The rugged AFC North is home to the team with the most Super Bowl victories, the Pittsburgh Steelers; a team that historically has a great defense and has won two Super Bowls, the Baltimore Ravens; a team whose current quarterback has been awful in the postseason and has been to Super Bowls in their history and lost them twice, the Cincinnati Bengals; and a team that has never been to the Super Bowl, the Cleveland Browns. Still, all the teams are true rivals and usually the games are physical affairs. Here is a preview of the division this season.
Record in 2014: 10-6
Key Player: Cornerback Jimmy Smith
Player to Watch: Defensive end Timmy Jernigan
Outlook: The Ravens came close to defeating the New England Patriots in the playoffs last year. If they had not had a decimated secondary, they might have. Losing Smith was a huge loss, and Baltimore never really recovered. This season, the Ravens are healthy, and they still have quarterback Joe Flacco. Is Flacco the best quarterback in the NFL? No. But he may be one of the best in the playoffs. With a good team around him, the Ravens should compete to be the AFC representative in Super Bowl 50.
Record in 2014: 10-5-1
Key Players: Quarterback Andy Dalton and defensive tackle Geno Atkins
Player to Watch: Offensive tackle Cedric Ogbuehi
Outlook: The Bengals have the opposite issue at quarterback than the Ravens. Dalton is a pretty decent regular season quarterback, but hideous in the postseason. If Flacco were on the Bengals, there is a chance Cincinnati could have made it to the Super Bowl in the last few years. Last season they suffered on defense because Atkins did not perform as well as he had before he tore his ACL in 2013. He only had three sacks in 16 games. For the Bengals to have any chance of making a deep playoff run, Dalton and Atkins both need to be better. The problem with Cincinnati is that they have 12 (Twelve!) starters who are unrestricted free agents at the end of the year. This could be a good problem: those players are playing for new contracts and could get Cincinnati to the Super Bowl. Or a bad one: If Cincinnati underperforms again in the postseason, they may have to rebuild beginning in 2016.
Record in 2014: 7-9
Key Player: Quarterback Josh McCown
Player to Watch: Nosetackle Danny Shelton
Outlook: The Browns have an awful owner. The issue with Jimmy Haslam is that he thinks he knows more about football than he does and he meddles too much. Was it his idea to start quarterback Johnny Manziel in a game last year? Most likely. Manziel was ill-prepared, and that would be his fault, and he looked atrocious. The thing to remember, however, is that the Browns were completely bad last season. Even with the issues of Haslam (beyond meddling, he was facing a lawsuit because of his Pilot Flying J business dealings), Josh Gordon (cannot seem to keep to the straight and narrow) and Manziel, the team was at one point 7-4. They could be better this season, as they are built to succeed with defense, but their record may not show it. They have a tough schedule and play in a tough division.
Record in 2014: 11-5
Key Player: Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger
Player to Watch: Outside linebacker Jarvis Jones
Outlook: These are not your father’s Steelers. This team must win with offense, and it has the players to do it. Receiver Antonio Brown (129 receptions, 1,698 yards receiving) is a must-watch every week. There may be no better running back at combining rushing and receiving than Le’Veon Bell. If the Steelers lose Roethlisberger, though, the whole season could be shot. On defense, the team has to do just enough to win, but that does not usually translate to success in the postseason. The Steelers should win their share and be fun to watch, just do not expect them to win a Super Bowl this year.