NFL Season Outlook: AFC North
Pittsburgh Steelers –
Ceiling: It’s got to be Super Bowl or bust for this team this year. The defense is getting better every year, and the offense is ready to explode (though the Le’Veon Bell suspension is concerning it doesn’t take too much away from the offense as DeAngelo Williams showed last year that he can be an adequate replacement). I like the Steelers chances of winning 13 or 14 games and locking up the number one seed in the AFC.
Floor: Even with Roethlisberger and Bell missing extended time last year with injuries, the Steelers still finished with ten wins. I’d put that as the floor for this year as well as the other weapons around those two can, and will pick up the slack if need be. No Martavis Bryant? No problem.
Storyline: When will Le’Veon Bell put down the bong? How far can this team go with sky-high expectations? Who steps up as the second wide receiver with Bryant gone for the season? Can the defense return to their status as the Steelers defense?
Best Game on the Schedule: Any game against the Bengals should be a must-see affair. Though, being the prohibitive favorite, Pittsburgh will get everyone’s best every week.
Worst Game on the Schedule: While the Steelers have some good games on their schedule, they also have some real stinkers, especially for a team expected to roll. Playing the AFC and NFC East this year is about as easy a schedule as you can ask for (especially when they play in the same division as the Browns and Ravens). Week three against the Eagles and week six against the Dolphins should be over before halftime.
2016-2017 finish: First in the North, First Seed in the AFC Playoffs
Cincinnati Bengals –
Ceiling: The AFC North is a 1 and 1A division. I can easily see Cincinnati and Pittsburgh going down to tiebreakers at the end of the season to see who gets the number one seed and who gets the first wildcard. I think the Bengals will be just below the Steelers, 12-4 maybe, but they will be right there if the Steelers take their foot off the gas at all.
Floor: Same with the Steelers, I can see the floor here being ten wins as long as Dalton stays healthy. If he gets hurt, all bets are off.
Storyline: Are the Bengals able to play disciplined football and get out of their own damn way? Is this the year of Andy Dalton? Can they Bengals keep the momentum from a successful regular season last year going? Is the Jeremy Hill/Gio Bernard two-headed running back monster a viable form of offense? Can we see 16 games of top flight production out of AJ Green? How do the Bengals replace the receivers they lost in free agency?
Best Game on the Schedule: The Steelers games should be instant classics, but week six against the Patriots should be a lot of fun.
Worst Game on the Schedule: The Bengals are blessed (cursed?) with a similar schedule as the Steelers, meaning that there will be a lot of snooze-fests against bad teams. Week four against the Dolphins should have about as much entertainment value as watching Marvin Lewis read the phone book.
2016-2017 finish: Second in the North, Fifth Seed in the AFC Playoffs
Baltimore Ravens –
Ceiling: Baltimore should be better than their dismal 5-11 campaign last year, no doubt. With one of the best run franchises in football at the GM level, the Ravens don’t stay down for long, but they don’t have enough, in my estimation, to make it back to the playoffs this year. Taking Ronnie Stanley in the first round to shore up their offensive line was a good plan to keep Flacco on his feet, but it’s not going to be enough to get them much more than an 8-8 record.
Floor: I can see the Ravens at 5-11 this year again if Flacco and the defense struggle again this year. The addition of Stanley should help to keep both Flacco and Justin Forsett healthy. If the Ravens struggle with injuries again this year though, they could punt the season early on like they did around week six last year.
Storyline: Injuries. Seriously. That’s it. The expectations are not as high on Baltimore as they are on Pittsburgh and Cincinnati this year, so the Ravens could fly under the radar to an 8-8 record.
Best Game on the Schedule: The Pittsburgh games are always fun, but week 17 at Cincinnati could have major playoff implications and could be one of the best games of that weekend.
Worst Game on the Schedule: Week fourteen against the Patriots won’t be pretty unless the Ravens catch lightening in a bottle toward the end of the season, and I don’t see that happening.
2016-2017 finish: Third in the North
Cleveland Browns –
Ceiling: New quarterback, same Browns. Until I’m shown any reason to believe to the contrary, 3-13 it is.
Floor: Could the Browns go winless? They’re the Browns! Of Course! I’d say they squeak one out, so 1-15 it is.
Storyline: Will any of the offseason improvements lead to in-season success?
Best Game on the Schedule: The Browns will play the Steelers and Bengals tough all season. They may even steal a game from one of them, because that’s how the AFC North goes. I’d keep an eye on those matchups. Beyond that…they’re the Browns.
Worst Game on the Schedule: Browns @ Dolphins, week three. Yawn.
2016-2017 finish: Fourth in the North