This year, the division should prove tough again, although I suspect that the Browns will not be nearly as competitive this year. For that matter, I suspect that the Steelers will fail to defend their division championship, and will fall behind the other two teams, who I suspect will duel for the division title. Yes, it will be either the Bengals or the Ravens who emerge as division champions here. Even if the Bengals come out on top, I suspect that the Ravens have a better chance of doing something once the playoffs actually begin.
Here are my predictions for the AFC North:
1. Cincinnati Bengals (projected division winners) - Last season, I began my preview of this team by saying that the Bengals are kind of a weird team. This season, it seems to bear repeating: this is a weird franchise. They are good, but not great. We can expect them to be in the playoff hunt, and even to possibly win the division title. After all, they won the division championship two seasons ago, and have qualified for the playoffs for four consecutive seasons now, ranking among true elites in the league like the Packers, Patriots, and Broncos for that kind of consistency during that span. Yet, absolutely nobody would classify the Bengals as belonging within such elite territory, because all of those teams actually won playoff contests. In fact, each of those teams at least qualified for the Super Bowl in recent seasons, and each of them made it as far as the Championship Game within the last couple of seasons, while Cincinnati still has yet to win a single playoff contest. And that is why the Bengals qualify as a truly bizarre team. They are a good, solid team, but they never seem to take the next step. This Bengals team is the first in franchise history to have qualified for the playoffs for four consecutive years, and they have a good chance to make it five this season. But few would be bold enough to predict that the Bengals can win a playoff game or be a major factor in the postseason, because they have shown no real evidence of this. Andy Dalton seems like a good enough quarterback to keep the Bengals competitive, but he never seems to get better and reach a higher level. The Bengals offense is good, but not great. Same thing can be said for the defense. Cincinnati is there, and they are good enough to be a factor in this division, and possibly even win it. But somehow, if they fail to win a playoff game at the end of this season, it will likely look like a failed season, and that, indeed, distinguishes this team as quite bizarre.
2. Baltimore Ravens (projected second place) - The Ravens are a good, solid team. In fact, they have been one of the most consistent teams in the NFL going back to 2008, when Joe Flacco first broke through as their star quarterback. They were solid, and then enjoyed that Super Bowl championship season in 2012. They missed the playoffs the next season, but made a strong return last season, beating the Steelers on the road in Pittsburgh, before giving the Patriots all that they could handle in New England. Flacco looked like he was showing flashes of his 2012 brilliance, and the Ravens now look well-equipped to make another playoff appearance, and possibly once again make a run once in the playoffs. This is a well-disciplined organization, with solid coaching and considerable talent in the line-up.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers (projected third place) - The Steelers had a very successful season last year, returning to their old form in compiling an 11-5 record, and capturing the AFC North division title, even though they fell to the Ravens in the playoffs. Pittsburgh will not likely repeat as division champions this season. They cannot compete on the level that the Bengals and Ravens are playing at, and will likely fall back into third place. That is the bad news, although the good news is that they should be able to place ahead of the Browns, a franchise that has really fallen from the grace of the glories of decades past. Pittsburgh is certainly in a better place than the hapless Browns. After all, they have enjoyed considerable glory as one of the most storied franchises in the league, and much of it has been seen in recent years. But the Steelers are in transition at the moment, so it is doubtful to expect many great things to happen here again anytime too soon. They are going through a period of change, and despite having gotten lucky enough to take the division last season, it would be too much to expect to see the same thing out of them this season. The good news is that they showed some strength and speed during the very brief preseason appearance last Sunday in the Hall of Fame Game, and that should bode well.
4. Cleveland Browns (projected last place) - As I mentioned numerous times already, it would really be nice if the Browns were to become serious contenders again, and perhaps contend for the AFC North division title. For a while last season, Cleveland really looked decent, and were in first place in the division. They stood at 7-4, with just five games remaining. But that was when the Browns and their fans came crashing back down to harsh reality. After teasing their city with surprisingly strong play and a solid record early, the Browns folded when it mattered most, and could not buy a win in the final five weeks of the regular season. Unfortunately, many of the very problems that came to the surface during that stretch are still problem areas this season. No really clear answers at quarterback. Not enough consistent production from the offense. A defense that gives up far too many points when pressed. The most frustrating thing is that this team shows glimpses at times, like they did last season. For example, earlier in the season, they blew out the Bengals in Cincinnati. But in the later meeting, from what was supposed to be the comfortable confines of home field in Cleveland, the Browns were embarrassed by the Bengals. That is the perfect example of the inconsistencies that have proven the rule in Cleveland, and the reason behind the dubious distinction that this team has as one of the two older franchises to never have qualified for the Super Bowl (the other being the Detroit Lions). Hopefully, someday, it will end. But the Brownies are far from reaching that level right now, and will likely struggle towards another last place finish.