AFC North 2014 Preview
If I had to give a nickname for the AFC North, I think that I would call it "The Division of Rivalries"; it has the Battle of Ohio (Bengals vs. Browns), the long and nasty Browns/Steelers rivalry, and the most recent of them all, Steelers vs. Ravens. Besides Cleveland, the AFC teams have also made themselves well-known in the playoffs by winning three Super Bowls and appearing in four during the last nine years. Can they do it again? That's a valid question, but let's first look at the AFC North team-by-team.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers (2013 Record: 8-8)
It looked as if 2013 spelled the end of the Ben Roethlisberger/Mike Tomlin era when they began their season 0-4. However, Pittsburgh answered back and finished 8-8. Their late-season run could be credited to Running Back Le'Veon Bell and Wide Receiver Antonio Brown. Bell was injured in the beginning in the year, but once he suited up, the Steelers began to click on offense and move much easier, despite struggling earlier with Todd Haley's offensive system. As for Brown, he was slow to take over Mike Wallace's spot as the number one receiver, but once he did, everyone noticed how much of a weapon he can truly be with Roethlisberger throwing him the ball.
Pittsburgh's defense isn't like it was in the 70's or late 2000's, but one player that I have very high hopes for is 2014 first round pick Ryan Shazier. Not only is he a proficient tackler at inside linebacker, but he can move against the running game and in passing coverage, which will excite Defensive Coordinator Dick LeBeau to no end. Although he may not make an immediate impact, I think the Steelers could have their way in the North; their passing and running game are once again balanced, they have some promising young defenders to replace their former superstars, and Mike Tomlin is still one of the best coaches in the game.
Projected 2014 Record: 10-6
2. Cincinnati Bengals (2013 Record: 11-5)
It was difficult for me to put the Bengals second in the division because I don't think they have declined since the offseason despite losing Coordinators Jay Gruden and Mike Zimmer. In fact, I could make a few cases to say why they have actually improved. Like Pittsburgh, Cincy also has a young running back that they are depending on: Giovani Bernard. Contrary to Le'Veon Bell's rough-and-tumble rushing style, Bernard is one of those speedy backs who cannot be caught once in open space. This is completely different for the Bengals because they have always had a power runner leading their backfield, like Benjarvus Green-Ellis, Cedric Benson, and Rudi Johnson.
I could talk all day about Bernard, A.J. Green, Geno Atkins and other Pro Bowl-caliber players that the Bengals possess, but it will ultimately come down to how well Quarterback Andy Dalton plays. Cincy is now paying him as a franchise quarterback now that they gave him a six-year contract extension worth $96 million. However, he is currently 0-3 in the playoffs and has been questioned whether or not he will ever reach "elite" status. In my opinion, everything is lining up for Dalton to have a breakout season, but it all depends on what he can and can't physically do. Even if he doesn't live up to his 2014 expectations, expect the Bengals to still be in the mix come December.
Projected 2014 Record: 9-7
3. Baltimore Ravens (2013 Record: 8-8)
The Ravens' 2013 offseason was an awful way to follow-up on their Super Bowl victory: After making Joe Flacco the then-highest paid player in the league, Baltimore released/traded key contributors like Bernard Pollard, Anquan Boldin, and Dannell Ellerbe in order to free up some cap space.
This offseason was a little more tame, signing former Panther Steve Smith and making a safe first round draft pick by selecting C.J. Mosley. However, Running Back Ray Rice will be suspended for the first two games, which could slow down the offense without one of its most important players. However, the Ravens are similar to the Bengals in that their quarterback will have a lot to do with their success (or failure) this season. Joe Flacco's contract extension has started an avalanche of enormous QB contracts, but the Flacco in 2013 didn't look anything like "Joe Cool" in the 2012 playoffs and Super Bowl. Obviously, I'm not sold on Flacco being "elite", which is why I have placed them third in the division with a losing record.
Projected 2014 Record: 7-9
4. Cleveland Browns (2013 Record: 4-12)
For a team that went 4-12 in 2013, the Browns have received a whole lot attention this offseason, and I'm not talking about their hiring of Coach Mike Pettine or the year-long suspension of Josh Gordon. Yes, I'm referring to Cleveland trading up to select Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel, which was when nearly every social media outlet disintegrated. I'm not disappointed that the Browns drafted Manziel; what irks me is the way that the media has been handling Johnny Football's arrival to the NFL. For starters, do you really think Manziel was the only rookie to go on vacation to Las Vegas this summer? Also, why is nobody talking about Cornerback Justin Gilbert, who was selected by Cleveland with the eighth overall pick? Along with his returning skills, the addition of Gilbert could give the Browns a deadly cornerback duo with All-Pro Joe Haden already in place.
I'm guessing you'd like to know what exactly I think about their quarterback competition and their choice of starting Brian Hoyer. Here's the deal: Neither Hoyer nor Manziel looked good in training camp, and if you went on that alone, you should start Hoyer because he has experience starting in the NFL. On top of that, Manziel won't be able to run and scramble like he did in college, which is something that Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick are slowly learning. Therefore, I'd let Johnny adjust his game while Hoyer tries to make Cleveland a respectable team. However, he and Coach Pettine might have trouble doing that in such a short amount of time.
Projected 2014 Record: 5-11
AFC North Projected Awards
MVP: A.J. Green, Bengals
Offensive Player of the Year: Antonio Brown, Steelers
Defensive Player of the Year: Vontaze Burfict, Bengals
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Terrence West, Browns
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Ryan Shazier, Steelers
Comeback Player of the Year: Geno Atkins, Bengals
Fantasy Sleeper: Markus Wheaton, Steelers
Coach of the Year: Mike Tomlin, Steelers
Back to the question I asked in the beginning: Can one of these teams make it to the Super Bowl? Based on these predictions above, I obviously think that if any of the four can do it, it will either be Pittsburgh or Cincinnati. The Bengals have been desperately trying to make it over the one-and-done playoff hump, but that's for Andy Dalton to decide how far they can make it. As for Pittsburgh, players like Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu have plenty of experience in the biggest games, so if they are able to reach the playoffs, they could have one more shot at holding up the Lombardi Trophy.