We are now less than a week away from the Falcons and Eagles facing off on Thursday in the first game of the NFL Season, let’s take a look at each division as well as predict how it will play out.
First: Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5)
Once again, the Steelers will win the AFC North. Pittsburgh still possesses the most dominant trio in football with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, running back Le’Veon Bell (assuming he ends holdout), and receiver Antonio Brown. However, their dominant offense doesn’t just stop there. Pittsburgh’s excellent receiving corps is rounded out by 2017 second round pick Juju Smith Schuster, who had 917 receiving yards and 7 touchdowns a season ago, and 2018 second round pick James Washington, who has tremendous upside as a deep threat. Add in the fact that they have one of the best offensive lines and two capable tight ends (Jesse James and Vance McDonald), and the Steelers easily have the most talented offense in the NFL. They also have a solid defense, as they led the league in sacks last season and was a top ten team against the pass and run last season. Their secondary is a little bit of a weak link, but other than that, Pittsburgh is one of the most complete teams in the NFL. Add in the fact that they are tied for just the 25th hardest schedule in the NFL, and it’s easy to see why the Steelers will be playoff bound again.
Second: Cincinnati Bengals (9-7)
Many people have written off the Bengals as a possible playoff contender, but they shouldn’t be underestimated. Cincinnati was able to go 7-9 last season despite being very flawed and they’re a much better team this season. The additions of Cordy Glenn, Bobby Hart, and Billy Price on the offensive line should give quarterback Andy Dalton time to throw. With more time for Dalton to throw, receivers AJ Green, John Ross, and Tyler Boyd should all have much better seasons. Dalton will also get his tight end back, as Tyler Eifert appears to be healthy after back and knee injuries limited him to two games a year ago. The Bengals should also have an improved rushing attack, as running back Joe Mixon is poised to have a breakout season as he takes the lead back role this season. As for the defense, they’re also much improved. The additions of linebackers Preston Brown and Malik Jefferson should help the Bengals improve their defense against the run that ranked 30th last season. They also still have an excellent defensive line headline by Geon Atkins and Carlos Dunlap, and a solid cornerback trio of William Jackson, Dre Kirkpatrick, and Darqueze Dennard, Even though they released safety George Iloka, they have an immediate replacement for him in second-round pick Jessie Bates. With a cupcake schedule (T-29th), Cincinnati should be able to compete in the AFC North and be a playoff contender.
Third: Baltimore Ravens (7-9)
Last year, the Ravens were just seconds away from making the playoffs. All they had to do was stop the Bengals on fourth down. Instead, Andy Dalton hit Tyler Boyd in stride for a 49-yard touchdown, and Baltimore missed the playoffs in favor of the Buffalo Bills. This year, expect the downward trend to continue. Once again, Baltimore will go into the season with Joe Flacco, who barely eclipsed 3000 passing yards this season and is more of a liability than an asset at this point. To help Flacco, Baltimore added three receivers (Michael Crabtree, John Brown, Willie Snead) and two rookie tight ends (Hayden Hurst, Mark Andrews). However, all three of those receivers are extremely inconsistent and the two rookie tight ends are unproven commodities, so it’s unclear how much any of those additions will actually help improve the passing attack. The offensive line is also weaker with the loss of center Ryan Jensen. In fact, the only bright spot on the Ravens offense may be running back Alex Collins, who has never eclipsed 1000 yards in a season. The defense will need to carry them behind an excellent edge rush duo of Terell Suggs and Matthew Judon, an outstanding safety duo of Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson, and an excellent run-stuffing defensive line. However, with cornerback Jimmy Smith suspended the first four games, the cornerback corps is thin behind the inconsistent Brandon Carr and second-year corner Marlon Humphrey. Baltimore’s schedule is slightly easier than average at 21st, but their offense is too much of a liability for them to have a record above 8-8.
Fourth: Cleveland Browns (3-13)
With so many flashy additions to the team, many people have been overhyping the Cleveland Browns. Yes, there is a lot of talent, but it’s important to remember this team has won just one game over the last two seasons. All the offensive additions (QBs Tyrod Taylor and Baker Mayfield, RBs Carlos Hyde and Nick Chubb, WRs Jarvis Landry and Antonio Callaway) will help them transformed the league’s worst offense from a season ago to a top 15 unit, but there will be growing pains once Cleveland decides to start the rookie Mayfield. The defense also got a boost in the secondary (CBs Terrence Mitchell, EJ Gaines, Denzel Ward, TJ Carrie, FS Damarious Randall) to compliment star defensive end Myles Garrett, but even the additions bring more flag. This team also is being coached by arguably the worst coach in Hue Jackson, and has a reputation of not being disciplined and thus usually being at the top of the league for most penalties. Add in the fact that their schedule (T-5th) is one of the hardest in the leagues, and it’s clear that Cleveland will continue to be at the bottom of the AFC North. But hey, they can’t get any worse, so 3 wins is actually a great improvement.