Football Outsiders has released their early 2016 AFC projections (insider required), and they may have the Ravens finishing in third place, but they do have them returning to the playoffs. The projections have the Ravens and the Bengals finishing as playoff teams, with all three teams outside Cleveland making it, like in 2014. The Ravens and Bengals (both 10-6) edge out the Buffalo Bills (9-7), with the San Diego Chargers the next team out at 8-8.
Here is what they had to say about the division:
1. Pittsburgh Steelers: 12-4 (11.8 mean wins; SOS: 23)
2. Cincinnati Bengals: 10-6 (9.8 mean wins; SOS: 20)
3. Baltimore Ravens: 10-6 (9.6 mean wins; SOS: 24)
4. Cleveland Browns: 4-12 (3.6 mean wins; SOS: 7)
We talk a lot about which NFL division is the best top to bottom, but no division can compete with the AFC North when it comes to "top to almost bottom" quality. Three AFC North teams made the postseason in 2014, and the same will happen in 2016 if the season plays out according to our mean projections.
We currently project Pittsburgh to be the best offense in the league, which makes a lot of sense considering they ranked third in offensive DVOA last year despite getting just 12 games out of Ben Roethlisberger and six out of Le'Veon Bell. The Steelers also have a strong, experienced offensive line that gets Maurkice Pouncey back from a missed season. The defense brings in some new blood with this year's top two picks (Artie Burns and Sean Davis) plus cornerback Senquez Golson, a 2015 second-rounder who missed his entire rookie year.
Cincinnati ranked No. 2 overall in DVOA last year, trailing only Seattle, but we project some regression on the offensive side of the ball. The Bengals were only an average offense by DVOA in 2013 and 2014 before leading the league last year, and the unit must overcome the loss of wide receivers Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones. Cincinnati also gets only seven home games this year because of a game in London.
The Bengals were remarkably injury-free last year until they lost their quarterback near the end of the season. Baltimore, on the other hand, was decimated by injuries all year long. By midseason, it seemed like Joe Flacco had nobody left to throw to, and then he went out and tore his own ACL. The return of Flacco and other veterans such as Terrell Suggs, Steve Smith Sr. and Justin Forsett should help the Ravens bounce back after their first losing season since 2007. The biggest improvement is likely to be more takeaways by the Ravens defense. Last season, the Baltimore defense ended just 6.6 percent of opposing drives with takeaways. That ranked 31st in the NFL. There's a lot of year-to-year regression in turnovers, so that stat is a very strong indicator of improvement in 2016. (In 2014, the lowest teams in this stat were the Jets and Chiefs, who turned their defenses around significantly in 2015.) Baltimore also has the highest projection for special teams, as they are one of the few teams to have excellent special teams nearly every year
Cleveland will spend the year scouting college quarterbacks.
This projection may surprise many, but all 3 of these teams have all shown the ability to consistently make the playoffs and this year should be no different. The Ravens finish of under .500, the first of Joe Flacco's 8 year career should prove to be an abberation for a team which has only once (2004 & 2005) missed the playoffs in consecutive years since 2000.