Will quarterback Tom Brady and the New England Patriots be able to rebound following their shocking Week 1 loss?
X-Pittsburgh Steelers 11-5
In 2016, the Pittsburgh Steelers reached the AFC Championship Game for the 16th time. The Steelers 16 appearances since 1970 in the conference championship game are tied with the San Francisco 49ers for the most in the National Football League during that stretch as they are a part of the elite organizations in the league. But making the AFC Championship Game is not good enough for the Steelers as their six Super Bowl Titles are the most of any NFL franchise. And after the Steelers came up short against the New England Patriots this past January, will they have enough in their arsenal to get to Minneapolis for Super Bowl 52 this February?
2017 is setting up to be a make or break season for the Steelers since quarterback Ben Roethlisberger flirted with retiring during the off-season. Roethlisberger has 13 years under his belt along with dealing with his fair share of bumps and bruises along the way. Roethlisberger has only been able make all 16 starts in the regular season two times, and along the way he has dealt with a litany of injuries which has included concussions, a broken nose, as well as multiple injuries to his hands and knees. And at the age of 35, while also seeing the wear and tear of those who have played the game before him, Roethlisberger took some time to examine things this off-season as it would not surprise me to see him hang it up after this season which puts the onus on him to really leave it all out there this year.
Since Todd Haley has been the Steelers offensive coordinator in 2012, Pittsburgh has been one of the most explosive teams in the National Football League which included Roethlisberger leading the league passing in 2014 with 4,952 yards. Many of those pass plays have seen Roethlisberger hook up with wide receiver Antonio Brown who has rapidly become one of the better pass catchers in the NFL.
When Roethlisberger led the National Football League in passing in 2014, Brown did the same in regards to receiving yards. The last three years have seen Brown rack up nearly 5,000 receiving yards as he is a fantasy football owner’s dream, while also making life very difficult for defensive backs around the league.
Aside from Brown, the Steelers have a wide receiver corp that could be dangerous if everyone is one the same page. In 2015, wide receiver Martavis Bryant was beginning to show flashes of being a consistent play makers for the Steelers as he averaged 15.3 yards per reception. However a failed drug test by Bryant saw him suspended by the National Football League for the entire 2016 season. Bryant has yet to be fully reinstated by the NFL, but he has been allowed to practice. And if the league decides to fully reinstate Bryant, he will be ready to have a big impact for Pittsburgh as his 6’4″ will be huge in the red zone, as well as his deceptive speed for his size. Rookie wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster was a second-round pick this year for the Steelers, and after slipping to the 62nd overall selection, he should come into the season with a chip on his shoulder, while also potentially becoming a good slot receiver.
But for all the star power that the Steelers have on offense, the engine is running back Le’Veon Bell. In 12 games with the Steelers last season, Bell gained 1,268 yards, and when he left the AFC Championship Game with an injury, the tenor of Pittsburgh’s offense drastically changed. Bell is one of the most dynamic play makers at the running back position in the National Football League as he is the total package being that he is a runner, receiver, and most importantly a blocking back. Bell missed the entire training camp as the result of a contract dispute, but he will be ready to go in Week One for the Steelers.
Another key for the Steelers will the ability for them to maintain a healthy offensive line. Pittsburgh has a veteran unit up front which includes center Maurkice Pouncey, guard David DeCastro, and left tackle Alejandro Villanueva who is rapidly developing into a solid player to protect the blindside of Roethlisberger.
Defensively the Steelers were 12th in the National Football League last year in total defense, but for defensive coordinator Keith Butler, his unit is lacking those game changing play makers. Over the years the Steelers defense has been home to Hall of Famers such as defensive tackle Joe Greene along with defensive back Rod Woodson who could put a team on their back, while there have been edge rushers like Greg Lloyd and Kevin Greene who could wreak havoc. However since the Steelers don’t have those kind of players which is evident by the fact that no Pittsburgh defender had more than five sacks in 2016, the Steelers still have some work ahead of them in order to become a complete team.
Pittsburgh has a very easy schedule to begin the season as six of their first seven opponents were non-playoff teams last year. However in recent years the Steelers have had issues in regards to playing down to their opponents which has cost them. But I do expect the Steelers to play with a sense of urgency this year as this could be it for Roethlisberger. However until Pittsburgh is able to develop a pass rush, they will not have enough to get past the Patriots in the AFC.
Y-Cincinnati Bengals 10-6
The 2016 National Football League season ended with the Cincinnati Bengals extending their streak of being unable to win a playoff game since January 1991, however for the first time since 2010, there wasn’t a playoff berth in the Queen City. Injuries and inconsistency did the Bengals in last year as they were only able to muster a record of 6-9-1. But as five of Cincinnati’s nine losses were by five points or less, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis could have something to build off of heading into a new season.
In spite of the losing season by the Bengals, quarterback Andy Dalton is coming off of one of his better seasons. Dalton passed for 4,206 years while completing nearly 65% of his passes and only throwing 8 interceptions. Dalton has been a lightning for criticism in Cincinnati due to the fact that he is 0-4 in the playoffs, but he is rapidly becoming one of the better quarterbacks in the franchise’s history. However for the man who has been dubbed as “The Red Rifle” who is a three-time Pro Bowler, maybe this will the year in which that Dalton will be able to get the monkey off of his back and win a playoff game.
Last year Dalton didn’t have the services of a healthy A.J. Green at wide receiver as he is indeed a difference maker. At 6’4″, Green can out leap most defensive backs in the National Football League, while he possesses the speed of someone who is smaller than him. Green missed six games last year due to a torn hamstring and you can only hope that he will have the same explosiveness after sustaining the injury.
But whereas there is the potential of Green having lost a step, the Bengals used a first-round pick on wide receiver John Ross who’s middle name should be fast. Ross is entering the National Football League fresh off of setting a record at the Scouting Combine by running a 4.22 in the 40-yard dash. Ken Zampese is in his second year as the Bengals offensive coordinator and I see him attempting to find creative ways to get Ross the football which includes him being used on reverses and wide receiver screens.
The Bengals offense has the potential to be explosive as along with a good passing game, Cincinnati should be able to effectively run the football with a trio of running backs in Giovanni Bernard, Jeremy Hill, and rookie Joe Mixon. Last year Bernard suffered a torn ACL which limited him only 91 carries. And the fact that Bernard was not available took away from the effectiveness of Hill who is better as a tandem back. This time around Mixon could fill a void for the Bengals as Bernard is attempting to work his way back from a knee injury. Collegiately for the Oklahoma Sooners, Mixon was solid coming out of the backfield as a receiver, while he was also a solid change of pace back due to his breakaway speed.
Another player who is looking to bounce back for the Bengals is tight end Tyler Eifert. A back injury limited Eifert to only eight games last year, while he has yet to see the field for all 16 regular season games during his four-year career in the National Football League. At 6’6″, Eifert is mismatch for defenses, and the Bengals must find a way to have him, Mixon, and Green on the field together as much as possible.
Defensively the Bengals tend to be solid under Lewis, but last year was not a vintage year for them. Cincinnati was 17th in the National Football League in total defense, while they only managed to record 33 sacks. The Bengals must get back to gang tackling and putting pressure on the quarterback as a group. Defensive ends Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson each are coming off of down years and if they are unable to find a way to put more pressure on quarterbacks, Cincinnati will have issues on defense.
Discipline has been an issue with the Bengals for the longest time, but if Lewis can find a way to keep his teams focused, a trip to the postseason for the sixth time in the last seven years is a very strong possibility.
Baltimore Ravens 7-9
The Baltimore Ravens will enter the new National Football League season in very unfamiliar place as this marks the first time since 2005 that they are coming off of consecutive years in which they failed to make the playoffs. The Ravens were an up and down team last year as they were either hold or cold. And in an unfamiliar mode for the Ravens, they came apart coming down the stretch as after heading into Week 16 with a record of 8-6 and a legitimate chance to win the AFC North, Baltimore collapsed in their final two games. And to make matters worse, those defeats came at the hands of their divisional rivals in the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals. John Harbaugh is set to begin his tenth season as the head coach of the Ravens, and as he is a master motivator, what will he be able to pull out of his hat in order to get Baltimore back to the postseason this year?
The face of the Ravens franchise right now is quarterback Joe Flacco. Flacco has been the Ravens starting quarterback since he came into the National Football League in 2008. And although that there are some people who still want to question Flacco’s ability to lead and get it done, he has a record of 83-55 as a starting quarterback, while he also has a Super Bowl Championship to his credit. However Flacco’s detractors may get the opportunity to see what life without him is like as a back injury has put him on the shelf during training camp while also putting his availability to start the regular season in doubt. And with the Ravens not having a quality backup quarterback behind Flacco, the Ravens could be in a bind.
The past few years have seen the Ravens struggle to run the football as they were 28th in the National Football League last season in rushing with the team’s leading ball carrier being Terrance West with just 774 yards. After wide receiver Jeremy Maclin was released by the Kansas City Chiefs following an injury filled 2016 season, he found a new home with the Ravens. When healthy, Maclin can be a solid second receiver in the offense, but any potential success for him hinges on Flacco being healthy. Aside from Maclin, the Ravens have another veteran wide receiver in Mike Wallace who at the age of 31 is still faster that most of the players at his position which gives Baltimore a threat in the vertical passing game.
The defensive side of the football is where the Ravens built their reputation which also led to the franchise’s two Super Bowl Titles. But in recent years the Ravens have not been as solid on that side of the football. The Ravens were 17th in the National Football League in total defense, while they were only able to tally 31 sacks. And for Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees, he has aging players on his unit such as outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, while some of the team’s early draft picks have yet to materialize.
Three of Baltimore’s first four games are within the AFC North as they must find a way to stay afloat if Flacco will miss some regular season games. But even with a healthy Flacco, the Ravens are going to have their work cut out in order to be a playoff team this season.
Cleveland Browns 2-14
To give you an idea as to how inept that the Cleveland Browns are, they have won a combined 15 games over the last four years which included winning one game last season. Since the Browns re-entered the National Football League in 1999, they have only had two winning seasons with just one playoff appearance. Hue Jackson is entering his second season as the head coach of the Browns, and although that he was only able to win one game in his first year in Cleveland, there is some optimism for his team. Of the Browns 15 losses, they held a lead going into the fourth quarter in five games, while they also lost five games by six points or less. The Browns started more rookies or second-year players than any other team in the NFL last year which could be a plus heading into a new season. But will the young Browns be able to use that experience and turn it into a plus in 2017?
For the Browns to improve and become competitive in the AFC North, they are going to need some consistency at the quarterback position. Last year the Browns used five different quarterbacks with none of them passing for more than 1,380 yards. The Browns once again have a “battle” at quarterback position with former Houston Texans quarterback Brock Osweilier, Cody Kessler, Kevin Hogan, and rookie DeShone Kizer all having a chance to be under center. None of these players have shown that they can be that guy in the National Football League, and if Jackson is unable to attach his wagon to one signal caller, it is going to be another long season in Cleveland.
The Browns are lacking play makers on the offensive side of the football with the lone bright spot being left tackle Joe Thomas. Thomas is set to begin his 11th season in the National Football League, and in spite of the woes of the Browns, he has remained committed to the team. Thomas has made the Pro Bowl in each of his seasons in the NFL, and in spite of the losing, he will soon get the call for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But aside from Thomas, the Browns offensive line must improve as they allowed 66 sacks last season which is a recipe for disaster regardless of who the starting quarterback is.
With the Browns only being able to win one game last year, they were able to obtain the first overall pick in this past spring’s National Football League Draft. There was much debate as to what direction that Browns wanted to go with the selection with the idea of trading the pick being the possibility. However the Browns would decide on selecting Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett.
In three seasons at Texas A&M, Garrett was a two-time All-American, while he was also able to amass 31 career sacks. As a team last year, the Browns were only able to tally 26 sacks, and although that Garrett was the first overall pick, he is going to have to prove himself versus the top left tackles in the National Football League.
In all the Browns had three first-round picks in this year’s National Football League with the 25th overall selection being used on Michigan safety Jabril Peppers. Peppers was the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year last season as he is built like a safety, but he has the mindset of a linebacker. And for Browns defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, he will definitely find creative ways to use Peppers this season.
Jackson still has a tall task in front of him in regards to turning around the Browns. The Browns are not respected by their counterparts in the AFC North as they are still everyone’s “homecoming game”. In the last three years the Browns have only won four games in the AFC North as the culture of losing reigns supreme in Cleveland. And until Jackson or anyone else is able to change that, the Browns will continue to get beat up on.
First-Round Pick: T.J. Watt-Outside Linebacker-Wisconsin
Best Pick: T.J. Watt
No team in the history of the National Football League has won more Super Bowl Titles than the six in which the Pittsburgh Steelers possess, and the most recent edition of the NFL Draft illustrated why.
While some teams entered the National Football League Draft playing the guessing game as far as what they needed to do in order to improve their respective rosters, the Steelers stuck to their plan of bringing more talent to Western Pennsylvania while capitalizing on the mistakes of others.
The first round saw the Steelers have to wait until the 30th pick, but there they selected Wisconsin Badgers outside linebacker T.J. Watt. Watt is the younger brother of Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt and Los Angeles Chargers fullback Derek Watt. Just like his big brother who suits up for the Texans, T.J. is a freak of nature. Watt fills a need for the Steelers who have to improve their pass rush. Last year at Wisconsin, Watt recorded 11.5 sacks as a member of one of the stingiest defenses in college football, and his workman like attitude will be a welcome sight in Western Pennsylvania.
In the second round the Steelers were able to land USC Trojans wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. At 6’1″, 215 lbs., Smith-Schuster gives the Steelers another red zone target for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and their prolific offense.
The Steelers had two selections in the third round with one of those choices being used on Pittsburgh Panthers running back James Conner. The Steelers got a close look at Conner in college and they know all about his story. Conner was the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year in 2014, while he would also overcome Hodgkin’s Lymphoma during his time at Pitt. Conner never gave up and his mental toughness fits the mold of being a Steeler.
The Steelers were close to getting to the Super Bowl last season, and this draft class can help to possibly make it a reality come February.
First-Round Pick: Marlon Humphrey-Cornerback-Alabama
Best Pick: Round Three-Tim Williams-Defensive End-Alabama
It’s hard to believe, but three of the last four years have seen the Baltimore Ravens fail to make the playoffs. Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome has been attempting to get the Ravens back to being a consistent playoff contender as this draft could help to get Baltimore closer to that.
This draft saw the Ravens focus on getting back to their identity. In the first round the Ravens selected Alabama Crimson Tide cornerback Marlon Humphrey. With the Steelers currently being the team to beat in the AFC North, the Ravens need all of the help that they can get in their secondary in order to hang with Pittsburgh’s explosive offensive players.
After trading defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan to the Philadelphia Eagles, the Ravens had a pair of third round picks and they quickly found a replacement for Jernigan in Michigan Wolverines defensive tackle Chris Wormley. At 6’5″, Wormley should fit in to the Ravens scheme on their defensive line as they run the 3-4. Later in the third round Baltimore would peg one of Humphrey’s collegiate teammates in outside linebacker Tim Williams. Williams is an outside linebacker by trade, but he is extremely versatile which includes playing the run and pass well. And that versatility could make Williams a starter early on for the Ravens.
The fourth round saw the Ravens select San Diego State Aztecs guard Nico Siragusa. Siragusa is coming off of an All-American selection at San Diego State which included him opening holes for record setting running back Donnel Pumphrey. And after the Ravens were 28th in the National Football League last season in rushing, they need all of the help that they can get on the offensive line.
This draft class might not show up immediately for the Ravens, but they will be effective players.
First-Round Pick: John Ross-Wide Receiver-Washington
Best Pick: Round Three-Jordan Willis-Defensive End-Kansas State
After the Cincinnati Bengals failed to make the playoffs last season for the first time since 2010, it was time for them to retool. The Bengals entered the National Football League Draft needing more speed at the wide receiver position and they got their money’s worth.
In the first round the Bengals selected Washington Huskies wide receiver John Ross who set a record by running the fastest 40-yard dash time in the history of the National Football League Scouting Combine. Ross ran a 4.22 40-yard dash and his speed will now see him test the arm strength of Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton.
In the second round the Bengals would put themselves under the microscope by drafting Oklahoma Sooners running back Joe Mixon. Mixon entered this draft as one of the best play makers at the running back position; however most people have not been focused on that due to his past off-the-field issues. In 2014, Mixon was suspended by Oklahoma after he was arrested and charged with misdemeanor assault for allegedly hitting a woman. In 2015, Mixon would return to Oklahoma and become a key contributor to the Sooners winning 22 games over the last two college football seasons. But when video surfaced late in 2016 of Mixon hitting the woman during the 2014 incident, he was immediately taken off of some team’s draft boards. Now the Bengals must face the public backlash and if they and Mixon are able to get past that, he could be a very productive player for them.
Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis has always believed in stock piling pass rushers, and in a division with Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, you can never have enough players who can put pressure on the quarterback. The third round saw Cincinnati select Kansas State Wildcats defensive end Jordan Willis. Willis comes to the Bengals as a very polished edge rusher. In 2016, Willis was the Big 12 Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year as he recorded 11.5 sacks. The Bengals didn’t stop there as in the fourth round they selected Auburn Tigers defensive end Carl Lawson. Lawson had the potential to be taken late in the first round, but questions about his durability saw his stock fall. Now Willis and Lawson can learn from veteran Bengals defensive ends Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson while also contributing on the field.
If the Bengals can stay healthy in 2017, they should once again be able to contend for a playoff spot.
First-Round Pick: Myles Garrett-Defensive End-Texas A&M, Jabril Peppers-Safety-Michigan, David Njoku-Tight End-Miami
Best Pick: Myles Garrett
The Cleveland Browns had a real opportunity to reverse the fortunes of their franchise at the 2017 National Football League Draft. But it typical Browns fashion, they let that opportunity go by the wayside.
The Browns entered the draft in possession of the first overall pick which was almost impossible for even them to mess up. The Browns used that selection on Texas A&M Aggies defensive end Myles Garrett who has freakish pass rushing ability. But the biggest issue for Garrett is whether or not that he’ll get sucked into the Bermuda Triangle in which so many first-round picks of the Browns have gotten lost in. And after the selection of Garrett, it was completely downhill from there for the Browns.
The Browns owned the 12th overall pick and they were in need of a quarterback. However with North Carolina Tar Heels quarterback Mitch Trubisky having been drafted by the Chicago Bears, Clemson Tigers quarterback Deshaun Watson was sitting there waiting for a phone call with area code 440 attached to it. Instead of taking Watson, the Browns made a trade with the Houston Texans who were poised to take Watson and make him their franchise quarterback. And as I’ve said before, the Browns will rue the day in which they passed on Watson as he is a proven winner which is what they need in their locker room.
Cleveland would make take two more selections in the first round as they pegged Michigan Wolverines strong safety Jabril Peppers 25th overall and Miami Hurricanes tight end David Njoku 29th overall. Peppers saw his draft stock fall as the result of a diluted sample at the Scouting Combine, while teams weren’t sure if he is a safety or an outside linebacker. Njoku was arguably the best athlete at the tight end position coming into the draft, but how much of an impact that he can with Cleveland remains to be seen.
After passing up on Watson, the Browns would then take Notre Dame Fighting Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer in the second round. Kizer had more uncertainty as far as his ability to be a professional quarterback than the three signal callers who were selected in the first round. Kizer is still very raw a passer which includes questions about his pocket awareness and ability to break down pro-style defenses as it appears to be simply another case of goofing up by the Browns.
In the sixth round Cleveland would select Florida Gators defensive tackle Caleb Brantley who saw his draft stock diminish after he was accused of punching a woman last month to the point that the alleged victim required dental work. Brantley had second round potential, but most teams weren’t willing to touch him with a 10-foot pole after the allegations came out against him. The Browns contend that they can still release him based off of potential legal ramifications, but why put your franchise in that position in the first place?
Since the Browns re-entered the National Football League in 1999, they’ve only had two winning seasons. And after the Browns went 1-15 last season, they laid a complete egg at the draft as they will continue to be the whipping boys of the AFC North, along with being the laughing stock of the NFL.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers
2. New England Patriots
3. Oakland Raiders
4. Indianapolis Colts
5. Cincinnati Bengals
6. Baltimore Ravens
AFC Wild Card Round
Cincinnati Bengals vs. Indianapolis Colts
As dysfunctional as the Cincinnati Bengals are, not even they can lose in the Wild Card round in six consecutive years; especially since they are much better than the Indianapolis Colts.
Baltimore Ravens vs. Oakland Raiders
The fans in the Bay Area have waited a very long time to see an Oakland Raiders playoff game and they wont be disappointed.
AFC Divisional Playoffs
Cincinnati Bengals vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
The Bengals will finally be happy to get the playoff monkey off of their backs, but their big brothers from the AFC North in the Pittsburgh Steelers want to show them that they are still in charge.
Oakland Raiders vs. New England Patriots
The Raiders are happy to win a playoff game, and the battle tested New England Patriots will be too much for them.
AFC Championship Game
New England Patriots vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has been on a mission to put “Deflategate” behind him and get back to the Super Bowl.
1. Seattle Seahawks
2. Green Bay Packers
3. Carolina Panthers
4. Dallas Cowboys
5. Arizona Cardinals
6. Minnesota Vikings
NFC Wild Card Round
Minnesota Vikings vs. Carolina Panthers
The road to a consecutive Super Bowl berth for the Carolina Panthers begins with a home victory over the Minnesota Vikings.
Arizona Cardinals vs. Dallas Cowboys
The Arizona Cardinals could be a team on a mission as they steamroll the Dallas Cowboys.
NFC Divisional Playoffs
Carolina Panthers vs. Green Bay Packers
In a battle of MVP quarterbacks in Cam Newton of the Panthers, and Aaron Rodgers of the Packers, the legs of running back Eddie Lacy will lead Green Bay to the NFC Championship Game.
Arizona Cardinals vs. Seattle Seahawks
The Cards-Seahawks rivalry is quickly becoming one of the best in the NFL. And for the Cardinals, they are definitely one team that isn’t afraid to travel to Seattle and seek a victory.
NFC Championship Game
Arizona Cardinals vs. Green Bay Packers
With the frozen mystique of football in Green Bay being a thing of the past, the Cardinals have what it takes to get a victory there and reach the Super Bowl for the second time in franchise history.
Super Bowl Bowl 51-NRG Stadium-Houston, Texas
New England Patriots vs. Arizona Cardinals
These two teams began the year against each other, and it’s only fitting that they’ll finish they year on the gridiron. But the Patriots will find a way to win their fifth Vince Lombardi Trophy.
X-Pittsburgh Steelers 12-4
When you think of the history of the National Football League, you can’t go that long without recognizing the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers have been an NFL franchise since 1933, and since 1972, Pittsburgh has only had seven losing seasons which is remarkable. Some other outstanding traits that are displayed by the Steelers organization is that they preach patience and consistency with their head coaches as they’ve only employed three head coaches since 1969, which is a far cry from the majority of the other franchises around the NFL where there is constant turn over at the head coaching position. Mike Tomlin set to begin his 10th year as the Steelers head coach, and like his two predecessors in Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher, he has led Pittsburgh to at least one Super Bowl Championship. The last two years have seen Tomlin get the Steelers to the playoffs, but he has a team in 2016 that is more than capable of adding a seventh Vince Lombardi Trophy as Super Bowl Champions to the display case in Western Pennsylvania.
As long as the Steelers can keep quarterback Ben Roethlisberger healthy, they have a legitimate shot of winning it all. Roethlisberger has been the Steelers starting quarterback since 2004, and all he has done is win while displaying a toughness that the folks in Western Pennsylvania can relate to. At the age of 34, Roethlisberger isn’t showing any signs of slowing down while he still can throw one of the best deep balls in the National Football League. Last year with Roethlisberger at the helm, the Steelers had the third ranked offense in the NFL, and you can expect more of the same in 2016.
Very rapidly Antonio Brown has become one of the better wide receivers in football. In the last three years Brown has gained nearly 5,000 yards of receiving yards and he has become Roethlisberger’s most dependable target in the process. The Steelers will miss the contributions of wide receiver Martavis Bryant who will have to sit out the entire 2016 National Football League season after a failed drug test, and tight end Heat Miler who retired after spending his entire 11-year career in Pittsburgh. But the Steelers are hopeful that wide receivers Sammie Coates, Markus Wheaton and Darius Heyward-Bay can step up to make contributions in the passing game to offset the losses of Bryant and Miller.
The Steelers are also hopeful to have a healthy pair of running backs in Le’Veon Bell and De’Angelo Williams. Last year injuries limited Bell to just six games and he’ll miss the first three games of 2016 after being suspended by the National Football League due to the fact that he missed a drug test. But the Steelers need the combo of Williams and Bell in the backfield as each are solid at picking up the blitz for Roethlisberger, while also having the knack to be receivers in the passing game.
The Steelers should once again have one of the better offensive lines in the business as long as center Maurkice Pouncey and guard David DeCastro can remain healthy as this unit has a high level of physicality attached to them.
As the Steelers defense is set to begin its second year under defensive coordinator Keith Butler, you can expect the term “Blitzburgh” to once again be used to describe this unit. Last year the Steelers amassed 48 sacks which was third in the National Football League, and with the likes of inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons and veteran outside linebacker James Harrison back on the scene, Pittsburgh is ready to show that they are still the bullies of the AFC North.
As a rookie in 2015, outside linebacker Bud Dupree totaled 4 sacks, but if he is able to become the pass rusher that the Steelers envisioned when they drafted him, their defense could become very stingy. Rookie inside linebacker Tyler Matakevich was the Steelers seventh-round pick this year and after being an All-American last year at Temple, his strong work ethic and determination will be a welcomed sight to Pittsburgh’s blue-collar work ethic.
On the Steelers defensive line, defensive end Cam Heyward is turning into a star and fellow defensive end Stephon Tuitt is no slouch either as ability to rush the passer and stop the run opens up Pittsburgh’s linebackers to make more plays.
The Steelers have a chance to make a statement in Week 2 when they host the Cincinnati Bengals as there is no love lost between these two AFC North rivals; especially after last season’s wild card game which was won by Pittsburgh. Overall four of the Steelers first five games in 2016 are against teams that finished last season with winning records. But the Steelers chances to win the AFC North will come down to their final three games of the season as they’ll face the Bengals, Baltimore Ravens, and Cleveland Browns in consecutive weeks.
Y-Cincinnati Bengals 11-5
The last five National Football League seasons have seen the Cincinnati Bengals reach the playoffs. But each time the Bengals have been unable to win a playoff game. Last year’s playoff loss for the Bengals stung more than the others as they had the Pittsburgh Steelers on the ropes until they came apart at the seams. A fumble by Bengals Jeremy Hill late in the contest gave the Steelers life. And when Pittsburgh got the ball back, Bengals outside linebacker Vontaze Burfict and cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones made sure that they did their part in helping the Steelers win. The Bengals began last season with a record of 8-0 as they finished the regular season with a record of 12-4 for their best mark since 1988 which marked their last trip to the Super Bowl. However as good as the Bengals were in 2015, what does head coach Marvin Lewis have up his sleeve to motivate this team to not only make the postseason for a sixth consecutive year, but to also win their first playoff game since January 1991?
In each of the last five years Andy Dalton has been the Bengals starting quarterback and he has a career record of 50-26-1. But Dalton’s career playoff record of 0-4 record, along with the fact that he typically comes up short when the Bengals need him the most have made him a lightning rod for controversy in the Queen City.
Last December, Dalton suffered a fractured thumb which put him on the shelf for the rest of the season as he is looking to get back on track here in 2016. But Dalton will miss the guidance of his former offensive coordinator Hue Jackson who is now the head coach of the Cleveland Browns as former quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese will be calling the plays in Cincinnati.
Behind a strong offensive line that features left tackle Andrew Whitworth, the Bengals have a solid running game with their tandem of running backs in Hill and Giovanni Bernard. And if Bernard and Hill can combined to get 400 carries this season, it should symbolize another trip to the postseason for the Bengals.
In the past I have talked about the need for Dalton to not play “hero ball” in order to help the Bengals win games. And although that wide receiver A.J. Green is one of the better wide receivers in the National Football League, Dalton shouldn’t try to force feed him the football, while another receiver such as tight end Tyler Eifert needs to step up and become a consistent option for Cincinnati in the passing game.
After the Bengals finished 2015 11th in total defense, there’s nothing that can stop them from being a top-five unit this season except themselves as they have a wealth of talent. The Bengals can rush the passer with defensive end Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson, while the interior of Cincinnati’s defensive line is stout with defensive tackles Geno Atkins, Domata Peko, and Pat Sims. There’s plenty of talent in the Bengals linebacking unit with Burfict, middle linebacker Rey Maualuga, and outside linebacker Vincent Rey, while picking up a veteran middle linebacker in Karlos Dansby could help the Bengals finally get over the hump and win a playoff game. In the secondary, the Bengals can cover with the likes of veteran cornerbacks Adam Jones and Kirkpatrick, but it just a matter of this unit staying focused under defensive coordinator Paul Guenther.
The schedule makers were not kind to the Bengals as they’ll begin the upcoming season with consecutive road games against the New York Jets and Steelers, while they will have their home opener against the Denver Broncos who are the defending Super Bowl Champions. And if the Bengals get off to a slow start, they will be fighting an uphill battle in the AFC North against the Steelers and Baltimore Ravens to win the division.
Y-Baltimore Ravens 10-6
You have to go back to the 2005 National Football League season to find the last time that the Baltimore Ravens missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons. Injuries derailed the Ravens chances in 2015 as they went 5-11. And for Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome and head coach John Harbaugh, they’ve been hard at work this off-season to get Baltimore back on track in the AFC North.
Last year marked the first time in the National Football League career of Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco that he missed time due to an injury. In Week 11, Flacco suffered a torn ACL which put him on the shelf for the remainder of the season. As the Ravens starting quarterback, Flacco has a career record of 75-47 while also sporting a 10-5 mark in the postseason which includes leading Baltimore to a Super Bowl Title. Flacco has been rehabbing from his knee injury, and the Ravens are going to need him to be fully healthy when they take the field in September.
Aside from Flacco, the Ravens must get more continuity from their rushing attack that was ranked 26th in the National Football League last season. Baltimore’s leading rusher in 2015 was veteran running back Justin Forsett with just 641 which isn’t going to get it done in the NFL; even though that the league is now very pass happy.
Injuries also hurt the Ravens offensive line last year as they were unable to provide protection for Flacco or open up holes in the running game. The Ravens would use the sixth overall pick of the 2016 National Football League Draft on offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley who has the potential to be an anchor on the offensive line for the coming years. The Ravens also have veterans on the line in the form of center Jeremy Zuttah and guard Marshal Yanda that will need to find cohesion early in order to provide blocking the skills players in Baltimore’s offense.
Last year was supposed to be wide receiver Steve Smith Sr.’s final hurrah in the National Football League. But after Smith suffered an Achilles injury which abruptly ended his campaign, he is back for one more go at it in 2016. Smith has been one of the better pass catchers of this era as he has the potential this season to become just the sixth player in National Football League history to record 15,000 receiving yards.
The Ravens were eighth in total defense in 2015, but the unit’s issues began in Week 1 when outside linebacker Terrell Suggs suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon which robbed Baltimore of their defensive leader. Suggs is back for the upcoming season, and the Ravens have picked up former San Diego Chargers free safety Eric Weddle, but will there be enough play makers on this side of the football to get Baltimore back to the post season?
In recent years punter Sam Koch and place kicker Justin Tucker have been vital to the Ravens success. Last year Koch had a net average of 42.9 as his kicks can change field position, while Tucker is one of the better field goal kickers from within 50 yards. And special teams will be a huge factor for the Ravens; especially when the temperature begins to drop in the months of November and December.
If the Ravens want to be a playoff team in 2016, they must take care of business in the first half of the season as only one of their first seven opponents made the playoffs last year. The Ravens last two games of the season will be on the road against the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals as Baltimore will have its work cut to make the playoffs in January.
Cleveland Browns 5-11
It’s the same old song for the Cleveland Browns as they are beginning another National Football League season with a term attached to the them which is “starting over”. Since the Browns returned to the NFL in 1999, they have had three different owners, eight general managers, nine head coaches, and they are working on their 25th different starting quarterback. Browns owner Jimmy Haslam didn’t help himself in his most recent front office hires as he hired a new team president in Paul DePodesta and general manager Sashi Brown. Neither man has a football background as DePodesta has worked in the front offices of Major League Baseball franchises, while Brown has a law background.
At least the Browns hired a football guy as their next head coach in former Oakland Raiders head coach Hue Jackson. In one season with the Raiders, Jackson posted a record of 8-8 as he was charged with changing the culture there. And that is exactly what Jackson is attempting to do with the Browns as they’ve only had two winning seasons since 1999.
As the Browns are coming off of a 3-13 season, the only way for them to go is up. The Browns resisted selecting a quarterback early on during the 2016 National Football League Draft and instead of drafting a quarterback early on in the proceedings, they instead decided to try their hand at a reclamation project.
Quarterback Robert Griffin III was the second overall pick of the 2012 National Football League Draft by the Washington Redskins and he took the league by storm. In 2012, Griffin became the NFL’s Rookie of the Year as he helped the Redskins win the NFC East. But a knee injury towards the end of the 2012 season, along with missing the entire training camp for the following campaign put Griffin behind the eight ball. And when Jay Gruden became the Redskins head coach last year, he never warmed up to Griffin being his starting quarterback which made him expendable. The Redskins would part ways with Griffin this off-season and he is looking to re-kindle some of the magic from 2012 now with the Browns.
Jackson has been known to develop quarterbacks and the main thing that Griffin needs to work on is his pocket awareness, but he will be a welcome sight in Cleveland after the Browns parted with another quarterback from the State of Texas this off-season in Johnny Manziel.
Last year the Browns were 25th in total offense in the National Football League and they are in need of more consistency. The Browns still have nine-time Pro Bowl offensive tackle in Joe Thomas anchoring their offensive line, but he is becoming disgruntled with the team’s inability to win. Longtime Browns center Alex Mack left this off-season to join the Atlanta Falcons and Cleveland is hopeful the center Cameron Erving who was a first-round choice of the team in 2015 is ready to fill the void.
With Jackson running the show in Cleveland, the team is in the process of a roster overhaul which means that there is a competition at nearly every position and somebody has to step up and become a play maker on offense.
The same can be said on defense where the Browns need to be more aggressive under first-year defensive coordinator Ray Horton. The Browns must find a way to put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks with their front seven as their 29 sacks in 2015 were 28th in the National Football League.
Jackson is attempting to change the culture for the Browns and he will spend 2016 simply weeding out the guys that don’t fit his system. But hopefully Jackson gets the chance to establish himself with the Browns as they don’t have patience with their head coaches.
Y-Clinched Wild Card