AFC NORTH PREVIEW - The AFC North has been the best division in football over the past decade. Since 2007 the AFC North has amassed 18 total playoff appearances shared among the teams, which is 3 more than the next highest division the NFC North. The AFC North also has 17 double digit winning seasons since 2007 which is 2 more than any other division. This division is full of fierce rivalries, bruising encounters, grinding football and pure hatred. The Browns hate the Ravens as they were the team that forced them out of the NFL for a couple of seasons. The Steelers and Ravens have played in several huge games over the years. The Bengals and Browns battle it out for bragging right in Ohio. Nearly every game has added layers to it. Last season the Bengals v Steelers took their bitter rivalry to the AFC Wild Card Game, which turned into a chippy, trash talking, big hitting controversy. The Steelers advanced, but were bumped out in Week 2 by Denver. With the Ravens and Browns having shocking seasons last year and adding some punch in the off-season this is sure to be a hot division once more. The division has had numerous winners over the years with the Bengals winning the division in 2015 and 2014 while the Steelers triumphed in 2013 and Ravens topped the standings in 2012.
Last Season (10-6, 2nd in AFC North, Eliminated in 2nd week of playoffs)
The Steelers head into another season being talked about by many as one of the leading contenders for the NFL title. The Steelers overcame several injuries in 2015 to make the 2nd week of the finals before being bounced out by Denver in Denver. In Mike Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger they have an elite combination at head coach and quarterback. Roethlisberger is still playing at an elite level even at the veteran age of 34 despite being battered and bruised over the years. Roethlisberger threw for around 330 yards per game in a high powered offence which put up big numbers in 2015. The Steelers won a number of high scoring games as their offence far and away outshone their defence. However Big Ben also takes a number of hits given he likes to hold on to the football and throw down the field. Last year Roethlisberger missed 6 games and the hits seem to be starting to take their toll. He also threw 16 interceptions and some which proved costly. Le'Veon Bell will miss the first 3 games due to a missed drugs test after missing 12 games last season due to injury. Bell is considered the top running back in the game, with his elusive running and yards after contacts he put up some huge numbers in 2015. The Steelers are blessed in this position also being able to call upon Deangelo Williams who did a great job last season for the injured Bell. Williams racked up over 900 yards and averaged over 4.5 yards per carry. The Steelers receiving corps rely heavily on Antonio Brown who could be considered the top receiver in the NFL. With 136 receptions, 10 touchdowns and over 1800 receiving Brown put up some massive numbers in 2015. Traditionally the Steelers build their championships teams on a strong defence; however that defence has been mediocre in the last couple of seasons. Ranking in the second half of the league for points and yards conceded the Steelers are far from the defensive powerhouse that they have been at different points in their storied history. The Steelers will start the season healthier and will expect far better defensive production - however there remains some question marks whether they can be elite.
Verdict - 13-3 (1st in AFC North)
I really like the Steelers this year especially if they can stay healthy. I think Roethlisberger has 1-2 more years left at an elite level and he has a high powered running and receiving corps to help him out. I expect the defence to be better this year which will mean the Steelers can easily rack up double digits wins for the season. I think this team will win the AFC North and has the potential to make a deep run in the playoffs.
NRL Team Comparison - Brisbane Broncos. With a proud history and a record for making the playoffs in most seasons the Steelers can easily be compared to the Broncos, a team that is rarely out of contention and has a strong culture and proud history.
Last Season (12-5, AFC North Champions, Eliminated in AFC Wild Card Game by Pittsburgh)
The Bengals have made the NFL playoffs for 5 straight years which is a significant achievement. However the cold hard facts for Bengals fans is they don't have a playoff win to speak of in all those 5 years of graft, being bounced out in the first round five years running. Marvin Lewis is the second longest serving current coach at one NFL club behind Bill Bellichick having served at the Bengals since the 2003 season. Lewis has yet to taste a playoff win and will want to end that drought given he has a team chock full of talent heading into this season. The Bengals depth chart is easily in the Top 5 in the NFL as they continue to draft and build their side well. The Bengals have virtually the same defence which gave up the second fewest points in the league last season. While the defence is excellent in general with its aggressive mentality, discipline is one thing they needed to improve after a few late hits cost them penalties in the AFC Wild Card game loss to their bitter rivals the Steelers. The Bengals have some rough riders on the defensive side and they need to play on the edge but not cross the line and cost their team. Andy Dalton will be expected to be the man at quarterback to lead this talented Bengals team to the promised land. Dalton once again put up really solid numbers in 2015 with 27 touchdowns and only 7 interceptions with a completion percentage over 66%. However Dalton has often saved his worst for the playoffs and that is the question mark that remains. He missed last year's playoffs due to injury and will need a playoff victory to silence his critics that he can't get it done in the clutch. The Bengals have lost 2 of their top 3 receivers to free agency and will need to find a couple of weapons or run the ball more effectively if they want to contend for a Super Bowl.
Verdict 10-6 (Make playoffs with a Wild Card berth)
The Bengals have enough weapons in their team to make the playoffs once more. They have supreme talent - however on both sides of the ball they lack discipline and I think eventually that is going to cost them in the playoffs. They have been up for a long time and those 5 straight playoff seasons must be playing on their mind. One significant loss is losing their offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, who has become Head Coach of the Browns, which could work against them. I don't mind Andy Dalton - however he really needs to elevate his game to the elite level in the playoffs for this team to get what it desires.
NRL Team Comparison - This is an easy, the Cronulla Sharks. The Bengals plays a physical brand of football like Cronulla and like to get in your face. However like Cronulla they are much maligned for having never won a title despite often making the playoffs.
Last Season (5-11, 3rd in AFC North)
The Baltimore Ravens will be looking to rebound from their worst season under coach John Harbough as they went 5-11 in a hugely deflating 2015 campaign. It was the Ravens first losing season in 7 years and with a proud coach and set of senior players they will be desperate to return to fighting for the division in 2016. The Ravens season was ruined by a wretched run of injuries with their starting quarterback, starting running back and number 1 wide receiver all spending significant time on the sidelines in 2015. The Ravens also lost their 2 best defensive players in Suggs and Dumervil early in the season. Joe Flacco has been a polarising figure at quarterback at times during his career. There have been times when he has played at a seriously elite level, no more so than when he led his side to a Super Bowl with an amazing playoff series in 2013. Flacco is coming off a serious injury and his form was poor in early 2015 throwing 8 interceptions to only 4 touchdowns. Flacco is a Top 10 quarterback in the league when he is at his best. However he has been plagued by inconsistency and he will need to be at his best if the Ravens want to challenge. The Ravens have a stable of running backs, however they have no clear star in the position heading into 2016. The Ravens have a potentially explosive group at wide receivers, however how ageing superstar Steve Smith returns from injury will be a question mark. The Ravens will rely heavily on a couple of returning players in Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil to plug holes in a defence which was far from their stellar best in 2015. Those 2 have the ability to rush the passer and create pressure in the pocket.
Verdict 8-8. No playoffs.
The Ravens will be better and highly competitive. I just think they are a little past their best though in terms of contending. They are an ageing football team and I think injuries could potentially knock them around again. I expect them to play tough - however I think the Steelers and Bengals are more explosive.
NRL Team Comparison - The Ravens are like the Bulldogs. A grizzly team of veterans that don't mind to mix it up with some trash talk. Like the Bulldogs they have a strong history and are always in the mix and never easy beats.
Last season (3-13, Last in AFC North)
The Browns' fan begin a year with rare optimism having recruited Hue Jackson as head coach and the talented Robert Griffin III to play quarterback in 2016. Hue Jackson was a really highly rated offensive coordinator at the Browns division rivals the Bengals for the past 3 years. He was also the head coach of the Oakland Raiders and was the only coach at the Raiders to not have a losing season managing an 8-8 record in 2012. With the Johnny Manziel circus out of town and a new front office administering the club, the Browns will be looking to build a new culture in 2016 after an awful 3-13 season in 2015. The Browns have accumulated 14 draft picks for 2016 and 10 in 2017 as they look to rebuild a club over the next couple of years and make tough decisions on which players to move on. Former Number 2 draft pick Robert Griffin III will be looking for a change of fortunes after a terrible last 2 seasons in Washington. Griffin is one of the most accurate QB's in the game when at his best and also has the ability to cut loose and run the football. He had an outstanding rookie campaign in Washington - however since then he has often been troubled when pressured with his decision making and that will be the big question mark heading into this season. The Browns get explosive wide receiver Josh Gordon back in Week 5 of this season due to him serving an NFL imposed suspension. Gordon has only managed 5 games in the past 2 seasons after putting up over 1600 yards of receiving in 2013. Gordon is a prodigious talent, however he is a wayward star, and the Browns need him on the field in 2016 if they have any hope of challenging their rivals in the division. Cleveland's defence has plenty of rookies and will be relying on them to step up if their defence is to make any imprint this season.
Verdict 5-11. Last in AFC North.
I think the Browns will improve under Hue Jackson and manage a couple more wins than they did last season. However this division is really tough and the Browns are up against it in this regard. It will be exciting to watch Robert Griffin back in full flight and I expect him to thrill and frustrate in equal measure this season. The Browns defence looks uninspiring however and the offence might need to put up some big numbers to get them the wins they desire.
NRL Team Comparison - I'm thinking the Newcastle Knights. The Browns have really struggled in recent years and have fallen on hard times. The fan base remains loyal and passionate - however they are often left wondering when things might turn around.