MHH NFL Season Preview: AFC North

MHH Analyst Jake Marsing previews the 2015 season for the AFC North.

If you’re a fan of the NFL, the middle of the summer can be the most monotonous time on the calendar. OTAs are over and training camp has yet to begin. Questions are about the only thing a fan has to keep their football fever from developing into a full-blown case of pigskin paralysis.

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Now less than a week out from the start of training camp around the league, we are prepared to start answering some of those questions in what will certainly be the first of about 2,500 season previews you’ll read between now and September 10th. We’ll break down every NFL team, and every division. We’ll walk you through the postseason, and tell you which players will stand out at the end of this season as the brightest stars the game can offer.

AFC North

1. Baltimore Ravens (11-5)

The Ravens have arguably been the AFC North’s best team in all but one of the last seven seasons. In that time, they’ve won 72 regular season games, 10 playoff games, and a Super Bowl championship.

Yet, the AFC North title has proven to be an elusive prize for John Harbaugh’s club. The Ravens have been division champions just twice since Harbaugh took over prior to the 2008 season. Expect that number to change this season.

Where other teams in the North have begun to slide, the Ravens have improved. They upgraded at safety, signing Kendrick Lewis to a three-year deal to replace Darian Stewart. They re-signed key free agents, including running back Justin Forsett, and they replaced outgoing offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak with Marc Trestman, an equally gifted offensive mind.

Add that impressive list of additions to an already ferocious pass rush led by Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil, a top flight coaching staff, and a Joe Flacco at the height of his prime, and the Ravens will once again find themselves in the later stages of the NFL postseason this year.

2. Pittsburgh Steelers (9-7)

No matter how unexpected it may be, the Steelers always seem to find a way to be in the mix at the end of the season. However, this season there are more questions about the black and gold than there have been in the last decade. 2015 will be a transition year for the Steelers, as they try and adjust to new defensive coordinator Keith Butler’s scheme, and find new leadership following the retirement of Troy Polamalu.

The key for the Steelers this season will be the play of their draft picks. Bud Dupree and Senquez Golson, in particular, will have to play exceptionally well this season to fill the holes on defense. Offensively, the team has all the weapons they need to compete in the division.

It’s just hard to imagine their evolving defense playing at the level necessary to win tight games when Big Ben’s offense isn’t playing up to par. If the Steeler’s make the playoffs, it will be thanks to their high-powered offensive attack.

3. Cincinnati Bengals (7-9)

2015 will finally be the year for the Bengals. Marvin Lewis has been stringing Bengals fans along with playoff berths and above average regular season records since 2003. Much of that regular season success can be credited to simple good luck, as Lewis has yet to win a playoff game. 2015 will finally be the year mediocrity stops being enough to keep Lewis employed.

The AFC has gotten considerably better in the last year; yet, the Bengals really haven’t grown much. Their defense has taken a step back, since longtime coordinator Mike Zimmer took the top job in Minnesota last year. They’re replacing stalwart tight end Jermaine Gresham with unproven rookie Tyler Eifert, and most importantly, the Bengals are still led by Andy Dalton.

Entering his fifth NFL season, Dalton is so poorly thought of in southern Ohio that he was loudly booed while playing at a charity softball tournament in Cincinnati. There’s some speculation that Dalton may even have to compete for his starting job with second-year backup A.J. McCarron. Expect 2015 to be the year the Bengals good fortune finally flails out.

4. Cleveland Browns (5-11)

The Browns are…the Browns. They lost a mountain of talent in the offseason, including star tight end Jordan Cameron, and Dwayne Bowe was arguably their top free agent signing. Yes, that’s the same Dwayne Bowe who was part of last year’s Kansas City Chiefs team that didn’t record a single passing touchdown to a receiver.

Meanwhile, Browns fans are once again staring down the barrel of a quarterback competition that can’t possibly end well. On one end stands Josh McCown, the 36-year-old who flamed out last season, after signing a big money contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. On the other side of the competition, standing (probably on his tippy toes) is Johnny “Don’t call me ‘Football’” Manziel.

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The second-year scrambler was a hot mess during limited action in 2014, and it’s hard to imagine him improving dramatically this season. So, no matter how the quarterback competition ends in Cleveland, Browns fans will almost certainly be left without a long-term answer under center for yet another football season.

With all that said, it’s important to note that the Browns are getting better. Their defense is impressive, they’ve drafted well in the last two years, and they’ve finally found a competent leader in head coach Mike Pettine. Much like the Oakland Raiders, it’s not far-fetched to imagine the Browns being contenders in their division within the next few years. However, without a quality option at quarterback, fans at the dawg pound shouldn’t plan on being much more than below average in 2015.

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Jake Marsing is an Analyst for MileHighHuddle. You can find him on Twitter @JakeDMarsing. And be sure to like MileHighHuddle on Facebook.

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