ALL 32 of the NFL’s franchises are working through their training camps in preparation for the new season.
With that in mind, it’s worth looking at the state of play in each division, this time continuing with the AFC North.
Please, please remember that for all articles the preseason games will be ignored, no matter how good or bad a team looks. That means dimes like this from Robert Griffin III will unfortunately have to go unappreciated.
The 2015 AFC North season was a statistical anomaly. The Cleveland Browns were within touching distance of third place. Until last season, since 2010 (when Cleveland actually did finish third) the top three teams always won at least three more games than Cleveland. And they all had records of .500 or above in those four years. And the top three went to the playoffs twice in that time.
But last year the Baltimore Ravens finished 5-11, only two games ahead of the Browns. Put it down to back luck, put it down to injuries, put it down to whatever. John Harbaugh will want to correct this ASAP.
The Ravens won the Super Bowl only four seasons ago in a lights-out (get it?) blockbuster against the San Francisco 49ers. That win was down to a mean defence led by future Hall of Famer Ray Lewis and a Hall of Fame-esque performance by quarterback Joe Flacco.
How things have changed. Lewis retired on the back of his second ring and Flacco is coming off one of his worst seasons as a pro. Even though the team was decimated by injuries and was on the losing side of close games more than any one, Flacco finished with a 3-7 record as a starter before his injury and had a dodgy 14-12 touchdown to interception ratio (his 12 INTs through 10 games equalled his second-highest season total for a season ever).
But the Ravens showed faith in Flacco with a new three-year deal and C.J. Mosley is emerging as the heir apparent to Lewis. Baltimore also lured away Eric Weddle from San Diego and they’ll hope the two-time First-team All-Pro can recreate the sort of highlight plays Ed Reed used to reel off. Steve Smith will be coming back with two chips on his shoulder, too (he seems to always play like he has one). However, tight end Benjamin Watson was carted off the field in the third preseason game and is expected to be out for the season. Fed up and frustrated don’t even cover it for John Harbaugh.
The Bengals also had injury problems last year – but not to the same extent as the Ravens. Their injury situation revolved chiefly around one position – but when that position is quarterback then you have a problem. When Andy Dalton – who was having an outstanding year with 25 touchdown passes (to only seven picks) and career highs in completion percentage and yards per attempt – was ruled out with a thumb injury in week 13, the Cincinnati faithful panicked and the media were wary of A.J. McCarron stepping in. They needn’t have been. The former Alabama starter was cool in the pocket and threw for 732 in the remaining four games,with four TDs to two INTs. It helps of course when you have A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert catching passes, the latter of whom the Bengals hope will be match-fit for week 1 following an ankle injury. Both players are capable of dominating when on the field.
Pittsburgh will miss Le’Veon Bell for only three games after his suspension was reduced. But injuries and silly suspensions like these must be worrying for the Steelers brass – and fans – considering Bell can be arguably the league’s most dynamic player at his position when on the field. Four-time Pro Bowler Ben Roethlisberger missed four games last year too as he played banged up but as long as he has Antonio Brown to play with they’ll both look like All-Pros (and the former even more so once Martavis Bryant is back from suspension).
The Steelers used to be famed for defence. Synonymous with it, even. Now? Not so much. Troy Polamalu left a big hole. Can Sean Davis begin to fill it? James Harrison is defying his age but for how much longer can the Steelers wait before Bud Dupree replaicates Harrison’s mid-late naughties production?
The Browns. Another team with many questions needing answered – on both sides of the ball. Most importantly the question of whether Robert Griffin III can return to the electric form he showed in Washington during his rookie year and if he can shake off the controversy and enigmatic narrative that followed (not to mention the injuries). Other questions include:
Who will replace Alex Mack? How many of their 14 draft picks will work out? Do they have any wide receivers capable of going for 1,000 yards? Can tight end Gary Barnidge build on a breakout campaign? Will Cameron Erving live up to his draft status? Can Duke Johnson be a dependable and difference-making running back? When will they give up on Justin Gilbert? When will Justin Gilbert do anything to prove they shouldn’t give up on him? Who replaces Karlos Dansby? Is this too many questions?
Anyway: I expect the closest AFC North this decade.
1st– Cincinnati Bengals
2nd– Pittsburgh Steelers
3rd– Baltimore Ravens
4th– Cleveland Browns