With the regular season bearing down on us, let’s take a look at the 2014 AFC North Predictions.
The AFC North teams have to play the AFC South and NFC South this season in addition to their divisional schedule.
I am making predictions as if injuries did not occur unless otherwise specified and each projected finish is from looking through each game over the course of the season and predicting each winner from each matchup.
For playoff predictions and award predictions, check out Football Fan Source’s 2014 NFL Season Preview!
1. Cincinnati Bengals
Projected Finish: 10-6
Cincinnati enters the season looking for their fourth consecutive playoff appearance in the rugged AFC North. The issue in Cincinnati is the lack of playoff wins though with their last coming in 1990. While concerns persist about quarterback Andy Dalton, the Cincinnati Bengals remain stacked on both sides of the ball and are one of the most talented teams in the NFL.
Dalton is the key offensively. Between second-year running back Giovani Bernard, tight end Tyler Eifert, wide receiver A.J. Green and the rest of the skill position players, Dalton has all he needs to replicate and exceed the Bengals 10th-place finish in total offense last season. Bernard will be heavily utilized, as will rookie power back Jeremy Hill. Receiver Marvin Jones is out until at least Week 4, but when he returns, him and Green will make a formidable receiving core. Mohamed Sanu is talented enough to fill-in in the meantime and will be a factor from the slot even when Jones returns. Even the offensive line is solid with the biggest question mark being rookie center Russell Bodine and if injuries hit. The regular season isn’t really where Cincinnati has the concerns though. Dalton has been atrocious in the playoffs, but he has been good enough to get there three times in his three NFL seasons. New offensive coordinator Hue Jackson should remedy that. He brings a power run game focus, but is creative enough to maximize Dalton’s talent. Jackson’s presence will make a huge difference for Dalton.
The defense is one of the best in the league. The defensive line lost defensive end Michael Johnson to free agency, but it gets Geno Atkins back after he suffered a season-ending injury halfway through last season. Atkins is an All-Pro when healthy. Filling in for Johnson is second-year end Margus Hunt. Hunt is a behemoth with raw power that has been favorably compared to that of Houston’s J.J. Watt. Not a bad replacement. The linebackers are good with the leading tackler from last season, Vontaze Burfict, returning. There were some injuries to this unit last season and with them coming back, there could be a new name or two that surfaces as the season goes along. The secondary is suddenly very deep after being an area of focus for the last couple years. The only real hole in the defense is that former defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer is now the head coach in Minnesota. Paul Gunther was promoted from within, so I don’t think there will be a major drop-off, but Zimmer was a heck of a coordinator.
I think Cincinnati, if they can make it out of the AFC North, is a real threat for a deep playoff run. Once again, it all lies on Dalton’s shoulders as the talent of this team alone should get them to the playoffs. The biggest issue is the AFC North, where all four teams seem to know each other better than they know themselves at times.
Player to Watch: DE Margus Hunt – He dominated the preseason and has been compared to J.J. Watt. Isn’t that enough of a reason to watch?
2. Pittsburgh Steelers
Projected Finish: 10-6
I have Pittsburgh at number two in these predictions, but we all know how that can change. The Steelers used an off-year last season to draft well this offseason and develop some key players. They look poised to return to the top of the AFC North in some capacity with a more youthful defense and an offense that should be surprisingly explosive.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is what makes the offense run and this season should see him throwing the ball more often than what we used to see in a Steeler offense. Receivers Markus Wheaton and Antonio Brown are solid. Brown is a playmaker who will have some huge games this year. Wheaton is unproven, but could be a factor this season. Same goes for rookie Martavis Bryant who opens the season buried on the depth chart, but I imagine will see some opportunities given his measurables. Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount have already been in the news for the wrong reasons, but they both possess the skill to make the run game more than formidable. Expect Roethlisberger and the Steelers offense to use the backs to wear down opposing defenses while utilizing explosive plays in the passing game. Sometimes we forget how good Roethlisberger actually is at playing quarterback. Nobody is going to compare him to the gaudy numbers of Peyton Manning or Tom Brady, but he is certainly more than capable of winning games with his arm with the proper weapons.
The defense has been considered a strength and weakness over recent years. By that I mean, they had the skill, but their unit ranked among the oldest in the league, which seemed to correlate with wearing down as the season progressed. The defense is faster and younger this season. They aren’t the “Steel Curtain” of old, but they have playmakers across the defense. The most prominent is rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier, who has the athleticism to make plays all over the field. His biggest knock throughout the draft process was that he wasn’t the best at getting off blocks from bigger offensive lineman, but if he can work through that, he will be a big-name by season’s end. The secondary is a little bare, but defensive coordinator Dick Lebeau generally seems to make things work.
This division is between Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. Pittsburgh traditionally has Cincinnati’s number, but Cincinnati now possesses more talent on paper, so I’m thinking the records end up similar, if not the same, between Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. I think the Bengals win the division through tiebreaker.
Player to Watch: LB Ryan Shazier – His name has been thrown around as a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate. His physical skills mean he will seemingly always be involved in the play. He generally knows what to do while he is there making him a potentially impactful rookie defender.
3. Baltimore Ravens
Projected Finish: 9-7
Baltimore will, once again, take part in the push to the top of the AFC North with Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, but in my 2014 AFC North Predictions, I have them finishing behind both teams at 9-7. Baltimore should still be able to make the playoffs though with a talented roster and a Super Bowl winning quarterback at the helm.
Quarterback Joe Flacco struggled last season following Baltimore’s Super Bowl victory a year prior as the run game practically fell apart with Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce being completely ineffective at times. Flacco’s numbers, while poor, aren’t a sign that he is a bad quarterback, but more of a result of where Baltimore was last year as a team. This year should be different. Insert former Houston head coach Gary Kubiak as offensive coordinator. Kubiak is implementing a zone running scheme, which should improve the run game – at least when Rice returns from suspension and Pierce gets healthy (concussion). Flacco still has wide receiver Torrey Smith to throw to, but he also now has the former Carolina Panthers star Steve Smith to utilize. Smith is getting up there in age, but I think he still has some left in the tank and plays with a fire that will be infectious on the Baltimore roster. Tight end Dennis Pitta is also back after suffering a season-long injury a year ago. His return is actually a very big deal as it gives Flacco, not only another weapon, but his primary fall-back option.
Like Pittsburgh, this isn’t the Ravens defense of old, but they are still quite formidable. Haloti Ngata is still a great player. The linebackers are younger and no less talented. Terrell Suggs still can get the passer like the best of them and Baltimore’s top draft pick from this offseason, C.J. Mosley should be a factor at inside linebacker this season. I’d like to see what Courtney Upshaw does in his second season. He was a player I really liked coming out of college despite limited physical tools. In the secondary, you have to like cornerback Jimmy Smith. He could be one of those guys offenses opt to avoid come season’s end. The problem for opponents is that Lardarius Webb was already one of those guys before missing last season due to injury. Matt Elam at safety should only improve after a good rookie season.
Baltimore is improved after making some adjustments this offseason and Kubiak’s presence should improve the run game that held back this offense so much a year ago. The AFC North is going to beat up each other plenty though. Pittsburgh and Cincinnati matchup as well as anyone with Baltimore and I wouldn’t be surprised if Cleveland sneaks one from any or all of those teams this season.
Player to Watch: LB C.J. Mosley – Let’s stick with Mosley who is stepping in as a rookie as an inside linebacker. Everything I have heard is that Mosley has looked great and he will certainly be involved given the nature of his position.
4. Cleveland Browns
Projected Finish: 6-10
Cleveland always seems to be a team up river without a paddle. They have something “good” happen to them and suddenly things fall apart in the most unimaginable way possible. Unfortunately, I don’t see them finding the direction they are looking for this season.
Quarterback will be an ongoing saga here. Sure, Brian Hoyer is starting right now and, sure, he can win some games for Cleveland, but everyone can see he lacks the high-ceiling to take Cleveland out of picking in the top-10 at next year’s NFL Draft. So, put in Johnny Manziel, right? I still don’t believe in the guy. I wrote about it and there I questioned if he was fully responsible for his success or if having Mike Evans and head coach Kevin Sumlin maybe contributed more than people thought. After seeing Manziel’s replacement at Texas A&M throw for 511 yards and three touchdowns, I feel more confident in my assessment. Point is, we will see Manziel – sooner rather than later – and it won’t “save” the Browns. Not only because Manziel can’t be as explosive in the NFL, but also because he has nobody to throw to. Wide receiver Josh Gordon is suspended for the entire season after leading the NFL in receiving last year. The next guys up are lightning-quick Andrew Hawkins and Miles Austin. Austin is a bit injury prone and Hawkins is 5’7″. Running back Ben Tate is very talented and will play well if healthy, but there just isn’t a threat for Cleveland to throw the ball. Manziel will play and make some good plays, but I don’t see a miracle in Cleveland.
The defense is actually pretty darn good in Cleveland. I honestly believe the Browns will surprise teams this year, particularly those in the AFC North, and it will be because their defense is top-10 caliber, maybe higher. The issue is that Cleveland’s offense won’t be able to get the defense enough rest and they could wear out. The defensive line is solid, led by nose tackle Phil Taylor. The linebackers are led by Karlos Dansby, a guy Arizona is missing dearly right now, and Jabaal Sheard. Sheard was on the verge of a breakout year as a defensive end, but had to transition to outside rush linebacker in Cleveland’s 3-4 scheme. Another year in the system should do him well. His backup is Barkevious Mingo who will be featured on some passing situations. In addition to having one of the most interesting names in the league, he also could rack up a handful of sacks as the season progresses. The secondary was an issue last season, and by that I mean the side opposite of Joe Haden. Haden is a legit shutdown corner who deserves more attention than he gets. Rookie Justin Gilbert is an improvement on the opposite side. Donte Whitner is a downgrade from T.J. Ward, but won’t cause too much of a setback.
Cleveland is rebuilding and you can bet that includes showcasing “the future”. Manziel will play and he will show just enough for ESPN to obsess over him, but I don’t think Cleveland has what it needs to be a legitimate threat in the AFC North. If Gordon hadn’t been suspended, maybe we would be having a different conversation as the Cleveland defense should be pretty good this season.
Player to Watch: QB Johnny Manziel – It had to be him here. Some want to watch him succeed. Some want to watch him fail. Others just want ESPN to stop talking about him. Either way, all eyes will be on him when he plays.