I’ve already alluded to the AFC East being arguably the strongest division in football from top to bottom. If not for Cleveland, a similar case could’ve made for the AFC North.
The head coaching stability among the top three teams in this division speaks volumes. John Harbaugh enters his 9th year with Baltimore, Mike Tomlin his 10th in Pittsburgh, and Marvin Lewis of Cincinnati will embark on his 14th season.
The antithesis of that kind of permanency relates to the Cleveland Browns organization. Mike Pettine was let go after last season’s brutal 3-13 campaign. That decision prompted the hiring of former Cincinnati Bengal offensive coordinator and Oakland Raiders head coach Hue Jackson. He’ll be Cleveland’s sixth different head coach since 2008. Saying the situation in Cleveland over the past nine years has been dysfunctional would be a vast understatement.
AFC North Champion Futures Odds
• Pittsburgh Steelers (+120)
• Cincinnati Bengals (+180)
• Baltimore Ravens (+300)
• Cleveland Browns (+2000)
Note: All NFL betting odds mentioned in this article is courtesy of Bodog.eu
Ravens on the Rebound
The Baltimore Ravens sustained their first losing season (5-11) last year in John Harbaugh’s eight-year head coaching tenure. It also marked just the second time in eight years under Harbaugh that Baltimore failed to qualify for postseason action.
The Ravens were decimated by injuries a season ago. Star quarterback Joe Flacco went down with season ending injury in week 10. Nonetheless, prior to going down, Flacco was having a subpar season, and especially so by his standards. Flacco’s favorite target Steve Smith was also lost for the season after just seven games. Smith was compiling a banner year up until that point, hauling in 46 catches for 670 yards and 4 touchdowns. The ageless 37-year-old returns for what he’s declared to be his final NFL campaign. Those were just two of many injuries that Baltimore endured, and was a major contributing cause for a very forgetful season.
If healthy, Baltimore is certainly capable of winning this division. The additions of safety Eric Weddle (UFA/San Diego) and 2016 top draft pick left tackle Ronnie Stanley (Notre Dame) will indubitably succor their cause. It’s imperative the Ravens get off to a fast start, particularly considering who their first four opponents will be. They open at home against Buffalo, followed by a trip to Cleveland, then at Jacksonville, and back home versus Oakland. None of those teams had a winning record a season ago. As a matter of fact, between the four of them they combined to go a dismal 23-41 (.356). The Ravens slate then grows substantially challenging over the last three quarters of the year.
Rebuking Brides Maid Status
Cincinnati has made the playoffs in each of the last five seasons under Marvin Lewis. However, during that course of time, the Bengals are a futile 0-5 in postseason games. There’s no denying Marvin Lewis is one of the top head coaches in the NFL. Nonetheless, until his team is able to win a postseason contest, Lewis won’t receive the accolades he truly deserves. Cincinnati has a terrific 52-27-1 (.658) regular season record over the previous five aforementioned seasons, and there are plenty of franchises who would be ecstatic to make that claim. That’s of no consolation to Bengals fans, and anything less than a deep postseason in 2017 would be unacceptable.
On paper, Cincinnati will be strong on defense, and that’s principally the case pertaining to their front seven. Their cornerback tandem of Adam Jones and Dre Kirkpatrick is a good one as well. If I have any concerns defensively it’s at the safety positions, and even then it would be measured as nitpicking.
The bad news for Cincinnati’s offense a season ago was losing starting quarterback Andy Dalton to a late season injury. On a positive note, A.J. McCarron proved to be a more than adequate backup, more than holding his own in crucial games down the stretch. Cincinnati’s offensive line will be rock solid, they’re deep at running back, and A.J. Green is one of the most dynamic wide receivers in the NFL. Pro Bowl tight end Tyler Eifert is presently on the physically unable to perform list, and even when he returns, there’s speculation indicating he’ll never be as effective going forward.
Cincinnati’s goals of first getting to the playoffs, and succeeding once they get there, are genuinely fair expectations with all things being considered. Maybe this will be the year the Bengals can get the monkeys of their backs for past playoff failures. Until that actually transpires, experts will continue to doubt them, and you can count me in as one of those pundits.
Woe is the Browns
The Cleveland Browns haven’t had a winning season since going 10-6 under Romeo Crennel in 2007. Their ineptness is proven by a cumulative 37-91 (.289) record since 2008, and that includes going a pathetic 11-48 (.186) over its last 59 away games.
The decision by Hue Jackson to name Robert Griffin III as their starting quarterback can be construed as risky. Having said that, it’s not like they have a lot to lose by doing so. After all, this is a rebuilding team, and the 26-year-old Griffin has plenty of upside. If they were considered to be a playoff contender, I personally would favor going with 37-year-old veteran Josh McCown under center. Despite going 1-7 in eight starts last season, McCown did compile some pretty solid statistics before going down with a concussion. Needless to say, Cleveland is a long way away from being considered a legitimate postseason candidate.
With the exception of perennial all pro Joe Thomas, Cleveland’s offensive line is a mess. That doesn’t bode well for a team that owns a less than an inspiring stable of running backs. Poor pass protection last year resulted in their quarterbacks taking a severe beating. Maybe the mobility of RG III will overcompensate for some of their deficiencies in that specific area.
Cleveland’s tumultuous wide receiver Josh Gordon will return after serving a four game suspension to start the year. There’s no rebuffing the fact that when Gordon is available to play, he’s an extremely productive player. They chose former Baylor wide receiver Cory Coleman with their top choice in the 2016 draft, and he possesses the physical tools to be a good one. There are still way too many shortcomings offensively to imagine dramatic improvements for this upcoming season.
Cleveland allowed 30 points or more on nine separate occasions last year. Considering their offensive ineptitude, that’s certainly not a recipe for success. You can’t cast all the blame on the stop unit, taking into account they were on the field way too much, and were plagued by their offense’s inability to sustain drives. Nevertheless, in order for Cleveland to be somewhat competitive, there needs to be a dire development defensively. The Browns current roster still lacks the caliber of defensive talent to anticipate any significant progress.
High Expectancies in “Steel Town”
The Steelers franchise has been a model of stability, consistency, and success. Besides Mike Tomlin, the only one other head coach they’ve had since 1992 was Bill Cowher. During the course of that 24-year period, Pittsburgh has gone a combined 259-156-1 (.624), made 16 playoff appearances, including four Super Bowl trips, and a pair of world championships. By the looks of things, this year’s version of Steelers football will conclude with another postseason berth, and quite possibly another Vince Lombardi Trophy.
Potentially Explosive Offense
Despite a season long suspension of wide receiver Martavis Bryant, and possible four game suspension to star running back Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh’s quality depth at skilled positions will still provide them with dynamic offensive capability. A lot will depend on keeping quarterback Ben Roethlisberger upright and healthy. If that indeed occurs, the sky is the limit for this offense. Arguably, Antonio Brown is the top receiver in football, and Markus Wheaton is more than ready to assume a #2 role. The projected starting offense line is rock solid, and especially with center Maurkice Pouncey back from last year’s season ending injury. If Bell’s suspension is upheld, veteran backup D’Angelo Williams is more than capable of taking on a heavy workload for the first four games.
Holding Serve on Defense
The Pittsburgh defense should once again be a formidable unit. The end tandem of Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt can be a daunting pair. Their planned four linebackers are all former top draft picks by the Steelers, and its secondary should serve as a strength, rather than the liability it’s been in recent years. Considering their offense’s ability to score points in bunches, the Steelers defense just needs to hold their own. However, the pieces are in place for them to be far better than average.
Let me be plain and simple, I love the Steelers chances of not only winning this division, but have already wagered on them at 7:1 odds to win it all. Baltimore’s 5-11 record a season ago isn’t indicative of the talent level they possess, and I look for them to contend for a wild card spot. I have a sneaky feeling Cincinnati may possibly be a disappointment, and Cleveland, well, they’ll suffer through another long year.