The final installment of our series will preview the AFC North. After averaging more than two playoff teams over the first half of this decade, Pittsburgh has been the division’s lone postseason representative in each of the last two seasons. They bowed out to the Jaguars in the divisional round following a 13-win regular season last year.
Since the Ravens 2012 Super Bowl championship, Cincinnati has two division titles compared to three for the Steelers. Meanwhile, the Browns have just one win combined since 2015 and have never won the North since realignment in 2002. Expect a more competitive race this season.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers
Pittsburgh does not appear to be as strong as they’ve been over the past few years. The unfortunate loss of Ryan Shazier had a deflating effect on their defense last season, and it doesn’t appear they’ve done much to replace him both from a football or a leadership standpoint. The good news for them is that it’s 2018, and offensive strength is often enough to be a deciding factor. Thanks to Kevin Colbert’s team building strategy, they have playmakers in spades with a young and dynamic receiving corps, a strong offensive line, a Hall of Fame bound quarterback and a top running back who they’re ready to run into the ground in his contract year. I think the division will be tighter than it has over the past few years, but Pittsburgh will still end up on top. - Jake Louque
The Steelers are going to score a lot of points. Behind the protection of a top offensive line, Ben Roethlisberger will chuck a bevy of touchdowns to elite talents Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Le’Veon Bell. Nonetheless, Pittsburgh’s defense should take a step back due to the unfortunate injury to Ryan Shazier. Keith Butler’s unit has some quality pieces in Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, T.J. Watt and Joe Haden but defending the middle of the field remains a glaring weakness. Ultimately, their offensive playmakers should be enough to carry the division, but the holes on defense will prompt another early postseason exit for Mike Tomlin. - Vasilis Lericos
With one of, if not the best, wide receiver-running back duos in football in Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers are well positioned to defend their divisional title. Also touting a top five defense from 2017, Pittsburgh remains an AFC threat, despite having to replace the leadership and talent of linebacker Ryan Shazier. Safety Terrell Edmunds, the Steelers first round selection in 2018, has displayed great promise during training camp, and defensive captain Cameron Heyward is coming off the highest sack total (12) in his career. Though the Steelers have appeared in the postseason for four consecutive years, they still seem a step behind the Super Bowl caliber teams, having failed to return to the big game since hoisting the Lombardi in 2009. - Sage Morander
2. Baltimore Ravens
It’s tough to know what to make of the Ravens in 2018. Are they going all in on their veteran quarterback with upgraded offensive personnel? Or were those moves made to facilitate a step forward into the eventual Lamar Jackson era? Either way the offense has the look of a competent one by modern standards. This is really what they’ve been lacking over the past few years while missing the playoffs; the offense has been average to inept while always being buttressed by a top defense to keep them in the mix. With that strong defense still in place and some necessary changes made on the other side of the ball, I’d expect the Ravens to come out on the right side of some close games that they’ve typically lost in recent seasons. As a result, I’m picking them to finish second in a tough division and be one of the favorites to snag a wild card spot in the AFC this season. - Jake Louque
Per usual, John Harbaugh’s squad should be in the mix for a wildcard berth, along with a handful of other AFC foes. Baltimore’s strength is clearly their pass defense. With stalwart Terrell Suggs, young corners Marlon Humphrey, Tavon Young, opportunistic safety Eric Weddle and an abundance of hungry young pass rushers, the defense is capable of producing turnovers in bunches. On the other side of the ball, Alex Collins hopes to build on a breakout season behind an unsettled offensive line. John Brown, Michael Crabtree and rookie tight end Hayden Hurst headline a new look receiving corps. The Ravens have a wide range of outcomes in 2018, their fate will eventually be determined by the play of polarizing franchise quarterback Joe Flacco. - Vasilis Lericos
The narrative, and the outcome of the last couple of seasons, has become repetitive in Baltimore. Can Joe Flacco recapture some of the magic he produced on the way to a Super Bowl MVP honor in 2012? Does Baltimore have the offensive power to support their defensive prowess? Can the defense make critical stops in late game situations? Those plaguing questions will be answered over the course of 17 weeks. While there is marked optimism about the additional weapons for Flacco with the drafting of Hayden Hurst and signing of Michael Crabtree, Willie Snead and John Brown, the Ravens still cannot match the elite-level offensive talent in Pittsburgh. If the Ravens have hopes to return to the postseason, then new defensive coordinator Don Martindale will have to hope the defensive line can remain healthy and elevate their run defense and his ball hawking safeties and corners, lead by Eric Weddle, continue to produce the most interceptions in the league. If the offense can improve from 27th last year and alleviate some of the pressure off the defense, then the Ravens could compete for a wildcard spot. - Sage Morander
Like Baltimore, the Bengals are a tough team to get a read on this year. Some of the investments they’ve made the past few years (John Ross two years ago, the offensive line this offseason) signal for an all-in on Andy Dalton, as Marvin Lewis’ inexplicably long welcome is finally beginning to wear thin. However, Dalton is similar to Joe Flacco in that if you give him the right talent and coaching, he’s more likely to succeed than not. If Ross, Tyler Eifert, Joe Mixon, and the new look O-line are a hit this season, Cincy could win the North. Still, I expect an up-and-down season leading to the Bengals hunting for a wild card spot, similar to the Ravens. - Jake Louque
The Bengals will field several talented players, the question is if Marvin Lewis can mold them into a playoff team. Their defensive line should be one of the better groups in the NFL with Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap and Carl Lawson. Breakout corner William Jackson will team with rookie safety Jessie Bates to form what should be an improved secondary. The additions of Corey Glenn and Billy Price should stabilize a poor offensive line. And A.J. Green remains in the upper echelon of receivers. If second-year tailback Joe Mixon and Andy Dalton turn in efficient seasons, the postseason is a real possibility. - Vasilis Lericos
Cincinnati has been stuck in the middle of the pack of the NFL, never strong enough to make a playoff run, never quite bad enough to earn a high draft pick. The frankly strange continuity of Marvin Lewis at the helm has reinforced the Bengals comfort with lukewarm results. Andy Dalton has always put up a strong stat line, throwing for 25 touchdowns and over 3,000 yards in 2017, but has failed to translate his regular season productivity into a playoff victory. The Bengals certainly have enough offensive talent in A.J. Green, Joe Mixon and Tyler Eifert. If Cincinnati is going to out perform expectations, the defense (lead by Darqueze Dennard, Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins last season) will need to work it’s way up into the top half of the league. - Sage Morander
4. Cleveland Browns
As impressed as I’ve been with John Dorsey’s efforts in restocking this roster, I just can’t see a scenario in which a winless team is suddenly pushing for the playoffs. Rather, I’m just looking for progress. Baker Mayfield has impressed and has the perfect mentor in front of him in Tyrod Taylor. Outside of that position, I think many of Cleveland’s offensive additions will prove wise thanks in part to Todd Haley’s coaching. As much as I like Haley, I’m equally concerned that Gregg Williams tough guy act will eventually wear thin on a defense that is still being rebuilt, and I have a hard time believing that a lot of these players will buy in on Hue Jackson’s messaging. All of this amounts to what I think will be a four to five win season for the Browns in which progress is shown by the players. I expect Cleveland’s front office/ownership will begin to think about a new and more competent coaching staff to usher them into a new era. - Jake Louque
Years of accumulating draft capital and stockpiling salary cap space has spawned a talented roster for underperforming head coach Hue Jackson to deploy. No matter if Tyrod Taylor or Baker Mayfield is under center, the offense is set up for success with receiving options Jarvis Landry, Josh Gordon, David Njoku and Antonio Callaway. The Browns stable of versatile running backs will have the luxury of running behind a stout offensive line. Cleveland’s defense is still a work in progress. Generational end Myles Garrett is a building block but questionable personnel in the secondary will place a lot of pressure on rookie corner Denzel Ward. The Browns should be much more competitive in 2018, but are still at least a year away from contention. - Vasilis Lericos
It’s hard to go anywhere but up after an 0-16 mark in 2017, and the Browns have generated some positive buzz in Cleveland this offseason. In fact, the Browns have become a hugely popular bet in Vegas, with more people placing money on Cleveland to win the division than the three other teams combined, according to ESPN. While Baltimore Beatdown is clearly not in agreement with these bettors, the additions of Tyrod Taylor, Baker Mayfield, Jarvis Landry and Carlos Hyde are promising upgrades for the offense. Safety Jabrill Peppers will look to make strides in his sophomore campaign, and rookie corner Denzel Ward is expected to make an immediate impact out of Ohio State. The outlook may not be as dismal as before, but the Browns still have years of mediocrity and a losing culture to overcome before becoming a real competitor in the AFC North. - Sage Morander
Who will win the AFC North?
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