 WR? Will an aging O-line hold up one more year?  On defense however I think this team is fine. The unit of Suggs/Mosely/Orr/Dumerville could be dominant at LB, the D-line is big, and deep, and the defensive backfield (on paper) appears much improved. Add to all that the man who I believe is the best head football coach in the division, and I think this is going to be one of those weird years for Baltimore where the regular season is pretty good, but they lose out on the playoffs in a tie-breaker due, in part, to playing in a pretty strong division. (And offensive issues).

4. Cleveland Browns. Let's assume a best case scenario for the Browns.  That RG III plays like his pre-ruined by Shanahan self and that Isaiah Crowell is a true NFL running back (I prefer Duke Johnson Jr.) and that Terrelle Pryor, Corey Coleman and Andrew Hawkins are for real WR's and that Josh Gordon comes back healthy and keeps two cents rattling around his head in order. Let's assume that every player on this relatively young defense continues to improve and that 1st year head coach Hue Jackson really is as good as some of us think he is.  Even if all of that is true (and odds are it's not) and even IF the Browns avoid the injury gremlin this year (and odds are they won't) do you see this as a .500 team?  I don't, which is why I have them at 3-13 this year with one huge caveat:  I think that, unlike in prior years, if you're a Browns fan you can say with some optimism that this should be the lowest point going forward. I think this team is finally in a place, with coaches and young talent, that an ascendancy is possible. I'm not sure you could really say that before.

To my way of thinking, this is one of the strongest divisions in football, despite not having the best team (New England) or the best coach (New England) or even the best quarterback (Brady) they probably have both the best offensive and defensive lines, some of the best skill players, and three of the overall best TEAMS in the AFC. Then you have Cleveland, which is decidedly not like the others, but finally appears to understand what it takes to begin the process of getting there.

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