There’s no doubt the AFC North is under construction this season. It stands to reason that this could be one of the bigger years of upheaval in the division considering the Ravens Super Bowl victory and subsequent player departures. So, how does the WFNY crew think the division shakes out this year?
(Also see our previous roundtable: Browns Game 3 plans should remain unchanged: Cleveland Browns Injury Roundtable)
Craig: This morning we saw a headline with an ESPN writer predicting a regression by the Steelers, even from the 8-8 they experienced a year ago. I’ve noticed a hesitancy up to now for many who follow the NFL to predict a fall-off for the Ravens, but isn’t that almost a certainty at this point? I think the Bengals are clearly top of the AFC North power rankings this pre-season. How would you guys rank the AFC North at this point?
Scott: I’ve been calling for the Steelers’ regression for two or three seasons now—it just never seems to happen. The Ravens, on paper, should regress, but always seem to find the next big player to toss into the mix. Reloading, if you will. The Bengals will live and die by Andy Dalton. Huge weapons, a solid defense, but it’s a quarterback league.
I think the Bengals *should* win it, but it will be very close. Cincy 11-5, Baltimore 10-6, Pittsburgh 8-8, Cleveland 7-9.
Kirk: I think the division could be remarkably close this year. I think ten games could win this division this year. It won’t be the Browns, but I do think one of the other three, probably aided by injuries and less depth than in the past, finishes behind the Browns.
If I had to guess now, I’d say Baltimore still finds a way to win the division at 10-6, Cincy goes 9-7, the Browns go 8-8, and Pittsburgh goes 7-9. The margin is closing.
Ryan: I’m not buying into the Ravens falling off so fast after their Super Bowl victory and still have them as the favorites in the North. The defense reloaded with the additions of guys like Elvis Dumerville and Michael Huff and is now younger and faster than they were a year ago. They without a doubt have the division’s best coach as well as the division’s best quarterback and running back to go along with a strong offensive line. Sure, Flacco has lost playmakers, but I expect Rice to flourish under Jim Caldwell and the Ravens’ success to continue.
The Bengals have looked impressive in the preseason, at least according to HBO’s Hardknocks. Marvin Lewis’ boys boast the division’s best defense led by coordinator Mike Zimmer and his stud defensive tackle Geno Atkins. As good as their defense should be, the team’s success will hinge on Andy Dalton. I think Flacco is leaps and bounds ahead of Dalton which is why the Ravens win the division.
The Browns and Steelers will battle it out for third and be dreaming of an outside shot at the second wild card. I look for the gap from first to fourth to be much smaller than in years past.
Kirk: The remarkable thing after all of these years wetting the bed thinking about the Baltimore and Pittsburgh defenses that Cincinnati’s D seems the most formidable, just solid all around. Clark and Keisel are getting up there, and Polamalu can’t stay healthy for the Steelers. Taking away Lewis and Reed, diminishing skills or not, will have a palpable effect on the Baltimore unit, as will the loss of Ellerbe and Kruger.
Andrew: I think regression means different things to different franchises. If we’re saying Baltimore has regressed from being Super Bowl Champions, then yes, I think they’ve regressed. I would be stunned if they repeat. But I do not think they’ve regressed as Division Champions. I think the Ravens still have the talent, the coaching, and most of all the experience to win the AFC North.
If I’m ranking the division right now, I’m going Ravens, Bengals, Steelers, Browns in that order.
I just think Baltimore is kind of in the place Pittsburgh was for years and where New England is right now. When you reach that tipping point of success, you’re going to have to lose players almost every year. But their success as a franchise along with their front office and coaching leadership allows them to plug in new faces and never miss a beat. I just don’t buy into the demise of the Ravens.
Scott: I just feel that, as Browns fans who have watched the rest of the division succeed for so long, we try to talk ourselves into why *this* will be the year the mighty fall, using various forms of confirmation bias in the interim. I’m not getting my hopes up. It could happen. It *should* happen, if there is any ounce of justice in this sports world of ours. That said, the best way for the top to turn over for the Browns to beat them all twice a year. Once that happens, the math will ultimately shake out in Cleveland’s favor.
Craig: I don’t disagree with that, Scott, but I think this year is different. I think for once the Browns might just be doing their part to compete. They’ve got a number of young guys who could be coming into their own. They’ve built respectably on both sides of the line of scrimmage. They’ve hired coaches who have track records in the jobs they’re in to go along with a guy – Chud – who seems very comfortable with stepping up from the offensive coordinator’s role.
All that being said about the Browns, I still don’t totally believe in Flacco as a consistent top of the league NFL starter. I would still take Ben Roethlisberger over him. I think any QB is going to be extraordinarily hampered in the year after losing Anquan Boldin and Pitta.
I’m taking the Bengals, Steelers, Ravens and then Browns to start the year. Yes, the Ravens might be better than that, but I think that’s the appropriate place to handicap them. For the first time in a long time, they’ve got to prove they can do it by answering questions usually reserved for other franchises.
Scott: ”I’m telling you: It’s different now.” – Mike Holmgren, December 14, 2011
I hate letting someone else get the last word, but Scott not only embarrassed me a bit, but made me laugh. So there you have it. That’s how we see it. Tell us in the comments what you think. Go ahead and rank the AFC North from first to worst and tell us why you choose those rankings.