2015 NFL Preview: AFC North

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The NFL is quickly becoming an offensive first league with the massive evolution of the passing game throughout the league.

It is a development that has been a while in the making as teams look to put up more points year after year by introducing new systems to increase their offensive output.

Quarterbacks are becoming the most important people on a team as nobody can win the Super Bowl without a solid quarterback anymore.

So the focus for teams has moved to the offence but that doesn’t mean every team has moved their focus completely to that side of the ball.

In the AFC North there are four teams that have held over from the old school way of thinking where defence comes first.

Back in the beginnings of the league the passing game was almost non-existent and the running game was king but more important than that was the ability to stop the run.

Defence was king and the teams in the AFC North took notice forming some of the best defences back then.

That pattern has continued into this year as the teams in the North have always valued the power of a great defence.

Whether it was the Steel Curtain of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1970s or the 2000 Baltimore Ravens who are considered to be one of the best defences ever assembled, the North has seen its share of great defences.

As the division evolved to include the Bengals and the new version of the Browns it was clear that there was only ever going to be one way to win this division.

If the Bengals and the Browns wanted to compete with the old guard in the Ravens or the Steelers they were going to need to build a great defence.

Both have gone about doing it although they have had different results with the Bengals getting into the division fight and the Browns staying in the basement.football-sidebar

That doesn’t mean that the browns are out of it though as they have improved over the last few years and are looking to do the same this year.

If the Browns can enter the division battle there will be no question about what division is the best in the NFL.

Last year the AFC North took both conference wild cards putting three teams into the playoffs all with ten wins or more on the season.

That makes the division battle one of the best in the league as there is always a fight coming every year to win this division.

The defensive minded teams also take on the role of being very aggressive and playing with that edge needed to play great defence.

That edge and the close battles for the division have only made the North that much more exciting with every team having a history with the other.

It is a tough road to go through as they all have to play twice against teams that are capable of winning ten games or more and that can be a minefield.

It was not always like this as there were only two real contenders for a long time in the AFC North.

The Steelers and the Ravens have won ten of the division titles since the division became a four-team division in 2002.

The only other team to win the division in that time was the Cincinnati Bengals who every now and then found their way to the top.

Overall the division was always a battle between the Ravens and Steelers as the two defensive teams fought it out to be the best in the North.

Recent years have seen the Bengals get involved on a more consistent basis as they have started to challenge the top two teams for the division.

Unlike before the Bengals are finding a constant way to challenge the teams rather than just finding a good year.

As these three teams all fight it out and all make the playoffs the Browns are silently getting better.

Although they were not in the fight for the division and haven’t been since they returned to the league in 1999 they seem to be on the right track and will try to challenge the top teams this year.

The North is a tough division and one of the best in the league as this battle is just heating up and 2015 could make it all that much better.

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The Ravens have always had that attitude and edge that defensive teams need to be successful and they reaped the rewards. In the last 13 months they have seen the other side of finding those players with an edge as eight players have been arrested in that time. The quarterback has been one of the steady pillars of this team as Joe Flacco provides a leader both on and off the field. He may not be considered one of the elite quarterbacks in the league but he has provided a steady hand in the passing game. That steady hand will be needed with the massive changes in the passing game. Torrey Smith and Owen Daniels are gone taking a big chunk out of the passing game for Flacco. The Ravens went to work replacing them though as they drafted Breshad Perriman and Maxx Williams who are now the future of this passing game and could step into starting roles during the year. Flacco will also see Steve Smith return for his final year as he tries to go out on top after 2014 where he proved that he was far from too old to play. The running game will need some adjustment as well with the arrests of Ray Rice and Bernard Peirce over the last year led to both players to be released. Justin Forsett takes over as the feature back on a team that will require a lot out of him to create their balanced attack. The defence will see less changes and is a deep group that should overcome any losses with their home grown talent. One of the biggest losses this year is Haloti Ngata who has been a leader at the nose tackle position in Baltimore since 2006. Third-year Raven Brandon Williams fills that hole while flanked by the pair of Timmy Jernigan and Chris Canty. The linebacking group is one of the best in the league and although they did lose Pernell McPhee he was a part time player in this group. Led by rush specialist and defensive leader Terrell Suggs the group of C.J. Mosley, Daryl Smith, Courtney Upshaw, and Elvis Dumervil all make-up one of the deepest groups in the league. The secondary is the one weakness of this defence as Jimmy Smith and Lardarious Webb dealt with injuries, Smith missed half of the season and Webb dealt with minor injuries all year. At safety they are still looking for the replacement for Ed Reed and hope that Will Hill and new addition Kendrick Lewis hope to shore up that positon. The Ravens have a lot to deal with this year but the losses they suffered should be overcome by the organizations talent in building deep teams. As a result their on-field success should remain as they will once again fight for the division title.

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The Cincinnati Bengals are a great team when it comes to the regular season but when it comes to the playoffs they continue to fall short. They are now the only team in NFL history to lose the first game of the playoffs in four straight years. That is what the Bengals are now becoming known for and for Andy Dalton it is putting his and head coach Marvin Lewis’ job at risk. The defence has been one of the main reasons why the Bengals have been put into the division battle year after year. Last year it was not as good as they were hoping after some of their best players seemed to have a down year. Geno Atkins was one of the main players that disappointed as he returned from an injury in 2013 but did not return to his dominant self. The Bengals will need him to return to his 2012 form in order to free up the rest of the line including Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson, who returns after a year in Tampa Bay. The linebackers will welcome the return of Vontaze Burfict after playing only five games last year. Burfict will join Rey Maualuga once again while A.J. Hawk joins the team as a veteran presence that was always one of the leading tacklers with the Green Bay Packers. The secondary will look to replace Terrence Newman as Dre Kirkpatrick looks to fill the hole and Adam Jones provides the veteran presence needed for the group. The defence will try to step up this year and help the Bengals take that extra step while the offence tries to continue to progress into a potent attack. Andy Dalton has proven to be a good quarterback but his mistakes continue to hurt the team after posting a 19-17 TD to INT ratio last year. He has the talent to work with to help him as A.J. Green is one of the best young receivers in the league and along with Mohammad Sanu make up a good two pronged attack. The Bengals will miss one of the biggest targets in Jermaine Gresham as Tyler Eifert will need to take on a bigger role as he returns from an injury that ended his season early last year. Jeremy Hill took over the running game last year as Giovanni Bernard was pushed to a backup and specialist role last year. The pair put together a good running game that can take the pressure off of the passing game. The Bengals are once again good enough to make the playoffs and challenge for the division title but that is not the question with this team. For a team struggling to win a playoff game they made very little changes to change that and for that reason they might once again fall out in the first round and changes may follow.

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The Cleveland Browns come from a legendary background with four NLF championships and a list of great players who have worn that famous orange helmet. Yet when the team left for Baltimore in 1996 that history took a massive hit. The team returned in 1999 and had to start all over trying to build a new history. The Browns have had one main problem preventing that though and that has been a lack of quarterback. Time and time again they have tried to find that quarterback and this year is no different. Johnny Manziel is who the Browns think will be the answer but they are trying to slow approach. They signed Josh McCown this year as they wait to see if Manziel can prove that he has what it takes to lead the team. McCown will join a new look passing game with the loss of Jordan Cameron and Miles Austin. The Browns brought in Brian Hartline and Dwayne Bowe to provide the veteran presence that the Browns have been lacking at receiver. The running game will be young as Isiah Crowell will play as the starting back and Terrance West will back him up as a change of pace. The defence is the bright spot for the Browns as they have truly built a good defensive group. The line was a focus in the off-season as the Browns drafted Danny Shelton who will work with Randy Starks and Desmond Bryant to try to improve a run defence that was not very good last year. The linebacking corps will have to step up in that regard as well with Karlos Dansby back to lead the group again. The pass rush is led by Paul Kruger who now rushes from the linebacker position and is hopefully joined by Barkevious Mingo who is coming back from injury and hopes to start in Week 1. The secondary was the best part of this defence last year ranking in the top ten in passing defence. The corners are set with Joe Haden manning one side while Justin Gilbert tries to gain more consistency and new addition Tramon Williams provides the veteran leadership they need. In the middle of the field the Browns will welcome back two pro bowlers in Tashaun Gibson and Donte Whitner in what closes out a very good group that will be hard to get by especially if the rush improves. The Browns are an improved team and they are doing it through the defence first. As good as the defence does look now though they still lack a true starting quarterback as McCown hasn’t proven much in recent years as a starter while Manziel hasn’t proven that he is ready. Without a solid quarterback and a more consistent offence the Browns won’t see the playoffs and will remain at the bottom of a very good division despite having a slightly better season.

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The Steelers have always been a team that likes to play defence and it has been a successful strategy as they have won the most Super Bowls in NFL history. Yet recently that old style of doing things has begun to change in the Steel City. Last year the defence was just a middle of the road group while the offence led the way to the division title. It was a shift in the way the Steelers did things and that shift continues this year as the defence is once again not as good as it used to be. The Steelers defence lost some of their biggest players in the off-season as Brett Keisel, Ike Taylor, and defensive leader Troy Polamalu all leaving this off-season. The Steelers are in the midst of trying to rebuild the defence with a number of young players but that leads to a lot of mistakes on the field when young players are starting for the team. This year the defensive line has undergone their rebuild and now a relatively young line remains as Cameron Heyward and second year player Stephon Tuitt lead the way on the ends. The linebacking corps has a lot more work to do as the additions have led to a fairly young group. Jarvis Jones will enter his third year attempting to prove that he was worth a first round pick after losing his starting spot. Along with Jones second year player Ryan Shazier takes on a bigger role while draftee Bud Dupree tries to earn some snaps in his first year. The secondary is a complete change this year with both Polamalu and Taylor retiring leaving two big holes in the defensive backfield. The Steelers tried to soften the blow by reloading in the draft but none of those players will start this year. Instead replacing defensive leader Polamalu will be third year player Shamarko Thomas while William Gay and Cortez Allen will start at the corners for the first time in their careers. The defence remains a work in progress and so the focus shifts to the offence that has quickly become a powerhouse. Led by Ben Roethlisberger as the steady hand under centre the Steelers’ offence essentially brought the Steelers to the playoffs by themselves last year. With Antonio Brown breaking out in 2014 the Steelers found a premier receiver who will be joined by a young and promising group in Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant. Le’veon Bell is one of the top running backs in the game and with DeAngelo Williams in the fold to spell him when needed the running game. The Steelers’ biggest strength is the fact that they have the weapons necessary to create balance in the attack keeping opponents on their toes the entire game. The Steelers will need to lean on the offence again and they are capable of leading them to the playoffs again but moving much further is not going to happen.

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Prediction:
The AFC North is a tough battle and it will be for the few years coming as the Cleveland Browns are only getting better. Still no matter how much better they get it will not be enough to compete without a quarterback. As a result they will stay in the basement while the big three continue to fight for the division title. The Ravens will take that battle as a team that will come out just about the Bengals in the fight for the division. The Bengals will take the second spot and earn a wild card berth where they hope to find some success in the playoffs. The Steelers might have a bit more of a fight though as they finish third and likely will battle with others in the AFC to earn the last wild card spot as they continue to adjust their identity.

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