Monday, September 1, 2014

NFL 2014: The Sports Savant's AFC NORTH Preview

Welcome to Part II of my 2014 NFL Divisional preview!  I've covered the AFC EAST and today, it's a preview and record predictions for the AFC NORTH!

The AFC NORTH is a division that has been owned by the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens since its inception when the NFL realigned the divisions back in 2002. Even the Cincinnatti Bengals have top this division on three occasions in its 13 year history with the Cleveland Browns being the only team in this division to have never won the AFC NORTH. In 2014 this division looks like it will be a complete toss-up between 3 of the 4 teams with Pittsburgh and Baltimore regressin in the last couple of years and the Bengals beginning to have some of the young talent they have drafted in the last few years finally coming to fruition.  The Bengals won the division last season and are looking to repeat.  Can they stave off the Ravens and Steelers?

Cleveland Browns

In Mike Pettine's first year as head coach for the Cleveland Browns, he faces many challenges with a team that lacks elite talent at any position.  The first thing that has to be discussed when talking about the future of this team in 2014 is whether or not their highly publicized 1st round selection, QB Johnny Manziel, will supplant QB incumbent Brian Hoyer for the starting QB job.  Neither showed much to be confident about going into this season as they have both performed poorly in the preseason games.  It looks as if Hoyer will maintain the starting job for now, but it will be no surprise if this team moves to the future by starting Manziel at some point early in the season.  Look for Manzeil to replace Hoyer if the team has a bad start, which by all accounts, they are expected to do.

Though the QB situation is still unsettled, this team did improve in the off-season through free agency.  Key contributors on this team could be some of the new faces they brought in, particularly on offense. RB Ben Tate is finally getting his first opportunity to be a starter in the NFL after being known as the best backup RB in the league on Houston's team, buried on the depth chart by Arian Foster for the last few years.  Even if this team can't pass the ball effectively, which there is no reason to think that they will, they should have a fairly stout running attack.

Additions at WR include decent talent with WR Nate Burleson and WR Andrew Hawkins joining the team, but these guys were 2nd and 3rd options on their previous teams so they shouldn't be too impactful.  When you talk about the Browns offense though, the biggest story of their season will be the absence of star WR Josh Gordon who is serving a one year suspension for a variety of drug related violations of the NFL's substance abuse policy.  This team was already going to be very average with his presence, but the offense will be downright bad without him.

The defense was one of the league's more potent last year and made a huge addition in adding free agent SS Donte Whitner from the San Francisco 49ers defense.  He is an All-Pro safety that hits as hard as anyone in the NFL.  The defense looks to be as formidable as they were last year and maybe even a bit better with the addition of Whitner.

In all, there isn't much to expect from this team.  They are still very clearly a rebuilding project with no discernible purpose in 2014 in terms of winning anything.  All this team can really hope for is noticeable maturity and growth from their newly drafted QB and hope he can help them start to develop a positive future, but this is the only thing to play for in 2014 for the Cleveland Browns.

Savant Record Prediction: (4-12, 4th place)

Baltimore Ravens

The Baltimore Ravens are coming off of their worst season under John Harbaugh in the 7 seasons he has coached in Baltimore.  Last year was the first season in that time that the Ravens have failed to make the playoffs.  Was it the proverbial "Super Bowl Hangover" from winning the title in 2012?  For this team, I'm afraid it's more than just that.  This is a team that is getting older and key players are either gone or nearing retirement since their Super Bowl win just two seasons ago.

This team's issues start at the QB position.  We have all seen QB Joe Flacco have flashes of brilliance in key Ravens victories, none more than his improbable playoff run that rivaled the greatest we've ever seen in the NFL.  What we also knew was that Flacco could not maintain that level of play based on his playing history.  But because Flacco got hot for 4 games in the playoffs and won the Super Bowl, he was rewarded with the largest contract in NFL history at the time of it's signing in 2013.  This was a contract for a QB who historically has been average to sub-par and he showed it last season by being one of the lowest rated QB's in the league while earning the biggest salary.  The bigger issue for the Ravens in this deal is that his salary eats up such a large portion of their salary cap space that it leaves them little room to spend money on free agents.  They are essentially handcuffed by the contract they gave Flacco that everyone knew was a mistake.

As if the Ravens needed any more problems after last year's 8-8 season, then there was the off-season domestic violence incident that got their lead RB and historic work-horse, Ray Rice, suspended for the first two games of the NFL season.  They have a pretty capable backup in RB Bernard Pierce, but it's been the distraction of the event that has taken more of a toll than Ray Rice's aging legs will provide the Ravens.  Rice is clearly on the down-slope of his career and with only guys like WR Torrey Smith and TE Dennis Pitta and perhaps spot appearances by newly acquired but rapidly aging WR Steve Smith to throw the ball to, this offense is not scaring anyone.  Also not to be forgotten is that this team lost it's best offensive tackle, Micheael Oher, to free agency leaving giant shoes to fill at the all-important left tackle position.

Equally as concerning is their defense that has almost entirely turned over since the 2012 Super Bowl season.  Many of their key defensive players were let go to make room for Joe Flacco's giant contract and it showed last year as the Ravens slipped from being one of the league's great defenses as they were for years to a very average one.  There isn't much you can look at to find improvement for this team from last year, in fact, I think they have regressed.  I don't see a playoff bid for this team in 2014 making two years in a row they will not have made the playoffs.  Because of his giant salary, look for the potential for Flacco to be cut after this season if he performs poorly again.

Savant Record Prediction: (7-9, 3rd place)

Pittsburgh Steelers

The 2014 Pittsburgh Steelers are a team that has been getting a pass on past success but is facing scrutiny now for under-performing in the last few years.  Head Coach Mike Tomlin is starting to feel the heat and it will only get hotter if this team does not make another playoff run this season.  What does not bode well for the Steelers is that it appears that their departed players from last season are outweighing the acquisitions they made.  Staples of past Steelers defenses were all dismissed in the off-season including familiar names Ryan Clark, Larry Foote, Brett Keisel and Lamar Woodley, all from the defense.  The offense also lost WR Emmanuel Sanders with no solid replacement to lineup across from WR Antonio Brown.

The Steelers did acquire goal-line specialist, LeGarrette Blount and promoted their young stud RB, Le'Veon Bell, to the starting position, but both of these players face potential suspension for marijuana possession charges and in Bell's case a DUI.  These players could end up missing some time this season which will be critical to the Steelers running game.

To replace the departed receivers, the Steelers did go out and sign WR Lance Moore and WR Darrius Heyward-Bey, but neither has a history of performing on a high level as the second or third WR option on previous teams, especially Heyward-Bey who was the 7th overall pick in the '09 draft and has been a bust ever since.  They like the talent they have brought in through this year's draft in Martavis Bryant and last year's draft in Markus Wheaton, but Wheaton's rookie season was forgettable last year so both are only a glass full of potential until we see something from these guys on the field.

The defense, which had finished in the top 10 in total defense for 10 straight seasons, before last year, is completely revamped and younger than ever.  They are relying on major development of young defensive players to keep the Steelers tradition of dominant defenses alive in 2014.  The secondary is still lead by aging veterans Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor but the front seven is now filled with rookies and second/third year players like Cameron Heyward, Jason Worilds and rookies Ryan Shazier and Stephon Tuitt who will have to step in for big names who have been let go.

This is a team that is just not yet built for playoff success.  The turnover rate was too high to have consistency on defense and the players are still learning on the job so mistakes will be made that will cost this team games.  Add that to an offense that is without major receiving threats and what looks to be an average running game and this looks like a team that may come up just short of the playoffs.

Savant Record Prediction: (8-8, 2nd place)

Cincinnati Bengals

The 2013 Cincinnati Bengals won the AFC NORTH division for the first time in four years and they are looking for their first ever repeat.  They look primed to do so with a myriad of weapons at their disposal and returning one of the league's best defenses from 2013.  There was little turnover for the Bengals as few notable players departed or were added.  Worth noting though is the addition of backup QB Jason Campbell, who is a very nice insurance plan should starting QB Andy Dalton suffer any injuries this year.  Even if Dalton is out, Campbell has a history of winning games in the NFL and they won't miss much of a beat should Campbell have to play a few games.

What will really determine this team's fate the most is if Andy Dalton can continue his progression as a starting QB in the NFL.  He has won 9, 10 and 11 games in his first 3 seasons as the Bengals signal caller.  If he can continue his ascent, this team could not only take the division again, they could get their first playoff win in 24 years.

The progression of Andy Dalton won't be the only deciding factor, however.  They are going to need a breakout year from their second year RB Giovani Bernard this season, who will be taking over as the lead back with the release of RB BenJarvis Green-Ellis this preseason.  Bernard has all of the talent to be a quality back in his first year as the full-time starter and I expect him to have a top 10 rusher this season.  Of course, no one can forget that this team has one of the elite WR targets in the NFL in A.J. Green as well.  This trio of QB, RB and WR will be very dangerous for opposing defenses.

The one potentially key loss that the Bengals had this off-season was the loss of DE Michael Johnson, but this was a loss the Bengals anticipated and addressed in the draft by picking up Margus Hunt and Will Clarke in the 2nd and 3rd rounds in 2013.  These players have some of the same raw talent that they once had in Michael Johnson so it's reasonable to expect they won't miss much of a beat at the defensive end position.

If this team fires on all of it's cylinders this season, the sky is the limit for them.  This is a team with a real outside chance of making it to the AFC title game.  Because of their superior roster and the youth they have at most of the key positions, they should have no problem winning the AFC NORTH by at least a couple of games.  The Cincinnati Bengals will be your 2014 AFC NORTH Champs!

Savant Record Prediction: (11-5, 1st place)

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