NFL Season Predictions Part 8: The AFC North

AFC North

The Cincinnati Bengals

Taking full advantage of the Hard Knocks’s spotlight

Record Prediction: 12-4 (3-3)

I like this team a lot. I liked them before watching Hard Knocks, but after watching I like them even more.  Their schedule is probably too difficult for them to get to 12 wins, but I do like them to win the division.

What to like: 

If you watched any of HBO’s Hard Knocks then you probably gained some respect for the Bengal’s head coach Marvin Lewis. Lewis has held the coaching job for ten seasons, more than every head coach in the NFL except Bill Belichick. His career record of 79-80-1 may not be impressive, but he seems to have the team headed in the right direction.

Like any team, the Bengals team has to start with their franchise quarterback Andy Dalton. Entering his third season, Dalton is a solid quarterback for a team in the defensive-minded hard nosed AFC North. He is never going to lead the league in throwing, but has proven to be an accurate passer (completing 62.3 percent of his passes). He was not too far away from a two-to-one touchdown to interception ratio, throwing for 27 touchdowns and 16 interceptions.

It helps when you have an elite wide receiver to throw to like A.J. Green. “When in doubt, toss it towards Green,” a simple motto that Dalton should probably have painted in his locker. Green had 97 receptions for 1,350 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2012. He is Dalton’s favorite red-zone target and that should not change despite the big tight-ends the team has with Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert.  In addition to his talent, Green is one of the better personalities in the NFL.  He is not going to cause any drama like some of the former Bengals receivers and he is going to improve the guys around him a great deal.

I am all in on the love that rookie Giovani Bernard got during training camp. Benjarvus Green-Ellis was a solid pickup last season. He rushed for 1,094 yards last year, scoring six times.  No one can really knock his production, but he he is just not very exciting. Bernard has some big play ability and has the added ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. Green-Ellis only had 22 receptions last season. The Bengals will likely use Bernard as a pass catcher in a similar way to how the Bills used C.J. Spiller when he first came into the league.  Once he develops pass blocking, Bernard could end up being the guy, but until then having the combination of these two backs should only add to this offense.

The Bengals defense was already amongst the league’s best last season ranking sixth in total defense, giving up an average of 319 yards per game. Believe it or not, the defense may have gotten even better stealing James Harrison from the rival Steelers.  Harrison is best known for his history of suspensions for cheap hits, but he should improve a linebacking core that already has Rey Maualuga.  Maybe my favorite player from Hard Knocks was Margus Hunt, a defensive end from Estonia. He may not be a starter, but I will be rooting for him to make an impact this season.

Concerns: 

I don’t have anything smart to say about this team as far as concerns are concerned. I do think there is something to be said about the Hard Knocks Curse. It may or not be a real thing, but it seems like every team in recent memory that was featured on Hard Knocks had some major locker room drama to deal with over the course of the season. My expectations for this Bengals team were capped by the team winning the division, but after watching Hard Knocks, I feel like they could be a sneaky team represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. This is where the curse may come into play. People’s expectations for this team have risen and they are likely to disappoint.

Ultimately, I find it difficult to see this team being able to outscore a team like the Broncos, the favorite to win the AFC.

Bold Prediction: 

Like I said I am all in on Bernard. I like Bernard to have 50+ receptions this season. He also will score three to four touchdowns of 40 yards or more.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Tradition can’t be ignored

Record Prediction: 10-6 (4-2)

If I was picking games now instead of three weeks ago the Steelers would probably have ended up a 8-8 team, but with the history of this team and the strong coaching it comes with, it is hard to not think the Steelers will figure it out. I like them better than the defending Super Bowl Champs, I just can not say exactly why.

What to like: 

Ben Roethlisberger is a gamer. No matter how bad the offensive line is and no matter how many time he gets hit or sacked, Big-Ben seems to stand in the pocket and move the ball down the field. He is not a finesse guy, but that is a good thing because that really is not the Steeler’s way. There were some issues between Big-Ben and offensive coordinator Todd Haley last season, but despite that he was still able to throw for 26 touchdowns and only eight interceptions.

The receivers that Big-Ben will be throwing to may look a bit different, but they are familiar faces none-the-less. Antonio Brown finds himself in the number one wide receiver slot and expectations are high. He is a bit undersized for a number one wide-out, but he has speed that is near comparable to that of his predecessor Mike Wallace. He will be asked to improve upon his 787 yard and 5 touchdowns from 2012 because other than Emmanuel Sanders this team does not have a ton of depth at the position.

The Steelers defense is always intimidating. They quietly were still one of the better defenses in the league last season, ranking second best in the league in total rushing yards against (1,450) and first in the league in total passing yards against (2,936). The defense also gets Troy Polamalu back. In the absence of James Harrison, Polamalu may have to be the leader of this defense. If he is healthy he is a guy that opposing offenses has to be aware of at all times, which is difficult to do even with that head of hair.

Concerns: 

The biggest question mark for the Steelers this season has got to be their running-back situation. The Steelers are best known for their hard-nosed football, but this years team does not have that same look. The backfield concerns were supposed to be solved with Le’Veon Bell (Michigan State), the Steelers’ second round pick. Bell is compared to LeGarrette Blount in his draft profile. If that comparison ended up being true, he would be the perfect fit for the Steelers uniform. The problem is Bell has a foot injury and will not be active to start the season, leaving the team with a major mess of mediocre running backs. Isaac Redman will be the starter be default, with newly signed Felix Jones likely to get some sort of role as he gets acclimated.

If there is no threat to run, this offense may struggle. Big-Ben needs to stay healthy and to do so he needs to have backs behind him that he can rely on. If he does not have that, the offensive line will struggle to protect Big-Ben. He is a tough guy, but he is not indestructible.

Bold Prediction: 

Dare I say Felix Jones ends up being the leading rusher on this team? Ick……

The Baltimore Ravens

To many losses to overcome

Record Prediction: 7-9 (3-3)

A 7-9 finish after a Super Bowl victory is a bit harsh. This team lost a record number of starters from last year’s team, but the coach is great and there are still enough pieces here for this team to be relevant. The Ravens could very well beat out the Steelers for this division title. The Ravens have losses due to trades, the Steelers have losses due to injuries.

What to like: 

The Ravens are the Super Bowl Champions. With that on their resume, they have to get some respect. They obviously had enough talent to get there right?

The Super Bowl MVP returns to the Ravens with a new contract in hand. The Ravens must not be the only ones who see Joe Flacco as an elite guy Ron Jaworski’s quarterback rankings have him listed as the fourth best quarterback in the league. Flacco threw for a career high 3,817 yards last season, on his way to 22 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He protects the ball pretty well and has a strong enough arm to make some big plays.

Ray Rice is the best player in this offense. Basically you can pencil him in for 1,500 all purpose yards along with 10 touchdowns. He hit that mark last year running the ball for 1,143 yards and nine touchdowns and catching the ball for another 478 yards and one score. Not to mention he single-handedly kept the team’s season alive with this play:

The defense lost their franchise guy in Ray Lewis, but experts say that the defense should be better than they were last season. During the regular season the unit was nothing like any Ravens team in the past decade, but in the playoffs they flipped on a switch and looked like the Ravens we all know. They then went and stole Elvis Dumervil from the Broncos. He had 11 sacks last season and with the help of Terrell Suggs he should be able to repeat that number for this defense.

I like, but do not love this receiving core. Jacoby Jones was the Super Bowl MVP as far as I am concerned. He had a 108-yard return for a touchdown to go with a 56-yard touchdown reception. WIth Boldin gone and Dennis Pitta injured, Jones is going to need to play great all season. He is probably more fit than Torrey Smith to lead this team in receptions, simply because he is the bigger target and is the better route runner.

Concerns: 

The main reason I was down on this team when I was picking games is because of their losses on offense. Losing Pitta and Boldin from the passing game is a big deal that I am not sure they will be able to overcome. They brought in Dallas Clark to help out at the tight-end position, a move I would have loved a few years ago, but now I have a hard time seeing it being enough to make up for Pitta’s production.

Other than that I just do not know how much I trust Joe Flacco. Flacco ranked 24th in the league in total QBR and was wildly inconsistent during the regular season. He has the running game and still has enough receivers around him to make this offense effective. The more I think about it the more I am talking myself into this team beating the Steelers and probably being in the WIld Card Race.

Bold Prediction: 

Jacoby Jones is the leading receiver on this team. I just don’t think Torrey Smith is much more than a track star. He will make some big plays, but Jones is the guy I would rely on.

The Cleveland Browns

Continuning to punish Cleveland sports fans

Record Predictions: 3-13 (2-4)

This was a five win team in 2012 and they did not upgrade significantly. They did improve on paper and they probably will be able to get a few more wins than the three I am giving them. A 6-10 season seems like a better bet, but they will not be much better than that.

What to like: 

This defense is AFC North worthy. Inner-division moves are always intriguing. The Browns stole Paul Kruger from the Super Bowl champion Ravens. Kruger produced nine sacks last season and with the opportunity to start for the Browns he should be able to build upon that success. The Browns also have their sixth overall pick Barkevious Mingo (LSU) a defensive end who easily could be the rookie defensive player of the year.

Trent Richardson should make strides in his second year. He had some injury concerns coming into his rookie season, but was able to play in 15 games, rushing for 950 yards and 11 touchdowns on top of 367 yards receiving.  For some reason I just can not get passed his injury history, but that aside he should be even better in his second year.

One reason for Richardson being able to succeed this season is the help of the Brown’s offensive coordinator Norv Turner. New coaches and new offensive coordinators can be overrated. Many of the new hires in the NFL will not even make it to next season, but it is hard not to like the track record that Turner has had running an offense. Turner sucked every last bit of success out of Philip Rivers when he was in San Diego and he should be able to develop Brandon Weeden further. Turner’s offense with the Chargers was most successful when he had an elite running-back and an elite tight-end and the Browns have at least half of that equation, with Richardson. They have a big tight-end in Jordan Cameron who should be utilized in an Antonio Gates-like fashion even if he is not as talented as Gates was in his prime.

Concerns: 

Brandon Weeden is a 29-year-old second year player. There is not very much time to be patient with a quarterback like this and though he seems to be starting to get it, I just do not know if he will be able to take this team to the next level. The Browns may be good enough to make some noise this season, but they are still a step or two behind every team within this division.

Bold Prediction:

I mentioned it above, but I am going to say that Mingo wins defensive rookie of the year, recording double digit sacks this season.

The season kicks off tonight so I will finish this off today. Last up: the NFC north.

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