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2016 NFL Forecast: AFC North

AP Photo/Gary Landers

The final installment of our league-wide preview series focuses on one of the best divisions in the NFL, the AFC North. Over the last five seasons, this division has put an average of two teams in the playoffs per season. Last year, the Bengals won the division with twelve wins, but the Steelers beat them in the playoffs before being eliminated in the divisional round of the playoffs.

There is a clear-cut division of power in the AFC North, with the Ravens, Bengals and Steelers competing for the division title while the Browns compete for the #1 draft pick. Since 2010, each of the three contenders have won the division twice. Lately, an interesting round-robin has developed.  The Ravens have defeated the Steelers in five of the last six meetings, while the Steelers beat the Bengals in five of their last six. As you have figured out the pattern by now, the Bengals have triumphed against the Ravens in five of their last six contests.

According to Las Vegas casino odds, no division in the league has more expected wins from their top three teams than the AFC North. Any of the three contenders could wear the 2016 division crown and three playoffs representatives is quite possible. The only certainty is that it will be competitive...

First Place: Pittsburgh Steelers

As painful as it may be to write, the Steelers are the best team in the division. With Ben RoethlisbergerAntonio Brown, and Le’Veon Bell, the offense is near unstoppable. The defense isn’t great, and first round pick cornerback Artie Burns may be a bit of a reach. The defense is good enough to keep them afloat in the AFC North, while the offense will do the heavy lifting. - Matt Cohen

Even though they lost wide reciever Martavis Bryant for the entire year and possibly running back Le'Veon Bell for 4 ames due to suspensions, the Steelers are the class of this division with a strong offense led by Antonio Brown, arguably the best wide reciever in the game and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The acquistion of tight end Ladarius Green will be an improvement over the recently retired Heath Miller. While the defense was tied for 6th in the NFL in interceptions and 3rd in sacks, they were still 21st in total defense and 30th against the pass. This defense has some work to do but their defensive line is young and on the rise with Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt. For the second time in three seasons, Big Ben and the Steelers take the AFC North. - Evan Mazza

The loss of Martavis Bryant will be offset by Ladarius Green and Sammie Coates for the most part. The defense should be better with the development of DE Tuitt, CB Senquez Golson’s return from injury and more consistency from ILB Ryan Shazier, who was playing at a high level in the playoffs. Whether the Steelers win the division or earn a wild card bid will be decided by two factors - the number of games Big Ben plays in and if Tomlin coaches well enough to avoid let downs in games they are favored to win. - Vasilis Lericos

Second Place: Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals will again be a playoff team, but a few of the losses they've had this offseason are concerning. The loss of Hue Jackson will likely hurt them the most, considering the fact that he had Andy Dalton was playing at an MVP-level for much of last season. - Jacob Louque

The Bengals are probably a more well rounded team than the Steelers. The Bengals offense isn’t as good as it was last year, but still pretty good, while the defense remains stout behind Geno Atkins. I would give the Bengals draft class an A+. They addressed many of their needs, and got fantastic players much lower than anyone thought they would go. - Matt Cohen

The gut-wrenching end to the 2015 season puts the Bengals at a crossroads. Either they use the brutal playoff defeat to refocus and enter the season with renewed determination. Or they fold under the pressure of unrealized potential and lack of discipline. Their offense is deep, with a tandem of capable RBs and multiple pass catching options, including rookie receiver Tyler Boyd. The defense is led by man-cover corners and DT Atkins, but they will miss Reggie Nelson’s ballhawking on the back end. Doubt they will reach 12 wins again, but the playoffs are in sight. - Vasilis Lericos

Third Place: Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens are a difficult team to figure out. The expected return from injury for several leaders, including Suggs, Senior and Flacco are the main reasons for optimism since the Ravens did not improve at very many positions this offseason. For the most part, the free agents acquisitions and draft picks directly replace players lost this offseason. To return to their traditional level of success, the Ravens best players, namely Flacco, Jimmy Smith and C.J. Mosley, must elevate their play while some new playmakers - Weddle, Perriman and maybe Correa - provide the game changing plays necessary to win close games in the 4th quarter. With a great coach like Harbaugh, the Ravens will be in the playoff mix at least. If and when they make the playoffs, never underestimate January Joe. - Vasilis Lericos

Last year was a tough ride for the organization. A year full of promise and Super Bowl dreams turned into a year of heartbreaking losses, bad luck, numerous injuries and a lot of question marks about the state of the team going forward. GM Ozzie Newsome decided he had to make some free agency moves early in the process as he signed wide receiver Mike Wallce and tight end Ben Watson to give quarterback Joe Flacco more weapons. Ozzie made his biggest splash by signing safety Eric Weddle. Weddle will team up with fellow safety Lardarius Webb, cornerbacks Jimmy Smith, Jerraud Powers and Shareece Wright to try to lead a secondary that was dead last in interceptions last year and was responsible for many of the Ravens losses in 2015. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees must get the pass rush back to 2014 form with the return of Terrell Suggs, and the likes of Za'Darius Smith, Timmy Jernigan and Elvis Dumervil. Rookies Bronson Kaufusi, Kamalei Correa and Wille Henry will bring youth and depth to the defense. The offense was very pass heavy in 2015 and that must change. Look for Justin Forsett, Buck Allen and rookie Kenneth Dixon to rejuvenate the bread and butter of the offense. Bottom line - if the Ravens stay healthy, they can win 9 or 10 games and compete for a playoff spot. If the injury bug strikes again and Dean Pees continues to fail, this team will have a lot more questions to answer. - Evan Mazza

The Ravens are in a bit of a rebuild at the moment, and while they could potentially be a playoff squad in 2016, it's hard to look at them as a powerhouse in the AFC right now. Look for the offense to take a few steps forward in Marc Trestman's second year of calling plays, and for Eric Weddle to pursue the fountain of youth in a similar manner to Steve Smith when he signed with the purple and black. - Jacob Louque

The Ravens will be in the mix of a dog fight for the second wild card spot. If the team can remain healthy, they should be able to go at least 9-7, and make a push for that last spot. Yet again, the Ravens had a fantastic draft that was necessary to fill holes on the roster, especially on defense. They are better than the Browns, but if they can’t find a way to beat the Bengals, the Ravens will find themselves in third. - Matt Cohen

Fourth Place: Cleveland Browns

Once again, its a new era in Cleveland as Hue Jackson becomes the teams 9th head coach since the Browns returned in 1999. On the bright side for Browns fans, no more Johnny Manziel. Its weird, with all the talk surrounding the Browns free agent losses this offseason - Mitchell Schwartz, Travis Benjamin, Karlos Dansby, Alex Mack and Taushon Gibson all leaving - you could forget the Browns were 3-13 last year. This was not exactly a playoff team in 2015 with those guys. Far from it. They needed to be shipped in the right direction, just for once. Jackson will try to ressurect the career of quarterback Robert Griffin and will also try to get more out of running back Isaiah Crowell. Second year running back Duke Johnson should be exciting to watch.  With the impending return of wide reciever Josh Gordon, the draft pick of Corey Coleman and tight end Gary Barnidge, Griffin has a chance to shine again. They addressed the defense in the draft by nabbing Emmanuel Ogbah and Carl Nassib in the 2nd and 3rd rounds, respectively. Barkevious Mingo and Paul Kruger must step up this season. Kruger had 2.5 sacks last year while Mingo has been a massive disappointment since being the teams 1st round draft pick in 2013. Cornerback Joe Haden should have a bounce back year after only playing 5 games in 2015. Its not all doom and gloom for the Browns and I like the direction that the new front office is trying to take the team. Plus, the Cavaliers won the NBA finals! - Evan Mazza

Until the Browns figure it out at quarterback, they'll likely be occupying the fourth spot in the division. They deliberately chose to pass on Carson Wentz, so Hue Jackson had better prove he knows what he is doing quickly, or Jimmy Haslam could again exercise the impatience that has plagued this franchise since 1999. - Jacob Louque