Since the start of the 2002 season, the AFC North has more often than not produced more than one playoff team on a yearly basis as that has happened nine different times in this division in the past 16 seasons. However, the AFC North has seemed to lost its competitiveness throughout the past couple seasons as the Steelers have won the division with ease the past two years while both the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals have seemed to fall off a little bit. And of course the Cleveland Browns are going to be the Cleveland Browns as they have only won one game in the past two seasons combined.
The AFC North is appearing that it is going to have similar results in 2018 as the Steelers still have one of the most explosive offenses in the league, neither the Ravens or Bengals made any drastic offseason moves to help improve their roster, while the Browns did make some noise in the offseason and could be the most improved team in 2018, but that we are yet to see.
- Pittsburgh Steelers: 12-4
Even though Steelers 36 year old franchise quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger has showed some signs of decline the past couple seasons, there is still little argument that the Steelers have the best QB, RB, and WR trio in the league known as the “Killer B’s”. As long as the Steelers have running back LeVeon Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown healthy for Big Ben to work with, the Steelers should have no problem winning this division, and even possibly having the best record in the AFC in 2018. Also, not to mention that last season the Steelers found their number two receiver behind Brown on the depth chart as rookie, Juju Smith-Schuster had an explosive first year in the NFL with seven touchdowns and 917 total receiving yards and those numbers could certainly go up in his sophomore season. And with a top 10 offensive line to protect him as well, Ben Roethlisberger has all the necessities to succeed in 2018, even at age 36.
While on the defensive side, the Steelers have a young exciting core with a lot of talent headlined by defensive ends Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, defensive backs Joe Haden and Morgan Burnett, and linebacker T.J. Watt. Last season the Steelers defense gave up the fifth least yards and seventh least points, so their defense seems to be getting back on track after a few seasons where their defense was below average.
With all of these explosive weapons on both sides of the football and good experienced quarterback in Big Ben, the Steelers have every chance to succeed in 2018 and maybe to even make a potential Super Bowl run. Playing in the suddenly weaker AFC North should help the Steelers get more wins in the regular season, putting themselves in good position to get a first round BYE in the playoffs for the second consecutive year.
- Baltimore Ravens: 9-7
It seems like every season the Baltimore Ravens are a team around the NFL that doesn’t look that great or competitive on paper, yet they always find themselves in the playoff hunt going into the final weeks of the regular season on a consistent basis. Remember, just last season the Ravens were within one minute away from clinching that final wild card spot in the AFC before their division rival Cincinnati Bengals pulled off a late comeback to eliminate them from playoff contention.
I am expecting a very similar year from the Ravens, be fighting for a playoff spot into the final weeks but just miss out. The Ravens did bring in a couple of veteran wide receivers to try to give quarterback, Joe Flacco some better weapons to work around as they brought in Michael Crabtree from the Oakland Raiders and Willie Snead from the New Orleans Saints. Even though they are both decent receivers, let’s remember that this is Joe Flacco who is expected to be the Ravens starter throughout most of the season.
Sure he led the Ravens to a Super Bowl win in 2013, but other than that championship run, Flacco has been an average quarterback at best. In 10 NFL seasons, Flacco has thrown at least 12 interceptions and less than 25 touchdowns eight times and has never had a season where his QBR was above 94. That is not going to get it done if you want to be a franchise quarterback in this league. And with talented rookie quarterback, Lamar Jackson looming behind Flacco, there is a lot of pressure on Flacco to have a successful 2018 season.
Even though the quarterback situation in Baltimore may look like a mess, they still have a pretty consistent defense that is usually always within the top 10 in the league, which can help Baltimore win some games and stay competitive in the wild card hunt. When I look at this Ravens team, I see a less talented Jacksonville Jaguars team, a very talented defense with a good running game, but a mess at quarterback, which is why I have the Ravens at a competitive 9-7 in 2018.
- Cleveland Browns: 6-10
Even though the Browns went 0-16 last season, they have made a lot of splashes during the offseason to improve their roster going forward. They made trades to bring in successful veteran pieces such as Dolphins wide receiver Jarvis Landry, quarterback Tyrod Taylor from the Bills, and defensive back Damarious Randall from the Packers. As for free agents, they brought in running back Carlos Hyde from the 49ers, defensive back E.J. Gaines from the Rams and offensive lineman Chris Hubbard from the Steelers just to name a few.
They made a couple more splashes in the 2018 NFL Draft by taking reigning Heisman Trophy winner, Baker Mayfield with the first overall pick in hope that he becomes their long term answer at quarterback, and used their fourth overall pick to take Ohio State cornerback Denzel Ward, in a hope that he becomes the next big defensive back in this league. Also, lets not forget that wide receiver Josh Gordon is expected to be back and play a full season as he looks to come back from various suspensions he has received by the NFL throughout the past few years due to drug use.
So there is little doubt that the Browns have the most improved roster going from the 2017 season to the upcoming 2018 campaign, but the big question is can the Browns translate that to wins on the football field each week? They do have some good pieces moving forward but I am just not sure if it is all going to click right away to instantly make the Browns from going from the worst team in the league to a playoff contender. Even though I like the direction the Browns are heading and will be a highly touted team that lots of fans would like to watch play, I just think it is going take another year or two until the Browns become a legitimate threat to be in playoff contention.
- Cincinnati Bengals: 4-12
If there is one team in the AFC that is in need of a major rebuild, it is the Cincinnati Bengals. Even though they made the playoffs each year from 2011 through 2015, they have completely fell apart since and lets not forget that during that five year stretch, the Bengals never even got out of the first round of the playoffs. Much of their talent during that five year period such as wide receivers Mohammed Sanu and Marvin Jones Jr., offensive lineman Andrew Whitworth, running back Jeremy Hill and tight end Jermaine Gresham are all on different teams now.
The only above average talent I see on their offense is wide receiver A.J. Green. But with the Bengals lacking depth behind him at wide receiver and having one of the most inconsistent quarterbacks in the league right now in Andy Dalton, his numbers are most likely going to drop in 2018 and going forward unless the Bengals can either get him some help or let him move on to a different franchise. For their running game, they do have a youngster in Joe Mixon, but for such a highly touted prospect entering last season, he kind of had a disappointing rookie year as he only ran for 626 yards, four touchdowns, and had three fumbles. I think Mixon still has a lot to prove both on the field and off the field as he like many other Bengals players has an ugly criminal record in his past.
On the defensive side the Bengals have been pretty average throughout the past few years but one thing that prevents that unit from getting to the next level is the fact that many of their most talented players play very dirty on the field and have had plenty of previous off the field issues. One of their top defensive players, Vontaze Burfict has been known to be one of the dirtiest players in the game as he makes reckless hit after hit that have resulted in him receiving plenty of fines and suspensions from the NFL. They also used to have cornerback Adam Pacman Jones from 2010 through 2017 who has more off the field issues than any player in recent memory in professional sports and the fact that he was on the Bengals for as long as he was just sums up how dysfunctional of a franchise the Bengals are. They seem to continuously bring in selfish players with bad pasts on and off the field such as Burfict, Jones, Mixon, and others which has prevented them to get to the next level.
If the Bengals want to find some success moving forward, they should embrace a full on rebuild and culture change. But unfortunately the Bengals roster going into 2018 looks very similar to what they had a year ago, which is why I have them finishing in last place in the AFC North and being amongst one of the worst teams in the league in 2018.