2016 NFL Preview: AFC North

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The AFC North has long been defined by some of the biggest modern day rivalries in the league and that has made it one of the better divisions in the game.

There really is no love lost between any of the teams in the division with histories dating back decades.

The Steelers and Ravens have been the most obvious rivalry as both have been so good for so long that they were bound to clash every year.

There is also the rivalry of Ohio as Cincinnati and Cleveland have been fighting for bragging rights ever since Paul Brown was fired by the team that was named after him and started a new team in Cincinnati.

There is also a big rivalry between Cleveland and Baltimore as the Ravens are the team that came when the Browns were relocated and one of the founders of the league no longer existed.

These rivalries are what make the North tick but not all have decided division titles and playoff spots.

The rivalry that has defined the division over the last decade is the one between the Steelers and the Ravens.

They have fought some very tough battles and were really the only two teams in the division to make an impact on the league.

Then the Bengals began figuring things out and threw themselves into the fight for the division.

Since the Bengals have thrown their hat in they have become one of the teams to beat and as a result, the battle has only gotten better.

It was one of the best divisions in the league as there always seemed to be two Super Bowl contenders in the division with two spots being taken every year by the North.

Last year two teams once again took playoff spots but the division was not nearly as tough as it used to be.football-sidebar

The Ravens were a shell of themselves as they began losing right away and were never a factor in the division fight.

The Cleveland Browns remained a team that couldn’t figure out anything as their search for a quarterback continued.

The Steelers came out well but in the majority of their season they just got by teams but they did enough to finish games and take wins.

The Bengals were once again the team to beat and ran away with things when they began their season with eight straight wins.

The division battle was not the usual one for the North but they still produced two playoff teams and as they enter a new season they hope to do the same.

The North is a division that has been so strong for so long but it seems like they might be on the edge of losing that dominance.

The Steelers and Ravens are not the same teams as they once were while the Browns continue to struggle.

The only strong team in the division is the Bengals who have proven to be a team to beat year after year.

This season will be defined by either the comeback of one of the toughest divisions in the league or the end of their dominance throughout the league.

What happens will be up to the teams as all look to take their off-season work into the new year and compete for the playoffs.

 

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The Ravens are used to winning so when they finished 2015 with a losing record it was unexpected. The Ravens had a tough year as it seemed like they were without all of their best players by the end of the year. Both Steve Smith Sr. and Terrell Suggs tore their Achilles at the start of the year while Joe Flacco tore his ACL and MCL and Justin Forsett broke his arm both in Week 11. It was enough to sink any team and the Ravens fell without any of their star players throughout the season. The Ravens enter a new season and with it comes a new hope that they can return to the formerly dominant team they were only a few years ago. A big part of their dominance in those years was a great defence but that is not necessarily the reputation they have any longer. The line is still a strength as their run defence was great last year and the line was a big reason for that. Timmy Jernigan, Brandon Williams, and Lawrence Guy are all good against the run and don’t need to be great in the pass rush. That role falls on Suggs who returns from his lost season to lead the defence for another year. Suggs is not getting any younger though and he might be nearing the end of his big numbers, although he will try to prove everyone otherwise. In the defensive backfield, the Ravens have struggled in a big way as they continue to try and build a group that can stop the passing game. The addition of Eric Weddle will be a big help as the veteran can help to lead a young group that includes Jimmy Smith and Ladarius Webb. The defence needs to step up this year as the Ravens have always won via their defence and they would love to do it again. On offence, the Ravens will be very happy to see Smith and Flacco back together as Smith decided to extend his career by one more year after he lost all of 2015. Flacco loves to throw to Smith but he will also get another deep threat with the signing of Mike Wallace. He hasn’t been the threat he used to be but he still has plenty of speed and the ability to press defensive backfields. That could open up the passing game a lot more giving them the ability to be more balanced. That balance will also be easier with the return of Justin Forsett who was the leading rusher last year despite missing the end of the season. The return of their three biggest weapons and the addition of Wallace makes this team far better than they were a year ago. As a result, they will likely be candidates for the best turnaround season fighting for a playoff spot.

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There is little doubt that the Bengals are one of the best teams in the league and they have been for the last few years. With a strong defence and a quick-strike offence, the Bengals are a hard team to beat which is why they remain at the top of the standings every year. Last year they were one of the few teams left without a loss after lasting eight straight weeks and that run helped them win another division title. The frustration with this team though is the simple fact that they have yet to win a playoff game in five straight appearances in the playoffs. This year the Bengals are looking to much the same team in order to break that streak and begin meeting their potential in the playoffs. The person taking the most heat for their inability to win in January is the quarterback as Andy Dalton has taken a lot of hate. He is still quietly one of the top QBs in the game and it doesn’t hurt that he has one of the best receivers in the game. A.J. Green has proven to be a star in the NFL and will continue to do his thing but without any real back-up, he might find it tough to put up big numbers. The Bengals lost their secondary target in Marvin Jones leaving Brandon LaFell as the next target alongside Tyler Eifert in the short game. The passing game could suffer for the lack of truly big targets but Dalton is sure to try to spread it around to take the pressure off of Green. Behind Dalton is a tandem that works well in Jeremy Hill and Giovanni Bernard who provide every different looks and put up big numbers. On the defence, the Bengals have continued to be a tough team to get through. The line is even better with a healthy Geno Atkins, which everyone learned last year, as Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson enjoyed the fact that Atkins requires a double-team. The linebacking corps is sure to miss Vontaze Burfict who will be suspended for the first three games. There is no placing him but the group is still good with the addition of Karlos Dansby and the continued success of Rey Maualuga. In the secondary, the Bengals are young and good as they continue to add to the stable in every year of the draft. Dre Kirkpatrick is a product of that while Adam Jones is the veteran of the group having been through everything in the NFL. The Bengals are a good team for another year and winning the division seems likely for them. What happens after that is entirely different though as the pressure is on the Bengals will need to get over their usual hiccups when the games matter.

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The Cleveland Browns have been one of the worst team in football since they returned to the NFL in 1999. The fact is that the Browns have been hampered by poor decision-making from the top down as nobody has been given the opportunity to truly make a team. Head coaches are fired and hired quickly along with GMs making creating a winning attitude close to impossible. That pattern continues into this new season as yet again the Browns see a new regime to go along with a new group of players. Hugh Jackson takes over the Browns this year in his second head coaching job and is the fourth coach in six years for the Browns. He will have some interesting weapons to work with though as the Browns are a bit of a mystery on offence. The biggest mystery of them all is at quarterback where the Browns will see Robert Griffin III take over this year. He was once considered one of the top young quarterbacks in the league with Washington but after his first year, he has never looked the same. He has the talent to throw to this year but they will be young as first round pick Corey Coleman is likely going to start his NFL career as the top target this year. Along with QB turned receiver Terrelle Pryor the passing game on the outside could be great but could also make a lot of mistakes. Inside Griffin will look to the one sure=handed target in Gary Barnridge who was the only bright spot of 2015 for the team. Griffin will likely be heavily involved in the running game as well along with Isaiah Crowell as Jackson loves to run the ball. The defence is just as much a mystery as they are still young and even more with the loss of Karlos Dansby. The line will hope to see second-year tackle Danny Shelton continue to develop while on the end Carl Nassib could see some time in his first year. Emmanual Ogbah will be watched closely too as the second pick moves to outside linebacker with the Browns hoping that he can get to the quarterback like he did in college. Alongside a young group like second-year man Nate Orchard the Browns hope to be better. In the backfield, the longest tenured Brown leads as the elder statesman in his seventh year. Joe Haden continues to be good in the secondary but he is really the only highlight in a group that has little experience. There are a lot of unknowns this year for the Browns but that is not new as they have a young team with a lot of potential and a new coach that has been great as a coordinator but not so great for turning teams around. The playoffs are far from a possibility for the Browns but if potential is met they might surprise some in some big games.

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The Steelers are in the midst of a massive change for the franchise that many thought might never happen. That change is from being one of the best defensive teams in the league to one of the best offensive teams. Over the last few years, they have shifted their focus to the offence, largely due to an ageing defence, and it has worked well for them. They never really looked like a dominant team last year but they were never out of a game winning plenty of close ones to earn a playoff spot. They even barely squeaked by the Bengals to move on the playoffs. The offence it the focus and it is good but the defence has become one of the main issues for the team. The defence is not necessarily bad but they aren’t built to win games as much as they are built to hold a lead. On the line, Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt are two devastating ends but beyond them, there is not much else to scare the offence in the middle. At linebacker, Jarvis Jones has yet to really pan out as an NFL player while the rest of the group is fairly young in Ryan Shazier and Bud Dupree. The leader of the group is not an every down player at 38-years old but James Harrison still makes his presence known. They are not a great group but the potential to be great is certainly there if they can figure things out. In the secondary, the team is not spectacular but it might change as the season moves on with some young talent sitting behind some less than veterans. The defence is not the one that will strike fear into teams but there is some potential there that can begin to bring the “Steel Curtain” back. Luckily the defence doesn’t need to be great because their offence is and it can come through when it needs to. Led by Ben Roethlisberger the Steelers are more of a quick-strike offence than they used to be. It is hard not to be with Antonio Brown as the top target but they might take a step back as Martavis Bryant is gone leaving Markus Wheaton to play the role of distraction to get Brown open. In the backfield, DeAngelo Williams will need to take on a big role at the start with Le’Veon Bell suspended for the first four games of the year. They will likely serve as a tandem when Bell returns and it is a good one that is sure to keep them balanced. The Steelers are no longer a defensive powerhouse but their offence makes up for it to make them a contender. They may have a tougher fight this year though and without that great defence, they won’t make the playoffs even though they will be in the fight.

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Prediction:
The North may be getting back to their great battle again and for two teams that won’t be good news. The Browns would love to see their team in the hunt late in the season but with so many new pieces it is very unlikely that they can figure it all out. Their future is bright but only if they can stick to their path and that path is just starting. The Steelers and the Ravens will both be in a tough fight to get second place and a wild card. The Steelers will fall just short due to a defence that isn’t good enough to carry them yet. The Ravens will take the wild card as they see their stars return for the new season to find their way back to the playoffs. They will test the Bengals but in the regular season, Cincinnati is simply too good to lose this division. Whether they can do anything after the regular season is the big question as changes might come if they lose in the first round for the sixth straight year.

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