The AFC North is one of the best divisions in football, usually sending two teams to the postseason. This division, however has been a three dog race for more than a decade with the Steelers and Ravens, and recently the Bengals, controlling it. Since the NFL’s division realignment in 2002, the Browns finished second in the division twice (02 and 07), but every other year they’ve finished dead last. Each team has gotten better since last year, when only Pittsburgh went to the playoffs. In this article, I will lay out the blueprint for how each team will go undefeated.
The Ravens enter this season looking to rebound after missing the playoffs in each of the last two seasons. They went undefeated in the preseason with wins over the Redskins, Dolphins, Bills and Saints. Laid out below are some of the reasons that the Ravens could go 16-0 this season.
The Ravens got better on the defensive side of the ball this offseason after finishing seventh in the NFL last year. The Ravens struggled towards the end of the year last year as injuries mounted, especially in the secondary where there was paper thin depth. So what did general manager Ozzie Newsome do, focused on defense. He resigned mountain run stuffer Brandon Williams, signed cornerback Brandon Carr, and also signed hard hitting safety Tony Jefferson, who will team up to form one of the top safety duos in the league with Eric Weddle. Weddle was the highest rated safety and Jefferson was the 5th highest rated safety last year by Pro Football Focus. Then in the draft, Newsome spent the first four draft picks on defense adding Alabama cornerback Marlon Humphrey in the first round. This defense resembles the 2000 defense, widely considered one of the best defenses all time. Built with an imposing front seven, strong back four, and good depth, this Ravens defense is suffocating. The defense gave up only 8 points a game in the preseason.
Tucker was money last season. He was one super athletic blocked kick away from a perfect season. With the stout defense and special teams, the offense doesn’t need to put up 30+ points to win games. Flacco, coming off a back injury, will have new additions in Danny Woodhead and Jeremy Maclin. Flacco doesn’t need to have an MVP season, nor does he need to throw the ball 600 times again this season, but with good balance, this offense is capable. Flacco needs to limit his mistakes and lead the Ravens to just enough points, as the defense will be tough to score on. The right leg of Justin Tucker remains one of the offenses top scoring threats, so let him eat.
The Bengals had a rough season last year finishing third in the division and missing the playoffs. They lost some key pieces on the offensive line, but got better in other areas this offseason. If they want to go 16-0 this is how they are going to do it.
The Bengals have three capable running backs on their roster. Jeremy Hill is the bruising downhill runner. Giovani Bernard is a great third down back as he can catch the ball out of the backfield. Add Joe Mixon into the mix, and the Bengals have a true triple threat at the halfback position. Mixon, if he can stay out of trouble off the field, can prove to be a big draft steal as he was taken in the middle of the second round despite having mid first round talent. If the Bengals aren’t near the top in rushing this coming year, then there is something wrong with their play caller. All three of these running back could be starters in the NFL, so a healthy mix of their abilities will help the Bengals win games.
Andy Dalton has weapons all around him on the offensive side of the football. He has A.J. Green, Brandon LaFell, first round pick John Ross, and TE Tyler Eifert to catch the ball. Expect Ross to have one of the longest touchdowns in the NFL by the end of the season, that is how quick he is. Eifert, if he can stay healthy, has the potential to be a top 5 TE in the NFL. The Bengals defense is going to play with a nastiness led by Vontaze Burfict, Michael Johnson, Carlos Dunlap, Geno Atkins and Pacman Jones which will definitely help them win ball games so long as they don’t commit too many penalties, which could prove to be difficult.
The only way the Browns can go undefeated 16-0 is if they traded for Tom Brady and every other team had all of their starters injured…
No but seriously the Browns have all the ingredients to be a surprising team. Here’s is how the Browns will go 16-0 in the extremely unlikely event that happens.
The Browns drafted first overall this offseason after they went 1-15 last year. They had three selections in the first round. They took uber talented Myles Garrett to team up with Jamie Collins to form one of the best edge rushing tandems in the NFL. Garrett has the edge rushing potential to lead the league in sacks as a rookie. They also nabbed versatile safety Jabrill Peppers who can play many different positions. Peppers was Jim Harbaugh’s do it all guy at Michigan, which made him slip in the first round because no team knew where to play him. Both of those guys were top 10 talents they added on the defensive side of the ball. They also grabbed TE prospect David Njoku in the first round. He is very raw, but is someone that could develop into a chain moving receiving threat. They passed on DeShaun Watson by trading back and getting Peppers, but selected DeShone Kizer to compete, and eventually beat out Brock Osweiler and Cody Kessler. Throughout the preseason, Kizer looked really good, even though it was the preseason and he didn’t really play anyone of note, the fact that Kizer showed he knew the plays, was competent, and could lead the offense is good news for the Browns. Kizer is the polar opposite of another quarterback that was drafted high by the Browns a couple of years ago, and that is great news for Cleveland.
Built Inside Out
The Browns GM, Sashi Brown, looked at all the other consistently good teams to help build the Browns, and he got it right. Most successful teams are built from the inside out, meaning start by building the lines first. The Browns did that this offseason adding former Bengal guard Kevin Zeitler and former Packers center JC Tretter to team up with Joe Thomas and Joel Bitonio to form one of the best offensive lines in the AFC. On defense they have Emmanuel Ogbah, behemoth Danny Shelton, Carl Nassib, Myles Garrett and Jamie Collins as the d-ends, tackles, and outside backers. That is a very formidable defensive front that should make up for their lack of quality cornerbacks.
The Steelers won the division last year and have the best chance to go 16-0.
The Killer Bees
The Steelers are led by their killer bees, fitting right since their colors are black and yellow, much like a bee. Led by Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, and Antonio Brown, the killer bees are a force to be reckoned with. Add in the fact that Martavis Bryant returns from suspension and this is a very dangerous offense. Other players that could make a big impact on the offense are Eli Rogers, Darrius Heyward-Bey and rookies JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner. That is a very dangerous offenses that will be able to put a lot of points on the board. They also have offensive-line consistency for the really the first time in a long time as they return last year’s starters Gilbert, DeCastro, Pouncey, Foster, and Villanueva. With time comes more chemistry and nothing but good will happen with these guys all returning, and keeping Big Ben upright.
Aging Wonders and Budding Superstars
You have to wonder how long the aging Steelers will continue to play. This team is made up of key older players such as Roethlisberger, James Harrison, William Gay and Mike Mitchell, but these players play a big role in the Steelers system and all of them will be counted on to win games. Harrison, if you don’t follow his instagram stop reading and go follow it now, looks like he is in better shape than a lot of athletes. Dude takes care of his body. The 39 year old has a grueling workout schedule to keep his body in such great shape. He lifts massive amounts of weight. Although T.J. Watt is expected to start ahead of him, Harrison is going to get his opportunity to terrorize opposing offensive lineman and quarterbacks. Roethlisberger still has a few good seasons ahead of him but you have to wonder if the Steelers trust Landry Jones or Joshua Dobbs to be a long term starter. For now though, Roethlisberger remains among the top at the QB position. Mixed in with the aging wonders, are some budding superstars. With Stephon Tuitt, Ryan Shazier, Bud Dupree, T.J. Watt, Artie Burns, and Sean Davis the defense adds a nice mix of young talent to the older players. This mix of players makes for a very good team that can win a lot of games.
Those are the blueprints for a 16-0 season for each of the AFC North teams.