Last season, the Cincinnati Bengals went from being one of the most consistent playoff contenders in this division, to suffering through a long and miserable losing season. Baltimore, another relatively tough team in this division, also struggled after an impressive 3-0 start. And, of course, Cleveland was just awful last year, bottoming out by flirting with a winless season, and only managing to avoid that in their second to last game of the year. That left the Steelers to essentially dominate this division, with an explosive offense that allowed Pittsburgh to reach the AFC title game for the first time since they made it to Super Bowl XLV. Now, entering this new season, the Steelers once again appear poised to be in a very strong position to win the division, while question marks remain for the other teams in this division.
Here are my predictions for the AFC North:
1. Pittsburgh Steelers (projected division winners) - The Steelers were solid on both offense and defense, and seemed to be establishing their roles as one of the league favorites when they started 4-1. Then came a surprising four game losing streak, although they played some tough teams during that stretch. This was followed by a massive, and hugely impressive, winning streak towards the end of the season that saw them win their last seven regular season games, to clinch the division easily with an 11-5 mark. Then, the winning continued into the playoffs with a solid and impressive home win against the Dolphins, followed by a tough, close road win at Kansas City. However, the Steelers fell short against the eventual Super Bowl champion Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. Their season ended just shy of where they wanted to be, but now, Pittsburgh hopes to bring back that strong momentum from late last season to this new season. The Steelers appear to be the class of this division, and to have a serious chance at making it to the Super Bowl. With a two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback at the helm, with some serious talent among their wide receivers, and powerful running back Le'Veon Bell running through opposing defenses, the offense looks poised for another playoff run, especially since Pittsburgh's defense is also solid. Head coach Mike Tomlin is an experienced and disciplined coach who seems to be able to get his team focused, and that makes this team a serious threat in the AFC.
2. Cincinnati Bengals (projected second place team) - The Bengals had qualified for the playoffs for five straight seasons, and seemed to be poised for another run to the postseason last year. Yet, this spiraled out of control rather quickly in "The Jungle." The Bengals had gotten off to a hot 8-0 start in 2015, and wound up with an impressive 12-4 mark on the season, tying a franchise best matched twice before (in 1981 and 1988), with Cincy winding up in the Super Bowl both previous times. However, it was not meant to be for the Bengals in 2015, as once again, they failed to win a playoff game, which kept their dubious distinction as the team with the longest drought of playoff wins in the NFL. Cincinnati has not won a playoff game since the 1990-91 season, when George H.W. Bush (Senior) was president, the Soviet Union still existed, white minority government still ruled in South Africa, and East and West Germany had just reunited a few months before. That lack of success seems to have hurt the Bengals, and they just seemed to lack the same confidence right from the start last season. It did not help that Cincinnati had a rough schedule, having to go on the road against three eventual playoff teams, and also hosting the defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos. The Bengals lost each of those games and were 2-4 by mid-October. They never recovered, and they just kept struggling. Once the messy season was over, Cincy had to watch their streak of five straight playoff seasons go out the window, as the Bengals finished 6-9-1. Their defense was not the problem, still ranking as a relatively elite unit. But their offensive production dropped off significantly. The Bengals had been known for being , but seven times last year, they were held to 17 points or less in a game. They were 0-7 in those games. Quarterback Andy Dalton still threw 18 touchdown passes and 8 interceptions, but still Cincy's offense lacked the explosiveness that they enjoyed before, and Dalton dropped off significantly from other recent seasons. With head coach Marvin Lewis, the defense can still look good, but this team absolutely needs to find themselves offensively again if they hope to bounce back and contend for the playoffs this season. They just might, too, but they have their work cut out for them.
3. Baltimore Ravens (projected third place) - Much like the Bengals, the Ravens looked pretty good on defense, but struggled significantly on offense. They were held to under 20 points seven times last year, but their defense kept them in many of those games, as they earned a 3-4 mark in those low-scoring contests. But the Ravens only managed to reach the 30-point plateau once all season, in a surprisingly easy win against the playoff bound Miami Dolphins, 38-6, during a game when everything seemed to go right for them. Baltimore has a defense that can allow this team to contend for a playoff spot, but the offense needs to be improved, to be fine tuned and not hold the team back to the degree that it did last season. Ultimately, the Ravens are not a bad team, and a look at last season's schedule will show that the Ravens generally beat the teams that they were supposed to beat, while also losing to the teams that they were supposed to lose to. For Baltimore to bounce back strongly enough to hope to qualify for the playoffs, they will need to start winning against the better teams, pure and simple. But with some health concerns with aging quarterback Joe Flacco, there are serious concerns. If he catches the kind of hot streak that he enjoyed in the 2012-13 season - particularly during the playoff run - then he might once again carry his team quite far. However, he has proven inconsistent, so it difficult to gauge just how strong this upcoming year will be for him and, along with him, that of his Ravens.
4. Cleveland Browns (projected last place) - The Cavaliers have been to the NBA Finals three straight years, and won the NBA Championship one year ago, while the Indians made it to the World Series last year, as well, and almost won it. Indeed, a lot has been going on in Believeland, and local fans are beginning to believe in their sports teams, except for one. Yes, the basketcase now in Cleveland sports has been reduced to one local team: the Browns. They still inhabit the Factory of Sadness. Last year, the Browns had the worst record in the entire league, winning only one game, and "earning" the first pick in the draft as a result. They started off the season by losing their first 14 games, before managing to beat the Chargers - barely - to avoid what would have been a historic winless season. Still, Cleveland was terrible, and not surprisingly, ranked very near the bottom both offensively and defensively. They averages around 15 points per game, while allowing an average of 28 points per game. They had a horrendous quarterback situation, and their offense was underwhelming in almost every way. Their defense was no better, and there just were not many good things to say about this team last year. Clearly, they need it. At least they had some draft picks during the offseason to try and improve, and they made picked up some decent talent, at the very least. That should help them down the line, although Cleveland likely does not have enough to even seriously hope to get out of the basement in this division. This is just not a very good team right now, and this will likely remain the case for at least another season or two. That translates to another last place finish. It just seems unavoidable.