Who will win the AFC North in 2016?

The AFC North produced two playoff teams in 2015: the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers. The Bengals captured their second division championship in three seasons while the Steelers reached the postseason as the wild card. The bitter rivals faced each other in one of the most physical playoff games in recent memory leaving no doubt in fan’s minds that there is no love lost between the two franchises. With Cincinnati and Pittsburgh equally projected to take the crown in 2016, which one will reign supreme over the other?

The Cincinnati Bengals have one more chance to make amends in the AFC.

The Cincinnati Bengals are still a talented team on both sides of the ball. Despite being stuck in the mental rut of never getting past the first playoff game under Head Coach Marvin Lewis, fans have a reason to think the Bengals will win the AFC North in 2016. 2015 saw this team record the third best record, statistically, in the conference at 12-4 [Denver and New England had identical records but better statistical records against conference opponents]. The Cincinnati offense displayed consistency in both the pass and run games as quarterback Andy Dalton put together his best performance of his career. Wide receiver A.J Green proved he is one of the National Football League’s elite receivers and running back Jeremy Hill provided a decent showing on the ground. The defense produced at a top-tier level last season, improving in pass coverage, run stuffing and ranking in the top-10 in sacks. Despite coming up short once again in the playoffs, failing to win that first game under Lewis, the Bengals will have one more chance to make amends and get the job done.

Dalton suffered a late season injury in 2015, but will be back for 2016 with high expectations in regards to his on-field performance. Green will be the primary target in the passing game for Dalton along with tight end Tyler Eifert once he returns from injury. Despite providing a solid showing on the ground last year, Hill’s numbers suffered due to a struggling offensive line that could not make room for him. Jeremy will improve upon his average statistics and once again display the dynamic abilities he had in 2014. The front five need to improve in run blocking, but pass protection projects to be better than it was in 2015. Cincinnati’s offensive unit displayed explosiveness and consistency last season, but a similar performance is in the cards barring another injury to Andy Dalton.

The Bengals defense was very good in 2015. The 10th ranked pass rush in the National Football League contributed to improvements against the run, pass and forcing turnovers. The defensive line projects to be one of the league’s best in 2016, the linebackers are talented and experienced, but the secondary is a concern. A mix of old and young players make up the back four, but this group would get exposed when the front seven couldn’t generate consistent pass rush against opposing good quarterbacks. The defensive backfield will be a hindrance to the overall defense’s ability to be elite in 2016. It is not a terrible secondary, but far from being one of the league’s best. Pressure will be on the front seven to avoid overexposure of the back four.

The Cincinnati Bengals still display a talented team on both sides of the ball. Run blocking and secondary consistency will be the only two areas of concern for the Bengals, which can really hurt a team’s chances of major success, but the depth and talent displayed everywhere else should be able to mask these problems for the time being. Cincinnati has one more season to make things right; 2016 is that season. Win-loss prediction: 11-5

The Pittsburgh Steelers look imposing for 2016, but three things stand in their way.

The Pittsburgh Steelers had a bang up season in 2015…literally. Injuries riddled the Steelers throughout the regular season and especially in the playoffs. Despite having stints without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, wide receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers still found a way to finish with a 10-6 record, win a road playoff game against the rival Cincinnati Bengals and come within an arm’s reach of advancing to the AFC Championship game. With a high powered offensive unit in 2015, regardless of the injuries suffered on that side of the ball, things look good for Pittsburgh in 2016 as their playoff chances are high. Division championship aspirations might not be in the cards, but wild card opportunities are most certainly there for this team.

On paper, the Steelers possess the most explosive offense in the National Football League. Roethlisberger is one of the best quarterbacks in the game, Brown is the best wide receiver in the game, Bell is one of the most dynamic running backs in the game and multiple role players contribute to a prolific passing attack and physical ground game. The offensive line is one of the more formidable units in the league with good ability to pass protect and run block. Two concerns for the Steelers’ offense are suspensions and injury risks. Bell will serve a three game suspension to open up the 2016 regular season and wide receiver Martavis Bryant will not see action at any point this year due to a marijuana suspension. These are two pivotal pieces to the Pittsburgh offensive unit, but at least Bell will see playing time in 2016. Bryant’s absence weakens an elite receiving core that would have appreciated his services. Injuries are always a concern for NFL teams, but the Steelers are praying that Roethlisberger, Brown or Bell do not see time on the disabled list again this year. If Pittsburgh has any hopes of competing for a potential long run in the postseason, these three need to stay healthy throughout the entire regular season. If healthy, the Steelers’ offense will be as explosive as anyone’s in 2016.

The Pittsburgh defense is still not that good overall, but improvements have been made on this side of the ball. The run defense was great in 2015, ranking fifth in the league, and this will be the strength of the unit in 2016. The pass rush improved with young players continuing to develop within the front seven last season. The Steelers will get after the quarterback this season at a top-10 level. The secondary is the biggest concern because of how young and inexperienced it is. A youth movement has begun with the back four, but the defensive backs are still prone to obliteration if the front seven can’t rush the passer on a consistent basis. The secondary is the weakness of an improving Steelers defense, but there are some things to like about this unit heading into 2016.

The Pittsburgh Steelers will be a playoff team in 2016, despite coming up short in their attempt to win the AFC North. The high powered offense will provide the entertainment and the front seven will keep the secondary out of trouble. Health is a concern; the Steelers are hoping this does not become a reality. Win-loss prediction: 10-6

The Baltimore Ravens have the look of a middle of the pack team in 2016.

The Baltimore Ravens had a nightmarish 2015 season which saw a 5-11 finish and third place standing in the AFC North. The Ravens suffered from bad injuries and years of poor drafting and free agent departures, which finally caught up to them. Despite being projected to make the playoffs in 2015, Baltimore’s lackluster season leaves fans wondering whether or not the franchise needs to undergo a rebuilding period. With an older roster, this might be the case. One could argue the Ravens have at least one more season to make something happen, but one could also argue that things will only get worse.

The Baltimore offense fell apart following the season ending injury to quarterback Joe Flacco, but it was nothing special before then. The Ravens’ unit did finish 14th in the National Football League in total yards, but struggled to put points on the board as they finished 25th in points scored. Bad injuries to Flacco, running back Justin Forsett and wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. contributed to the eventual offensive struggles because they are the top play-makers on that side of the ball. With these three returning in 2016, fans hope they can stay healthy and provide stability at their respective positions. The offensive line was all over the place in 2015, but slight improvements to the line were made during the off-season and pass protection is going to be an x-factor in 2016. Health will also be an x-factor for the Baltimore Ravens’ offense because Flacco, Forsett and Smith Sr. are not spring chickens. A young influx of talent will need to be implemented for the future, but the Ravens will deal with an offense with older skill position players this season.

The Ravens’ defense was competitive in 2015, finishing eighth in the NFL in total yards allowed per game, but struggled to keep opposing offenses out of the end zone as they ranked 24th in the league in points allowed per game. Injuries and free agent departures to the defensive line saw a little bit of regression against the run and the secondary was exposed as a decent unit with vulnerabilities. Baltimore addressed the defensive side of the ball in the 2016 NFL Draft, selecting three defensive players with their first four picks [outside linebacker, defensive end and cornerback]. With the focus being on improving the defense, all three levels will see progression from young talent this season. Despite the slight regression against the run, this is still the strength of this unit as it allowed under 100 yards per game in 2015. The pass coverage will be decent, but the front seven has to develop a strong pass rush to avoid opposing quarterback exposing a weaker secondary. 2016 will be another year where the Baltimore defense is competitive, but likely finishes in the middle of the pack.

The Baltimore Ravens have the look of a middle of the pack team in 2016. Health was the problem in 2015, so it has become a concern this year. The poor drafting and free agent departures appear to have finally caught up to an organization that developed a good reputation under general manager Ozzie Newsome. Ravens fans might expect a postseason berth in 2016, but this is highly unlikely. Baltimore is a nine win team this season, at best. Win-loss prediction: 9-7

The Cleveland Browns are rebuilding, but they are always rebuilding.

This is an honest question: who really cares about the Cleveland Browns? Who has cared about the Browns since being reinstated to the National Football League in 1999? Why should anyone outside the city of Cleveland even worry about this franchise? 2015 was yet another of many horrendous seasons for the worst run organization in football. NFL fans feel bad for Browns fans because even the biggest signs of hope turn out to be nothing more than teasers before reality sinks in. The Browns finished with a 3-13 record and unsurprising last place finish in the AFC North last season. The offense stunk, the defense stunk, the coaching was inconsequential and very little excitement was provided to a fan base that has suffered for almost two decades. Heading into 2016, with yet another new coach and starting quarterback, can an actual system be implemented in Cleveland? Will real progression finally begin?

The Browns hired offensive coordinator, and quarterback coach, Hue Jackson to be the new head coach of the franchise during the off-season. Following the hiring of Jackson, Cleveland made another move by acquiring former Rookie of the Year Quarterback Robert Griffin III in free agency. With the release of former college standout and Heisman winner Johnny Manziel, Cleveland turns to Griffin III to revive his career and a dead Browns offense. Robert will be backed up by the solid running back duo of Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson Jr. The Browns possess a solid offensive line to help provide protection for Griffin III and make room for Crowell and Johnson Jr. on the ground. The wide receiver core is young and unproven, but the potential return of former standout Josh Gordon lingers throughout the locker room and fan base. Gordon’s return could provide the much needed spark and excitement for this side of the ball, but it is unclear whether or not he is even in the physical shape to perform at the NFL level anymore. This will be the biggest talking point for the football media, pertaining to the Browns, other than Robert’s performance in 2016.

The Cleveland defense was terrible in 2015, but that was the expectation among Browns fans and NFL fans around the country. The pass defense could not slow down opposing wide receivers, the front seven was consistently ran over by opposing running backs and the defense gave up the third most points last season. Cornerback Joe Haden is the most experienced and talented player on the defensive side of the ball, but one player will not improve an overall young and inexperienced unit. The front seven is weak and the secondary is even weaker [minus Haden]. The Browns’ defense will battle San Francisco for the NFL’s basement spot in total defense in 2016 because of the inability to consistenly defend the pass, stop the run and get after the opposing quarterback. This unit will be very bad this season.

There is very little to be excited about regarding the 2016 Cleveland Browns. The pairing of Jackson and Griffin III might be the formula necessary for real progression, but how many times have we heard that before? The Browns will be a maddeningly inconsistent and frustrating team to watch all season long, but that has become the standard for this organization for so many years now. Win-loss prediction: 4-12


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