Wednesday 23 August 2017 / 02:19 PM

SEASON PREVIEW: AFC NORTH

Our 2016-17 NFL Preview will highlight each division in the NFL, with an in-depth look at each team as we head into training camp and preseason football.  We’ll give predictions and summaries of a season.  We’ll also push out our first Power Rankings, as well as an early MVP preview and prediction.  The first look of our preview is the AFC North, one of the deepest divisions in all of football.  Here are the predictions, in order of projected finish:

 

  1. Pittsburgh Steelers

Offense:  The Steelers offense last season was nothing short of electric, with Ben Roethlisberger and the passing game ranking third in the NFL.  This season looks to be more of the same, but with some added relief.  Le’Veon Bell is back from injury, but will likely sit the first four games due to suspension.  DeAngelo Williams will take over during that stretch, who got plenty of time in the backfield in 2015, and saw his career see a renewal.  He’s more than capable, but you worry about miles on Williams.  If Bell can come out swinging in week five, Big Ben will finally have some relief on offense.  The passing game will be good again, but Martavis Bryant will sit out a full season, his second drug suspension in two years.  But it helps that they have arguably the best receiver in football in Antonio Brown and some capable receivers in Markus Wheaton and Darius Hayward-Bey.  The offensive line also looks solid with Maurkice Pouncey leading the charge.

Defense: The defensive line was the strength of the defense, with Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt being excellent anchors at the end.  The inside linebackers are also strong, with Ryan Shazier and Lawrence Timmons helping anchor a defense that ranked fifth against the run.  The question of this defense, however, is the secondary.  The Steelers lost some players, but it may turn out to be a good thing.  The defense was 30th against the pass, but the addition of two rookies in Artie Burns and Sean Davis to compliment competent contributors in William Gay and Mike Mitchell.  They’ll need Burns especially to play solid, which he has the tools to do.  They’ll have to play better to have a chance to compete in the postseason.

Best Case:  Big Ben stays healthy and they light up the league on offense.  The Steelers roll to the best offense in football as Bell and Williams provide a solid punch to aid Ben’s passing game.  The defense shores up to an average passing defense, while continuing to stuff the run.  The Steelers knock off the Patriots in the AFC Championship and book a trip to another Super Bowl for the Steel City.

Worst Case:  The Steelers defense struggles and takes a step back on both fronts.  The rookies on the defense struggle mightily and Pitt has to rely on an offense riddled with injuries.  Bell and Ben stay injured and the Steelers miss the playoffs.

How They’ll Finish:  The Steelers are incredibly talented and feel that they have put a team around Ben to compete for another 3-4 years.  This team was one play away from the AFC Championship last season, and I think they’ll be back this season.

  1. Cincinnati Bengals

Offense:  It’s hard to find a better pair in the NFL than Andy Dalton and AJ Green.  But the Bengals have a great secondary option in Tyler Eifert at tight end. Brandon LaFell and rookie Tyler Boyd will battle for the number two spot at receiver, but the passing game should be good again.  The running backs feature a good tandem in Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard.  Hill is going to need to overcome some mental blocks from last year, as his fumble cost them a trip to the second round.  The Bengals are very capable on the offensive line, and they’ll need to keep Dalton upright for him to put up the same numbers he did last season.

Defense:  The Bengals had a solid defense last season and it shouldn’t slip in 2016.  Geno Atkins is a terrific DT, with a great line beside them in Carlos Dunlap and Domata Peko.  The linebackers are good behind Karlos Dansby and Ray Maualuga, and Vontaze Burfict is talented, but has to give you a headache as he’ll serve a three game suspension.  He’s going to have to straighten his antics out, as he’s useless on the bench.  The secondary is talented, but needs some work as the passing defense was the hole in the defense last season.  Dre Kirkpatrick and Adam Jones are solid corners, and the safeties are deep.  They’ll just have to make sure they play to their potential.

Best Case:  The Bengals live up to their potential and win the AFC North, and play for the AFC title.  They ride a talented offense and superb defense to a trip to the Super Bowl as Andy Dalton and the organization finally exercise their demons.

Worst Case:  The Bengals continue to be the Bengals, and fall on their place toward the end of the season.  They get left behind by the Steelers and Ravens and miss the playoffs entirely.  The team looks to really be headed in the wrong way.

How They’ll Finish:  The Bengals just can’t be trusted.  They’ve got all the talent in the world, but this team can’t get out of their own way.  They are probably a playoff team, but anything after that is just a stab in the dark.  They’re too talented to miss the playoffs, however, so they may be both their floor and their ceiling.

  1. Baltimore Ravens

Offense:  Last season was incredibly rough for the Ravens on offense.  They lost two offensive linemen, their top receiver, running back, and QB to injuries last season, but even with the injuries, this offensive looks to be a bit short.  Joe Flacco returns for another shot, and they’ve added some help in Mike Wallace on the outside to spread the defense.  Steve Smith is back for probably his last go-around, and the passing game looks to be a top-10 squad again.  The running game isn’t as rosy, however with Justin Forsett and co. not looking too great, ranking in the bottom third of the league. The offensive line will also feature a rookie, and is going to have to shore up to give Flacco a chance to offset the rough running game.

Defense:  The Ravens defense was the strength last season, as it had to carry an offense riddled with injury.  They have went through a youth revolution, however, as the team sent out some older players and bringing in young players like Za’Darius Smith, Brent Urban, and CJ Mosley taking over at MLB.  Terrell Suggs is back from injury, and he’ll have three rookies with him as well as Elvis Dumervil.  The pass rush is going to be really good, and should be the strength of the defense.  The secondary is less sure, with young players surrounding Eric Weddle, who the Ravens hope will turn into the new Ed Reed in the locker room.

Best Case:  The Ravens stay healthy and the team turns around their fortunes.  The players returning don’t miss a beat, and Flacco and the offense ups its game and the defense keeps its pace, stronger and faster.  The Ravens win the AFC North and compete for the AFC Championship.

Worst Case:  The injury bug bites the roster again, and the Ravens struggle all over again.  The offense looks old and incompetent and the defense takes a step back.  The Ravens fall down to the bottom half of the AFC again and the team’s future looks in doubt.

How They’ll Finish:  The Ravens are way more talented than they were in 2015.  They should return closer to the Ravens were used to, but this team just has way too many questions to give any confident prediction.  The Ravens fortunes are stuck on aging veterans that are returning from injury, a situation that isn’t where you want to be.

  1. Cleveland Browns

Offense:  Oh, boy the Browns.   They seem to have made a solid improvement to their starting quarterback, brining in RGIII.  But this is still a gamble, with Griffin yet to prove he can stay healthy or be consistent.  He’ll have some help from Gary Barnidge, who had a career year in 2015 at the tight end slot.  The offensive line is young and talented, with Joe Thomas and Joel Bitonio anchoring them.  They’ll need Cameron Erving to improve, and if he can, the offensive line will be the strength of this side of the ball.  The running backs are also really young, lead by Duke Johnson and Isaiah Crowell, who hope to turn around a running game that struggled last season.  The receiving core is really crowded, with rookie Corey Coleman joining Brain Hartline and Andrew Hawkins, as well as Terrelle Pryor. There’s a lot of bodies, but not overwhelming talent. They lost their best playmaker in Travis Benjamin to Sand Diego.

Defense:  The Browns defense was the epitome of bad in 2015.  And they didn’t get much better. Joe Haden and the secondary were a strong unit in 2014, but took a big step back in 2015.  He’s going to have to play better for the Browns to not get run off the field.  New defensive boss Ray Horton has been insistent that it’s his design to stop the run first, and develop a good system for getting after the quarterback.  That will certainly revolve around Desmond Bryant and John Hughes, but they’re going to have to get some production from young players to have any chance at being competent.

Best Case:  The Browns offense grows under Griffin and he has a season resembling what he showed in his rookie year.  The receiving corps gel and the offense is formidable.  The defense also makes strides and the Browns hang around .500 and look to be on the way up.

Worst Case:  The Browns keep being the Browns, and struggle to find anything on offense or defense.  The RGIII experiment fails, as he can’t stay healthy, and the defense remains one of the worst in football.  They get worse, and find themselves in the race for DeShaun Watson at the No.1 pick in June.

How They’ll Finish:  Look, this team just doesn’t have a lot of talent.  The Browns are easily the worst team in football, and will be this season again.  You can’t lose five of your top producers from last year and get better, especially when you were already bad.  This is going to be a long year in Cleveland.

Next Installment:  NFC North

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About the author

Austin Albertson

Austin is CBS' senior NFL and NBA analyst, bringing you commentary on everything between the lines and inside the hashes, from the film room to the scoreboard.

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