Projected Records: Steelers 10-6, Bengals 9-7, Ravens 8-8, Browns 6-10.
We continue our preview of the NFL regular season with the highly competitive AFC North. To begin, I wanted to make an observation about my predictions thus far. You may have noticed that many of my projections show heavily bunched records within divisions. Do I think the final standings will look exactly like this? Probably not. However, with some exceptions, really poor records are often the product of injuries or lack of effort when the playoffs are out of reach. Since it’s difficult to guess who might get injured or who might tank, projected records will often be more bunched than actual records. If we were able to simulate many seasons, these records would probably be closer to the average of all seasons simulated. In the end, these are some of the best projections available without having crystal ball. As for the AFC North, below are some brief qualitative analyses of the four teams.
A ten win season edging out all others for the division is very reasonable for the team from the Steel City. They still have likely the best quarterback (although some may argue Flacco deserves this distinction) and a solid coach with a great track record. Pittsburgh faced a minor setback in the preseason when running back draft pick Le’Veon Bell hurt his foot. In addition, losing Mike Wallace to the Dolphins may cut down on production at the wide receiver position.
On defense, the Steelers lost long-time stalwart James Harrison to the Bengals. They quickly retooled their pass rush by picking up Georgia’s Jarvis Jones when he slid to them in the draft. Along with Lamarr Woodley, Jones should be able to provide significant pressure on opposing offenses. The Steelers are by no means perfect, but it looks like they’ll have just enough to edge out the division.
We have gotten a clearer glimpse into the Bengals preseason this year through the Hard Knocks HBO series. The offense is looking to improve behind a young, developing quarterback in Andy Dalton. Expect AJ Green to continue to carry the wide receiving corps and for newcomer Gio Bernard to breakout at running back.
The Bengals have added veteran James Harrison at linebacker. Harrison adds depth to an already formidable pass rush that includes two-time all-pro Geno Atkins. Cincinnati was a solid defense last season and additions to this defense will likely make them even better. As long as the offense holds up its side of the bargain, the Bengals will surely contend for the division title.
It’s not often the defending super bowl champion is projected third in its division but in the case of the Ravens I think it is appropriate. Aside from losing Anquan Bolden, the Ravens shouldn’t look too different on offense. One factor to consider is how Joe Flacco will react after signing a big contract. There are many opinions to the contrary but I don’t envision Baltimore performing too different on offense.
The Baltimore Ravens defense on the other hand is a completely different story. They have lost hall-of-famers in Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. In addition, they also lost more depth at safety in Bernard Pollard. Top safety prospect Matt Elam will hopefully alleviate some of this talent depletion but the defense will need to find its footing without its perennial leaders for sure. Even if they perform similar to last season, keep in mind they were a 4th and 29 from being 9-7 in 2012. 8-8 is pretty reasonable given this fact.
The Browns have by far the weakest offense in the division. Brandon Weeden is nothing to get excited about and relying on Greg Little and Josh Gordon will surely not have Browns fans jumping for joy. They do have a solid O-Line with left tackle Joe Thomas leading the way.
On defense, the Browns are switching to a 3-4. This scheme does not seem to fit the personnel and thus getting players to buy in may prove a challenge. As a consequence, GM Mike Lombardi has brought in Paul Kruger through free agency and Barkevious Mingo in the draft hoping they will perform in the 3-4. All these changes are somewhat suspect, especially considering the defense’s relative success last season. If this change on defense does not succeed, six wins may be on the high end of Cleveland’s potential for 2013.