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The dog days of summer are beginning to fade away as training camp for all 32 NFL teams began last week. With football season right around the corner, it's time to go and make predictions, by division, on how well each team will finish the regular season.
The first of eight posts will focus on the AFC North. Perennial favorites, the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers, both missed out on the playoffs last season and the Cincinnati Bengals collapsed once again in their first round playoff game. Meanwhile, the Cleveland Browns have received some much needed optimism and swagger led by the arrival of rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel from Texas A&M. Let's take an early look at where these teams could finish up based upon their offseason losses and acquisitions.
1.) Cincinatti Bengals: Optimism should've been running high after an extremely successful regular season where the Bengals won the AFC North for a second straight year with an 11-5 record. But another early and disappointing playoff exit has Cincinatti once again looking for answers. Led by defensive tackle Geno Atkins, defensive end Carlos Dunlap and linebacker Rey Maualuga, the Bengals defense has become one of the elite defensive units in the NFL. The defense was fifth against the run (96.5 yards per game) and fifth against the pass (209 yards per game). The offense has made strides in recent years due to the breakout successes of wide receivers A.J. Green (98 catches, 1426 yards, 11TDs) and Marvin Jones (51 catches, 712 yards, 10TDs). Add in pass catching tight ends Jermaine Gresham (46 catches, 458 yards, 4TDs) and Tyler Eifert (39 catches, 445 yards, 2TDs), and the Bengals have numerous weapons in the passing game.
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The Big Question: Can fourth year quarterback Andy Dalton lead this team to victories in the postseason? Dalton put up career numbers during the regular season last year, throwing for over four thousand yards and 33 touchdowns on 62 percent completed passes. But he also threw 20 interceptions in the regular season and had three costly turnovers in their first round loss to the San Diego Chargers.
Bottom Line: The Bengals have enough weapons to make a Super Bowl run, but is Andy Dalton the quarterback to lead them to a title? With the Baltimore Ravens on the road in Week one and home games to the Atlanta Falcons and Tennessee Titans the next two weeks, they have a great chance to start the season 3-0. However, games after that against AFC powers such as the New England Patriots, Indianapolis Colts, and Denver Broncos loom on the horizon.
Prediction: (10-6). 10 wins should be enough win in a tighter AFC North this year with the rest of the teams beating each other up, but the success of this season will be based on how they perform in the postseason once again.
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Bottom Line: The Steelers have a very nice schedule this season where they play only six teams that had a record greater than .500 from the previous season. Health and development will be key for Pittsburgh.
Prediction: (9-7). It will be a race with Cincinatti for the division crown this year. But as of right now, the Bengals have a superior defense and more weapons, at their disposal, in the passing game to give them the edge over the Steelers.
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3.) Baltimore Ravens: The Ravens lost a lot of playmakers and a lot of veteran leadership after their urn to a Super Bowl title in 2013. Linebacker Ray Lewis retired, safety Ed Reed left for the Houston Texans and top wide receiver Anquan Boldin was traded to the San Francisco 49ers for a late round draft pick.
The team was inconsistent last season and finished with an 8-8 record. Quarterback Joe Flacco did not earn his 6 year/120.6 million dollar contract with his play on the field last year. He threw for 3,912 yards and only 19 TDs compared to 22 INTs. Flacco also only completed 59 percent of his passes.
He didn't receive much help in the running game as Ray Rice ran for only 660 yards and 4TDs averaging just 3.1 yards per carry while backup Bernard Pierce ran for just 436 yards on just 2.9 yards per carry. Torrey Smith had a nice year receiving (65 catches, 1128 yards, just 4TDs), but there were few other options in the passing game as wide receiver Jacoby Jones (37 catches, 455 yards, 2TDs) and tight end Dallas Clark (31 catches, 353 yards, 3 TDs) failed to provide a significant impact. The defense played surprisingly well considering the loss of talent and leadership from a season earlier. Linebackers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumeril combined for 19.5 sacks and corner back Corey Graham led the secondary with four interceptions.
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The Big Question: After signing wide receiver Steve Smith and tight end Owen Daniels in the offseason, the Ravens are determined to get Flacco more help on offense. However, the Ravens lost linebacker Jameel McClain, tight end Ed Dickson. offensive tackle Michael Oher, and fullback Vonta Leach, and Gragham in free agency. Did the Ravens lose too much in the offseason to compete for the top of the AFC North?
Bottom Line: The Ravens first three draft picks; linebacker C.J. Mosely, nose tackle Timmy Jernigan and free safety Terrence Brooks all have an excellent chance to make a quick impact for this team. The Ravens still have playmakers in nose tackle Haloti Ngata, Suggs, Smith, and even Flacco when he is on top of his game. But the running game HAS to improve for the Ravens to make the playoffs this year.
Prediction: (7-9). The Ravens lost even more players from their 2013 Super Bowl title this offseason and unless their rookie draft picks and free agent acquisitions impact in a big way, I don't see Flacco and Rice being able to step up and carry the team offensively to win division games against the vaunted defenses of the Bengals and the Steelers.
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Free agent Willis McGahee failed to provide any offensive attack on the ground, putting pressure on Weeden and fellow quarterback Jason Campbell. Brian Hoyer had a nice two game run before an ACL injury kept him out the rest of the year. But a new era has begun in Cleveland. In January, the Browns hired Mike Pettine to be their next head coach and made the bold move by trading down in the first round of the NFL draft to get cornerback Justin Gilbert and, most notably, quarterback Johnny Manziel. Cleveland also picked up numerous players in free agency, including safety Donte Whitner, running back Ben Tate, linebacker Karlos Dansby and wide receivers Nate Burleson and Andrew Hawkins,
The Big Question: There are PLENTY of questions with this team and they increased after star wide receiver Josh Gordon was caught using marijuana for a third time. He is expected to be suspended for the entire 2014-2015 season (official ruling still pending). Gordon was one of the best receivers in the league last year with 87 catches for over 1600 yards and 9TDs. With him out of the picture, who will step up as a play making, pass-catching weapon? Will tight end Jordan Cameron have a more expanded role this year after a 2013 campaign with 80 catches for 917 yards and seven TDs? Or will one of the free agent pickups like Burleson, Hawkins, or Miles Austin provide support?
Also, will Manziel even be ready to play an NFL game early in the season? Early reports say that Manziel has been closing the gap between himself and current starter Hoyer. But even if Manziel wins the job, can he make it healthy though an entire season being a mobile and improvisational quarterback like he was back at Texas A&M? Does he have the accuracy and strength for an NFL game? Will his off the field, partying lifestyle be a distraction in the locker room IF they start to struggle?
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Bottom Line: Losing Josh Gordon is devastating for the Browns' on-the-field aspirations this season. Could Burleson, Hawkins or Austin surprise us with an incredible resurgent year? Sure, but it seems unlikely at this point. Ben Tate will at least help establish a running game that could thrive with a solid offensive line returning mostly intact this year.
The defense has a lot of playmakers led by cornerback Joe Haden, linebacker Paul Kruger, defensive tackle Phil Taylor, Whitner, and Dansby. However, the Browns will need to score points and stay on the field so that their defense isn't completely exhausted by the middle of the third quarter.
Prediction: (6-10). The Cleveland Browns are making progress in becoming relevant again in the NFL world. The defense will once again be the calling card for the team and either Hoyer or Manziel will have to step up and make big plays early this season to get the team's confidence going. However, they have three tough games to start the season at Pittsburgh, home against the New Orleans Saints and home against Baltimore in Ray Rice's first game back from suspension. If the offense struggles to get to 20 points in these games, I think Cleveland will start the season 0-3. More favorable match-ups will arrive as the season progresses, but I don't see much improvement for the Browns this season. However, as a recent graduate of John Carroll University. All I have to say is: 'Let's Go Browns!!'
Agree or disagree with my analysis and early rankings? Leave a comment below and let me know what you think!