2017 NFL Preview: AFC North

afc-northSustained success in the NFL is a tough thing to find and in the AFC North it is only tougher to find.

The North isn’t the best division in the league as the teams that come out of the division are good but necessarily the best.

A part of that has to do with the fact that the North may not produce the best teams but it has usually involved the best battle.

Competition is king in the North as there is rarely a year where one team can really take over the entire division.

It can make things tough in any division as the battle to win the division alone becomes extremely tough.

Teams put everything they have into their games against their division rivals and that can leave little for the long run.

It doesn’t mean that the teams can’t make their way to the Super Bowl after a tough division battle but it is a tough thing.

The emotion and the battles that the teams in these great division battles can take a lot out of teams and when they head to the next season it becomes even tougher.

When a team takes a lot of emotion to finish off their division battle as well as really fighting with the other teams they can lose something for the playoff run.

Not to mention the issues that come along when every player goes all-out and sometimes goes too far and suffers an injury.

Even the non-serious injuries can have an effect as the bumps and bruises that arrive from those big games can add up and make a player less than themselves when it comes to the playoffs.

There are always going to be those games in every season as the rivalry games that every team has, certainly takes a lot out of the teams.

The divisional battles also take plenty out because no team wants to lose to another team in their own division.

Often though there is usually only one team that can really bring that type of game against another team whether it is because they are the other great team or the rivalry that exists between them.

In the AFC North, the tradition has been a lot tougher as every team has had at least four of their games turn out to be a real battle.

There may be some teams with bigger rivalries but almost every team in the division is good and every team hates the other.

The division was always highlighted by the Baltimore-Pittsburgh rivalry that was one of the best in the league.

The two defensive powerhouses put together massive battles for the division title with no one team coming out on top far more than the other.football-sidebar

Then the Cincinnati Bengals joined the fight building their own defensive powerhouse and they started challenging the usual suspects at the top.

It created an even better fight as now there were three teams all vying for the top of the division out of the four teams.

The only team left out has been the Cleveland Browns who have tried and tried again to restart and build a real contender.

They have consistently failed at building that team and are the only team that tends to be left out of one of the best battles in the league.

As they continue to try to build that team the rest of the division continues to fight for the lead in one of the best battles.

The AFC North enters a new year with three teams still seeing a legitimate shot at taking the title and one attempting another rebuild.

That will make the fight to the top a great one for another season as the North will still be a place to watch great football.

All of these teams put on a show every year and 2017 could be just as great as the Bengals, Ravens and Steelers look to take their spot on top of the division.

Who comes out on top will depend on who can get through this division battle and whether they can get to the ultimate goal might also depend on the battle within the division.

baltimore_ravens

The Baltimore Ravens have been a team that has been at the top for a long time as their battles alongside their longtime rivals in Pittsburgh were among the best in the league. The fact is though that every team at some point or another needs to make some changes at some point as every team needs to change things up. The Ravens are at that point right now as they have not been putting together the best seasons. That is not the thing that bal-statsthe Ravens fans have become used to as the Ravens are a team that is supposed to be at the top of the division, not a .500 team. They were a .500 team last year as the Ravens couldn’t figure everything out and get to the playoffs. If they don’t get back to the playoffs a lot of things could change for this team. For years some have claimed that one of their biggest issues has been at the quarterback position. The fact is that when healthy he has been one of the best in the league and after putting up over 4,000 yards in a season where the rest of the teams struggled. Flacco is a good quarterback but what prevents him from advancing are the weapons around him. This year there remains a lack of players around Flacco especially after Steve Smith retired and the Ravens did little to replace him. That means that Flacco will need to figure things out with Mike Wallace and Breshard Perriman while he hopes for a resurgent year from new addition Jeremy Maclin who has continued his decline. In the backfield, the Ravens look to Terrance West and new addition Danny Woodhead to lead an attack that needs to be more active to be more effective. The strength of the team has always been the defence though and for another year that side of the ball will lead this team. It will all start with a retooled secondary where the Ravens signed one of the best safeties in the league. They added Tony Jefferson who will play an important role alongside Derrick Weddle, who should enjoy more freedom with the support. They also added Brandon Carr to try to solidify the corner position that has struggled to stay on the field in recent years. In the middle C.J. Mosely continues to replace Ray Lewis as best he can while Terrell Suggs remains a top-tier edge rusher. With more depth on the team, he might get more chances to show his skills as the Ravens could be willing to take more risks. Up front, the Ravens don’t have a lot of top-level linemen but they certainly have a lot of defensive linemen who will rotate in to keep them fresh. The Ravens have a defence that they like a lot more with their depth but the offence remains a question. They will fight hard for the division again but a playoff spot might be just out of reach.

cincinnati_bengals

The Bengals’ fans are some of the most frustrated in the league as Cincinnati just can’t seem to make that jump to being a legitimate contender. They are caught in a spot that no team wants to be in because everything seems to go right more often than not and then they get to the important games and they fail to make an impression. The Bengals have regularly made the playoffs, although 2016 was a rare down year for them, and yet cin-statswhen they get into the playoffs they can’t win a game. The Bengals have not won a playoff game since the 1990 AFC Wild Card game and that includes a consecutive streak of eight losses in the postseason. After a tough year in Cincinnati, the departures continued and the Bengals are now left wondering just how long their window of opportunity can stay open. The team will lean on the controversial QB, mainly controversial because he has never won a playoff game, Andy Dalton. He has been the best QB for a long time in Cincinnati but he does seem to struggle when the games get into the pressure of the postseason. The offence has long been built on the connection that Dalton and A.J Green have as Green is one of the best receivers in the league although last year he missed a long period with an injury. The Bengals hope that they have found a complement to Green in John Ross but the oft-injured burner is going to miss some time at the start of the season so they will need to wait to see how good he can be. The stable of running backs is getting bigger as Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard will split time while Joe Mixon looks to develop into a top back. The question in Cincinnati will be whether or not they can handle the losses on the line as they lost pro bowl tackle Andrew Whitworth leaving some to wonder if Andre Ward is a good enough replacement. On defence, the Bengals lost a number of players as well but with their depth, they are fine with where they stand. Geno Smith leads the way from the front alongside Carlos Dunlap. The Bengals added Jordan Willis and Carl Lawson in the draft to help with the pass rush but both will have to battle for playing time. At the second level, the Bengals let some older veterans walk away and brought in Kevin Minter to inject some youth in a group that includes Vontaze Burfict. They will also enjoy a group of draft-and-develop defensive backs in Dre Kirkpatrick and Darqueze Dennard that play better if they get some pressure help up front. The Bengals may have lost some talent again this year but they still have plenty to go around. They will fight for the division again and have a shot at the playoffs but beyond that is tough to call.

cle-browns

The Browns entered their latest attempt at a rebuild last year bringing in a brand new group including head coach Hugh Jackson. This new group went to work attempting to fix one of the worst franchises in the NFL as they haven’t been competitive since they rejoined the league in 1999. The Browns have struggled year after year to put together a team that can compete and they have tried almost every way possible. None of it has cle-statsworked and a lack of patience with the regime in charge has often been the culprit as owners have never been able to let a rebuild take the time it needs. The hope is the same as it always has been with a new season ready to begin and the Browns simply want to see some improvement in the second year under this regime. The biggest issue for this team has always been at the quarterback position where they haven’t found someone to lead them since they returned. That position will be handed to a rookie as DeShone Kizer impressed enough to take the starter role. As they prepared for a new QB the Browns signed JC Tretter and Kevin Zeitler to join Joe Thomas on the line and provide much-improved protection. That line should also help Isaiah Crowell in the running game which they will need to take pressure off of the rookie QB. The passing game needs a big upgrade but the signing of Kenny Britt would help while the continued development of Corey Coleman would be huge if he turns into the receiver everyone thought he could be when they drafted him. On defence, Gregg Williams takes over as coordinator providing the team with an experienced and well-respected voice on the sidelines. He will change things up on the defensive side and some new talent will help him develop this team. Their top pick Myles Garrett should play right away as a rush end while Emmanuel Ogbah hopes to improve in his second year and Danny Shelton hopes to continue his development in the middle. At linebacker, Jamie Collins and Christian Kirksey make up a good pair in the middle but not a great one. The secondary is going to be interesting after the Browns released their best corner in Joe Haden leaving a massive gap. They will look to Jabrill Peppers to help them out in the pass defence although nobody knows quite what his best position is after playing a rover spot at Michigan last year. The Browns made some smart moves this year but a lot has been left up in the air as the smart moves will only be smart should they pan out. There are simply too many questions to answer for them to contend, as another year at the bottom should be expected although if things work out well for them the future could be bright.

pittsburgh_steelers

Things have certainly shifted in Pittsburgh as the Steelers used to be one of the most feared defences in the league and now they are one of the most feared offences. The AFC North was built on special defences and the Iron Curtain defence from Pittsburgh was one of those defences. The Steelers are a product of the new NFL and the talent that they have put on the field though as they have become a top offence. Their defence isn’t close pit-statsto what it used to be but they still rank among the best teams in the league after coming up just short in the AFC Championship game last year. Now they enter a new season hoping that the offence can once again lead them deep into the playoffs despite a few issues off of the field that have led to questions. Like most successful offences the Steelers are led by their quarterback Ben Roethlisberger who might not be among the very best but is a great QB. Roethlisberger has gained a lot of help over the last few years as the big QB with a big arm has a lot of options. Chief among them is Antonio Brown who is widely considered the best receiver in the game. With a new contract in hand Brown is going to be a favourite target again while Martavis Bryant is becoming a great secondary target and will not miss any time after having his drug suspension overturned. In the backfield is one of the top running backs in the league as well in Le’Veon Bell. The only issue this year is that Bell sat out the entire training camp wanting more money and missed that usual practice time. He is a great back but missing that time could have a negative effect on his start to the season. The Steelers are now an offence-first team but their defence isn’t necessarily a pushover either. On the line, they hope that Cameron Heyward can stay healthy while Bud Dupree and Javon Hargrave need to develop to keep the defence going. In the second level, there is a wealth of talent as James Harrison continues to get after the QB at 39-years-old while Ryan Shazier and T.J. Watt provide some youth in the group. The secondary had some issues last year but the addition of Joe Haden should provide a veteran presence to young corners, Artie Burns and Sean Davis. The Steelers are not their old selves but that has turned out to be fine with the team. They have still been one of the best teams and despite not having a defence that can take over they have an offence that absolutely can. That good defence and great offence will lead them to the division title for another year as the rest of the teams in the division begin to struggle with their own transitions.

Prediction:
The AFC North will always have some great battles to try to find the top of the division but things are shifting. Almost every team is trying to figure things out after a bad year and as a result, the Pittsburgh Steelers will take advantage. They remain the best team in the division and won’t likely find the fight to the top all that difficult. The second spot could be where the real battle goes as Baltimore and Cincinnati need to bounce back to be effective. Whoever does that will find the second spot and could be headed for the playoffs. It seems more likely that a relatively intact Baltimore team will do it while the Bengals fall off. The Browns made some smart decisions this year but they still don’t have the talent they need to make a real run.

afcn-prediction

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