Is AFC North Set For Downturn?

The AFC North has been the standard bearer for the last few seasons in the AFC. Is that set to change this year?

The Cleveland Browns have consistently been at the bottom of the AFC North over the past decade plus. Over that same time frame, the North has developed into a powerhouse division that made competing even more difficult for the Browns.

The Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens have been the class of the division, with each showing up to that big game at the end of the season. The Cincinnati Bengals have joined the other two at the top of the division under Marvin Lewis, though the first couple of seasons weren't easy for the former Ravens Defensive Coordinator. 

The North has put two or three teams in to the NFL Playoffs for multiple seasons and are still expected by many to get two in this season, the Steelers and Bengals.

While the Browns once again hit the reset button, the Ravens are coming off a difficult year and are in the midst of transitioning from their aging defensive history to a more offensive team.

Is this the year that the division struggles?

I gave my AFC North predictions on my Locked On Browns Podcast, which you can listen to Monday - Friday every week, but wanted to expound on it more here as well. (Click the link to listen and subscribe.)

I believe this year the North only has one team representing them, either the Steelers or Bengals, and that that team will not scare many going into the Playoffs.

The Steelers are some analysts favorites to make the Super Bowl for the AFC. Their exciting offense, with the best receiver, a great running back and a good quarterback, has many believing they will just score themselves to a title.

Before I address their defense, even their offense has some concerns. Le'Veon Bell is suspended for 3 games, Martavis Bryant is out for the year and Heath Miller is gone (with no solid tight end option as Ladarius Green 's concussion issue hasn't been resolved). This week, at a minimum, Markus Wheaton is also out. 

The defense is a far bigger concern, it looks bad at the worst and dependent on youngsters developing at the best. Cam Heyward is a stud. Maybe Stephon Tuitt develops, maybe Ryan Shazier can be more than just a very good run and chase ILB, maybe Jarvis Jones can overcome his physical limitations and maybe they can find a secondary.

That is far too many maybes for me, no matter how good the defense is. We saw how a very good/great defense can take apart a good offense in the Super Bowl. We've seen defenses lead to great Playoffs, even if great offenses have led to great records. The Steelers have a great offense, and could have a very good record, but they are not a Super Bowl contender.

The Bengals best season, team may have been last season. They still couldn't get over the hump. Andy Dalton is a fine QB, the A.J. McCarron love/hype is a bit confusing, and the roster is aging. The Bengals also lost a ton of their pass catchers this offseason and will be without Tyler Eifert for at least a week or two, if not more.

Their defensive secondary has not yet lived up to it's First Round hype and the linebackers are very slow, in a fast league. The defensive line is elite but is it enough to cover up the other areas of weakness?

The Bengals are unlikely to have an amazing record but, due to their balance, could be a bigger threat in the NFL Playoffs.

Can they trust Dalton to even get a win in the second season? I'm not sure they can.

The Ravens are rebuilding, retooling. They seem a bit out of sorts, cutting their starting running back only to sign him back for about the same money a few days later? That doesn't seem like the Ravens we know and fear.

They have put some assets toward their offensive line, still not sure Ronnie Stanley should have been picked in the Top 10, while losing their defensive stars year after year. Terrelle Suggs is still around but not the player he once was. They have added older vets like Elvis Dumervil and Eric Weddle but they are not to be feared as they once were.

Browns fans know where their team stands. They have a ton of youth, a coach they believe in and offensive weapons that excites. Few fans are expecting anything more than 3 or 4 wins.

While many are expecting the same old same old from the AFC North, I predict this is the year it takes a step back. The Steelers or Bengals win the division, no Wild Card team and a quick exit from the NFL Playoffs. 

Not the AFC North of the past 5 to 10 years.

Do you think the division takes a step back this season?


The OBR Top Stories