AFC North Preview: The Eye of the Tiger

Posted: August 21, 2014 in Uncategorized
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Known far and wide as one of the toughest divisions in football, the AFC North once again figures to be a three-horse race in 2014. For the better part of the last five-years, it’s been a battle between the Baltimore Ravens, the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the Cincinnati Bengals for division supremacy. While Johnny Manziel and the Cleveland Browns may one day evolve into contenders, that time hasn’t arrived yet.

daltonIn 2013, the Cincinnati Bengals captured their second consecutive division crown. Behind third year phenom QB Andy Dalton (pictured) and his cast of weapons, Cincinnati has trumped the odds, becoming contenders after nearly two decades of incompetence. Marvin Lewis is the second longest tenured coach in football (trailing only Bill Belichick) despite having never won a playoff game (0-5). Last season, the Bengals found themselves once again on the short end of the stick come January, losing to the 6th seeded San Diego Chargers, 27-10. In that game, Dalton was picked twice and fumbled once, as Cincinnati’s postseason misery continued. The Bengals haven’t won a playoff game since 1990.

Still, optimism is high in The Queen City. Dalton returns with a fresh, new $100 million contract stretching his wallet to George Costanza’esque proportions. He’s joined by a solid supporting cast, including AJ Green, Marvin Jones, Gio Bernard, and 2nd round pick RB Jeremy Hill. On defense, the 3rd ranked unit in the NFL a year ago should only improve after drafting CB Darqueze Dennard in the first round. The former Michigan State Spartan was considered by many to be the top corner in the draft before a poor combine performance lowered his draft stock. The Bengals should feel confident once again that they’ll be near the top of the North when January rolls around. Whether or not they’ll have enough to finally break their postseason winless drought is a tale for another day.

This time a year ago, the Baltimore Ravens were coming off their second Super Bowl title and Joe Flacco was a recently ngatarich man. Fast forward a season, and the Ravens are suddenly a forgotten bunch in the uber-competitive North division. Gone are the days when Ray Lewis and Ed Reed patrolled the Baltimore secondary. Their loss was certainly felt last year, when the Ravens tanked their final two regular season affairs to miss the postseason for the first time since 2007. The selection of LB CJ Mosley in round one should help aid the likes of Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata on defense.

But, what about the Ravens’ offense? Flacco suffered through the worst season of his career in 2013, throwing 22 interceptions (his previous career high was 12). The addition of WR Steve Smith should help. As should the health of TE Dennis Pitta and the return of Ray Rice following his early season suspension. Those weapons, coupled with role players like Bernard Pierce, Torrey Smith, and Jacoby Jones, should be enough to get Baltimore right back into the playoff hunt in 2014.

Gone are the days when Mike Tomlin and the Pittsburgh Steelers ruled this division with an iron fist. Since their overtime playoff loss to Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos following the 2011 season, the Steelers have gone an unsatisfying 16-16. That may be enough to keep seats cool in Jacksonville. But, in Pittsburgh, where the trophy case is adorned with the most Lombardi Trophies in history, mediocrity is unacceptable.

lbellTo remedy this, Pittsburgh will have to rely on their youth movement to get them over the hump. The loss of Emmanuel Sanders (Denver) will allow young receiver Markus Wheaton to step into the starting lineup. The 2013 draft pick has wheels to burn, and should be an adequate replacement for Sanders. The recent arrests of Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount notwithstanding, the Steelers’ offense should be improved enough to the point where their defense won’t have to carry the load in 2014.

Finally, you have the Cleveland Browns, who made a lot of noise this offseason by hiring former Buffalo defensive coordinator Mike Pettine as coach after their flirtation with San Francisco’s Jim Harbaugh fell short. Pettine would then break the odometer by drafting Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel 22nd overall in May’s draft. Manziel won’t begin the season as the Browns’ starter. But, Brian Hoyer’s inexperience will likely lead to a midseason promotion for the former Aggies gunslinger.

When Manziel isn’t flipping off opposing sidelines or doing imaginary lines of cocaine in public bathrooms, he has the potential to be a franchise quarterback in this league. Still, his raw mechanics and haywire off-the-field mentality is what likely cost him the starting job to begin the year; and could plague him during his tenure in Cleveland. Let’s not forget that “Johnny Football” was selected in the same draft slot as recent Cleveland busts Brandon Weeden and Brady Quinn. The pending suspension to WR Josh Gordon will have a huge impact on the Browns’ usatsi_7921970_221200_lowresoffensive success this season. Currently, Gordon is suspended for the entire season due to multiple failures of the league’s substance abuse policy. But, it’s likely that Gordon will succeed in his appeal to get that suspension lowered. More on that to come.

On defense, Cleveland is among the up-and-comers in the AFC. CB Joe Haden is joined by first round pick Justin Gilbert on the outside. Joining them in Ohio will be veteran Karlos Dansby, who joins the team from Arizona. Nose tackle Phil Taylor is among the best in football at his position, and he’s joined by Desmond Bryant and Atyba Rubin to complete a nasty (and thick) 3-4 defensive front.

Any of these four teams could finish .500 or above if things break right for them. In August, the Bengals have to be considered the favorite based on last year’s success alone. Cincinnati got better as the season went on, and their defensive improvements over the offseason should only make them more dangerous in 2014. Despite this, it’s impossible to count out Baltimore or Pittsburgh, who both have playoff proven performers under center and improvements at the skill positions, as well. Always known as “the black and blue division,” the AFC North promises to give us yet another electric season of blood, bruises, and battles.

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