With the NFL season kicking off this Thursday with the Philadelphia Eagles opening up the defense of their Super Bowl LII title against the Atlanta Falcons, what better time to preview the season, especially now that rosters are mostly set after a mostly ignored preseason.
These previews are going to feature a quick look back at last season, any major personnel moves that may affect the upcoming season, and a prediction for how we think each division is going to play out. At the end of the week, we’ll post a separate post that combines them all and predicts the playoff participants, as well as who we think will be hoisting the Lombardi Trophy after Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta on February 3, 2019.
Our second division in the AFC will be the AFC North, which recently has been the domain of the Steelers, though all but the Browns have won division titles since the NFL went to the eight division format for the 2002 season (Steelers – 8 titles; Ravens – 4 titles; Bengals – 4 titles). The Ravens have the most recent Super Bowl from the division, winning Super Bowl XLVII after the 2012 season, and the Steelers have two themselves since 2005 (Super Bowls XL and XLIII). The Bengals are still looking for a playoff victory this century, and the Browns… well, they’re looking for their second win in three seasons.
The Pittsburgh Steelers clinched the division after a Week 14 victory over the Ravens, and ended the season as the second seed in the AFC Playoffs behind the New England Patriots. They also went 6-0 within the division, the only team to do so in the NFL last season. Le’Veon Bell joined the team after a one-game suspension and went on to have the most touches in the NFL, with 321 rushes and 85 catches, ending with nearly 2,000 yards from scrimmage. It was good enough for him to garner All-Pro for the second time in his career, and the Steelers have to hope that he doesn’t miss much more of this season after choosing to holdout in an attempt to secure a better long-term contract.
The Baltimore Ravens failed to make the playoffs, losing out on a tiebreakers after an upset loss to the Bengals in Week 17, though they probably doomed themselves to missing the playoffs after starting the season 4-5 prior to their Week 10 bye. Though they went 5-2 down the stretch, they lost close games to Pittsburgh and Cincinnati by a combined 5 points, leading them to miss the playoffs for the third consecutive season.
The Cincinnati Bengals missed the playoffs for the second consecutive season, and never seemed to get it together after firing offensive coordinator Ken Zampese after scoring only 9 points the first two weeks. A.J. Green had another stellar season, earning his 7th consecutive Pro Bowl berth to begin his career, ending the season with 75 catches, 1,078 yards, and 8 touchdowns. Not really much else to say about the Bengals, though they did keep the Ravens out of the playoffs so I guess that’s something.
Finally, the Cleveland Browns. They didn’t have to do much to improve on their 1-15 record from the 2016 season, so one would think they had no where to go but up. NOPE! The Browns lost all 16 games last season, becoming only the second team in history to do so. And despite only winning 1 game over two seasons, head coach Hue Jackson somehow kept his job. The Browns will be the Browns. They lost four games by only three points – including a game that went to overtime – and another by four points, but their average margin over all 16 games was -11 (176 points), which sure makes it difficult to win games. Chances are they improve on the ZERO wins they had last year, but we thought that last year/
Major Personnel Moves
None of the teams replaced their head coach, though that was a bit of a shock all things considered. Hue Jackson seems to be the closest to being fired, though if you can’t get fired after going 1-31 over two seasons, maybe there’s some incriminating information he has on Jimmy Haslem. Marvin Lewis of the Bengals is the longest-tenured coach in the division and has done pretty well per Bengals standards, though he still hasn’t won a playoff game in seven tries.
On the player front, the only bright spot for the Browns over their recent existence was the stellar line play of offensive tackle Joe Thomas, and he retired this offseason because of a chronic knee injury. The Browns also lost running back Isaiah Crowell to the Jets in free agency, but added Carlos Hyde from the 49ers, so that shakes out as a wash. The Browns also selected Baker Mayfield first overall in the draft, though they will enter the season with trade acquisition Tyrod Taylor (Bills) as their starter.
The Ravens selected their quarterback of the future in the April draft, selecting Lamar Jackson of Louisville with the final pick of the first round (32nd overall). The Bengals, meanwhile, seem content for yet another season with Andy Dalton at quarterback, not drafting a quarterback until the 7th round (Logan Woodside of Toledo, who did not make the team), though they did sign Matt Barkley (who is now injured) to replace A.J. McCarron as a back-up.
This division seems to be the Steelers’ to lose, and we’ll have to wait and see how long Le’Veon Bell remains away from the team, if he returns at all. The top three teams will continue to beat up on the Browns, and the Browns only real hope to improve on their 1-31 record over the last two seasons is to find a win against the other last place teams on their schedule (I have them beating the Bears for their one win this season). The Ravens are clearly better than the Bengals, but can’t quite compete with the Steelers, so the Steelers may spend the last quarter of the season looking to secure home field in the AFC playoffs than worrying about the division crown.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers – 13-3 (5-1 division)
2. Baltimore Ravens – 9-7 (4-2 division)
3. Cincinnati Bengals – 6-10 (3-3 division)
4. Cleveland Browns – 1-15 (0-6 division)