Tag Archives: Marvin Lewis

No End In Sight For The Bengals

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From 2009-2015, the Cincinnati Bengals made the National Football League Playoffs six times, but they failed to win a postseason game. And overall you have to go back to the 1990 NFL season to find the last time in which the Bengals won a playoff game. 2016 was an injury plagued year for the Bengals as they limped to a 6-9-1 finish for their first losing season since 2010. There was some optimism for the Bengals heading into a new season as players such as wide receiver A.J. Green who was limited due to a hamstring injury in 2016 were now healthy, but that positive vibe has left the Queen City.

The Bengals started off to a start of 0-3 this season, and it has never got better for them after that. The Bengals were the only team in the National Football League that didn’t score an offensive touchdown in their first two games as they were limited to a paltry nine points.

Marvin Lewis

For Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, he attempted to kick start his struggling offense as following the Bengals loss to the Houston Texans in Week 2, Ken Zampese was fired as the team’s offensive coordinator. Zampese was replaced by Bill Lazor who joined the Bengals last season as the team’s quarterbacks coach. And following Zampese’s departure, Lazor was expected to jumpstart an offense in Cincinnati that was 24th in the National Football League in total offense when he took over. But although that Zampese became the first casualty in Cincinnati this year, there is plenty of blame to go around for this organization.

Following the death of longtime Bengals owner Paul Brown in 1991, his son Mike began to run the team. Following that year the Bengals would only have one non-losing season for the remainder of the 1990’s as they were done in by poor draft decisions. That era for Bengals would see them use a pair of first-round draft picks on quarterbacks David Klingler and Akili Smith who combined to go 7-34 during their respective tenures as Cincinnati’s starting quarterback. But Brown then appeared to finally strike gold in 2003 when he hired Lewis to be the Bengals head coach.

In each of Lewis’ first four seasons with the Bengals, the team never had a losing season and in 2005, they won the AFC North for the first time in franchise history. Including this season Lewis’ record as the head coach of the Bengals in 121-111-3. Lewis had led the Bengals to seven playoff appearances, but he has yet to win a playoff game, and it appears that he won’t get another opportunity.

Following the home loss this past Sunday to the Chicago Bears in which the Bengals were dominated 33-7, all signs point to Cincy missing the playoffs for the second consecutive season. And once you factor in that Lewis is in the final year of contract while Brown has been known to be a cheap owner, the Bengals will more than likely be looking for a new head coach heading into next season, but will it really matter?

With Brown leading the way the Bengals have a culture that is not what you want to see out of a championship team. In recent years the stripes on the Bengals uniform can also represent the consistent run-ins with law enforcement that some of the team’s players have had. The Bengals have lacked accountability which has translated over to the football field where at times they’ve gone out of their way to lose games.

Even after Cincinnati’s slow start of 0-3, they entered play two weeks ago controlling their own destiny in order to make the playoffs. The Bengals were 5-6 and were set to host the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday Night Football. But in typical Bengals fashion they went out of their way to lose the game.

The Bengals squandered a 17-point lead to the Steelers which was followed up by their drubbing at the hands of the Bears. And things won’t get any better on Sunday for the Bengals when they’ll travel to face the Minnesota Vikings who are a victory away from clinching the NFC North.

Andy Dalton

Lewis is more than likely out the door once the season ends ,but Cincinnati still has a huge question mark which surrounds starting quarterback Andy Dalton. Dalton has been the Bengals starting quarterback since 2011 and he has compiled a record of 61-43-2. Dalton has a career completion percentage of 62.5%, but his 0-4 record in the playoffs is something that he cannot escape. In 2014, Brown gave Dalton a six-year, $96 million extension. And assuming that the Bengals will have a new head coach in 2018, the new person will have to work with Dalton because Brown is not going to allow him to part with the franchise’s starting quarterback who is still owed $47.2 million over the next three seasons.

The last ten years have seen a mild uprising in Cincinnati as the Bengals became competitive. But when the postseason rolls around, all of a team’s flaws are magnified. The Bengals lack of leadership which begins and ends with Brown always rises to the surface at the most inopportune which is something that you can ask cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones and linebacker Vontaze Burfict all about. Lewis attempted to make the Bengals a winner, but to no avail as he could not overcome the losing culture that the organization has. And regardless of who the next head coach in Cincinnati will be, his chances of bringing that elusive first Super Bowl Championship to Southern Ohio will be slim to none as well.

Sources: Pro-football-reference.com, Spotrac.com

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2017 AFC North Projections

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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?

Ben Roethlisberger

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.

Le’Veon Bell

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.

Andy Dalton

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.

Tyler Eifert

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?

Joe Flacco

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.

Jabril Peppers

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.

X-Division Champion

Y-Wild Card

Source: Pro-football-reference.com

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2016 AFC North Projections

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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.

Ben Roethlisberger

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.

Cam Heyward

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?

Andy Dalton

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.

Joe Flacco

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.

Terrell Suggs

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.

Hue Jackson

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.

Robert Griffin III

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.

X-Division Winner

Y-Clinched Wild Card

Source: Pro-football-reference.com

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2016 AFC North Draft Grades

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Cincinnati Bengals

Grade: B

First Round Pick: William Jackson III-Cornerback-Houston

Best Pick: Round Two-Tyler Boyd-Wide Receiver-Pittsburgh

Although that the Cincinnati Bengals have failed to win a playoff game since 1991, they have done a solid job of stockpiling talent under head coach Marvin Lewis at the National Football League Draft, and 2016 was no different.

William Jackson III

The Bengals were getting older in the secondary and thus they used their first-round pick of the draft on Houston Cougars cornerback William Jackson III. Jackson III comes to the Bengals as a two-time, first-team All-American Athletic Conference member. And last year at Houston, Jackson III led the Cougars in interceptions with 5, while he wasn’t afraid to mix it up as he tallied 43 tackles which was ninth on the team.

In the second round, the Bengals selected Pittsburgh Panthers wide receiver Tyler Boyd. Coming into the 2015 college football season, Boyd was expected to be a big-time contributor at Pittsburgh, but he was slowed by injuries which saw him fall in the second round. However Boyd does have exceptional ball skills, and at 6’2″, he can be a matchup problem for opposing defensive backs.

The fourth round would see Cincinnati select Baylor Bears defensive tackle Andrew Billings. Like Boyd, Billings watched himself slip at the National Football League Draft, but he did go to a team in the Bengals where he could be a rotational player on their defensive line as a rookie.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Grade: B

First Round Pick: Artie Burns-Cornerback-Miami

Best Pick: Round Seven-Tyler Matakevich-Outside Linebacker-Temple

Since 1969, the Pittsburgh Steelers have been the best team in the National Football League as far as finding and drafting talent which is evident by their six Super Bowl Titles over that stretch being that it is the most in the league. The Steelers entered the 2016 NFL Draft owning the 25th overall pick which they used on Miami Hurricanes cornerback Artie Burns.

Artie Burns

The Steelers need help in their secondary, and although that Burns wasn’t the player that they were seeking at that position, he is still a guy that fits into the team’s mold as he has possesses solid ball skills which was highlighted by him having 6 interceptions last year at Miami. At 6’0″, Burns has good size which will give him the chance to match up with some of the bigger wide receivers that the AFC North has, while he’ll get a workout everyday in practice as he faces the likes of wide receiver Antonio Brown.

The Steelers kept the secondary theme going in the second round where they selected Maryland Terrapins safety Sean Davis. Unlike Burns, the Steelers like Davis’ range and physicality as his 88 tackles were second on Maryland’s team in 2015. And since the retirement of Troy Polamalu in 2014, the Steelers have missed having a player at safety that plays like a linebacker.

In the sixth round, the Steelers might have found themselves another player in the mode of Brown when they selected Houston Cougars wide receiver DeMarcus Ayers. At 5’9″, 182 lbs., Ayers is a burner that knows how to get in and out of breaks as any defensive back that is covering him needs to make sure that his ankle are taped.

And in the final round of the National Football League Draft, the Steelers found themselves a good old-fashioned football player in Temple Owls linebacker Tyler Matakevich. Matakevich fits the mold of what the Steelers seek from their linebackers as his grit and toughness are a throwback to the days of players such as Jack Lambert. Last year at Temple, Matakevich recorded 138 tackles while taking home the Bednarik and the Bronko Nagurski Awards for his defensive prowess as it won’t take him that long to find himself on the field making plays for the Steelers.

Baltimore Ravens

Grade: B

First Round Pick: Ronnie Stanley-Offensive Tackle-Notre Dame

Best Pick: Ronnie Stanley

Like the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Baltimore Ravens know a thing or two about hitting on their selections at the National Football League Draft. Ozzie Newsome has been the only general manager that the Ravens have ever employed in their 21-year history and he has a keen eye for talent; especially in finding impact players early on in the draft.

Ronnie Stanley

2016 was no different for the Ravens as their first-round pick was used on Notre Dame Fighting Irish offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley. Stanley comes to the Ravens as an All-American and he’ll be expected to anchor Baltimore’s offensive line for the next decade.

But the Ravens most intriguing pick came last Saturday in the sixth round when they selected Navy Midshipmen quarterback Keenan Reynolds. Reynolds comes to the Ravens as a very decorated player as he set an NCAA record with 88 career rushing touchdowns while he finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting last year which is the highest that a Naval cadet has finished since Roger Staubach in 1963. Reynolds will be used as a running back in the National Football League, and the Navy could make it

possible for him to play this year with a special waiver.

Cleveland Browns

Grade: A+

First Round Pick: Corey Coleman-Wide Receiver-Baylor

Best Pick: Round Three-Carl Nassib-Defensive End-Penn State 

One way to describe the Cleveland Browns at the 2016 National Football League Draft was that they were active. The Browns drafted 14 players and unlike in year’s past, they appear to have found some impact players.

The Browns used their first-round pick on Baylor Bears wide receiver Corey Coleman. Coleman comes to the Browns after winning the Biletnikoff Award winner last year as the nation’s top wide receiver, and Cleveland is hopeful that they won’t get burned again that position like they have in year’s past.

Carl Nassib

The Browns then turned to the trenches where they selected Oklahoma State Cowboys defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah and Penn State Nittany Lions defensive end Carl Nassib. Ogbah had 13 sacks last year at Oklahoma State and he should be able to come in and immediately contribute while Nassib has a relentless motor that will allow him to make plays and win over the folks in the “Dawg Pound”.

The Browns used a third-round choice on Auburn Tigers offensive tackle Shon Coleman. Coleman comes to the National Football League as a 24-year old rookie, and he has had his fair share of issues as medical issues were attempting to derail his collegiate career. But now Coleman has overcome all of that as his determination is a testament of the new direction that the Browns are attempting to go in. Also in the third round, Cleveland found Southern California Trojans quarterback Cody Kessler who will push quarterback Robert Griffin III for reps in training camp as he is an accurate signal caller along with having terrific pocket awareness.

In the seventh round, the Browns found an absolute steal in Arizona Wildcats linebacker Scooby Wright III. In 2014, Wright was the Pac-12 Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year and if he had been eligible for the draft in 2015, he would have been a top-10 choice. But Wright was only a sophomore, and in 2015, a knee injury slowed him down. However the Browns found themselves an absolute football player in Wright that is now healthy and he should be a starter come Week 1 of the regular season.

Source; Cfbstats.com

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A Leopard Never Changes Its Spots

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The Cincinnati Bengals have been a professional football franchise for nearly 50 years. The Bengals came into existence in 1968 as an expansion franchise in the American Football League before joining the National Football League in 1970 during the merger. The Bengals were built under the watchful eye of Paul Brown who was their co-founder and first head coach. Brown coached the Bengals during their first eight seasons which was highlighted by three playoff appearances along with winning the first ever AFC Central Title in 1970. But under Brown, the Bengals were never able to win a playoff game which would be a harbinger of things to come years later for this franchise. When Brown retired from coaching in 1975 to concentrate on being the Bengals team president, he made a decision that would shape his franchise for years to come. Brown hand picked Bill “Tiger” Johnson to succeed him as the Bengals head coach over the young and upstart Bill Walsh. Johnson would resign midway through the 1978 National Football League season after the Bengals 0-5 start while Walsh would take over as the head coach the San Francisco 49ers in 1979 and he would lead them to three Super Bowl Championships with two of those victories coming over the Bengals.

On January 6, 1991, the Cincinnati Bengals defeated the Houston Oilers 41-14 at Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati. And when the Bengals would go on to lose to the Los Angeles Raiders in the AFC Divisional Playoffs the following week, little did they know of the coming series of events that were waiting for them.

For the remainder of the 1990’s, the Bengals would not record a winning season which was highlighted by a slew of draft busts.

Marvin Lewis

Marvin Lewis would be hired as the Bengals head coach in 2003, and after a pair of 8-8 seasons, he would lead Cincinnati to the AFC North Title in 2005. But in the AFC Wild Card Game, Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer would suffer a torn ACL early in the first quarter and Cincinnati would lose to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Even it defeat that day it wasn’t looked at as a big thing for the Bengals as they were a young team and they would be back soon. After three subpar seasons, the Bengals would once again win the AFC North in 2009; only to lose to the New York Jets in the AFC Wild Card Game. After parting with Palmer after the 2010 National Football League season, the Bengals would draft quarterback Andy Dalton in the second round of the 2011 NFL Draft. Dalton became the Bengals starting quarterback from his first day on the job and he helped Cincy reach the postseason each season with him under center. But come January, the Bengals continued to be one-and-done in the postseason.

This season the Bengals began by winning their first eight games. The Bengals were winning close games against contenders such as the Steelers and Seattle Seahawks, and all of a sudden they didn’t appear to be the same old Bungles. The Bengals were 10-2 when they welcomed the Steelers to Cincinnati for a Week 14 contest as they were looking to wrap up the AFC North Title. In that game Dalton would suffer a broken thumb that sidelined him for the remainder of the season. Dalton would be replaced by backup quarterback AJ McCarron who went 2-1 as a starter. The Bengals would finish the regular season with a record of 12-4 which would mark their best season since their last AFC Championship in 1988, but after a losing a Week 16 affair to the Denver Broncos, Cincinnati would miss out on earning a first-round bye,

With McCarron under center, the Bengals would find themselves hosting the Steelers this past Saturday night in the AFC Wild Card Game. For the first three quarters of the game, the Steelers would rack up yardage on offense, but they were only able to amass a 15-0 lead. The Bengals offense finally woke up in the fourth quarter. The Bengals would score 10 points to cut the deficit to five and they would get the football back with under four minutes left in the game. McCarron would lead the Bengals on a 45-yard drive that culminated when he found wide receiver A.J. Green for a 25-yard touchdown pass for their first lead of the night at 16-15 with just under two minutes remaining.

On the Steelers ensuing drive, backup quarterback Landry Jones was intercepted by Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict which actually spelled the beginning of the end for Cincinnati. Inexplicably, Burfict ran off of the field towards the Bengals locker room as if to say that the game was over. However the Steelers had all three of their timeouts remaining along with a plethora of time. And on the very next play, Bengals running back Jeremy Hill fumbled the football as he was stripped by Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier. The Steelers would regain possession of the football with an injured quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger leading them. Roethlisberger was attempting to drive the Steelers into field goal range for the potential game-winning score when he and Pittsburgh received a huge assist from the Bengals.

With 18 seconds remaining in the game, Burfict was flagged for a personal foul penalty for a hit to the helmet of Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown. The hit would then put the Steelers into field goal range and it would get worse for the Bengals when cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones was flagged for an unsportsmanlike conduct foul. In all the Steelers were the beneficiaries of 30 yards without having to run a play due to the stupidity and selfishness of the Bengals. Steelers kicker Chris Boswell would connect on a 35-yard field goal which would send Pittsburgh to the AFC Divisional Playoffs while the Bengals were left to wallow in their own futility. And  just when it appeared that the Bengals were ready to cast themselves out of their long and storied reputation of shooting themselves in the foot, they simply could not handle success.

There are some people that are calling for Lewis to be fired as he is now 0-7 in the playoffs as the Bengals head coach. And although that Bengals owner Mike Brown won’t fire Lewis, a new head coach wouldn’t make a difference in Cincinnati as there are issues within the organization.

Even when the Bengals were able to stop the losing that haunted them in the 1990’s, they were done in during the 2000’s by players who had character issues as this team would see a different player almost every week being arrested by law enforcement officials. It got so bad for the Bengals that National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell paid the team a visit to encourage them to get their act together as they were embarrassing the league. And even though that the Bengals continue to shed this image, it was once again on display when they lost to the Steelers.

The Bengals were flagged with several unsportsmanlike conduct penalties during their loss to the Steelers which scream of undisciplined football, and more than ever the month of January is where teams cannot have selfish players making selfish plays if they want to win.

Make no mistake about it that the Bengals arguably have one of the most talented teams in the National Football League, but they are lacking leadership on both sides of the ball along with having an owner in Brown that it isn’t fully committed to winning.

Led by Lewis, the Bengals will be back at it next season as they will be seeking their sixth consecutive playoff appearance while they are still searching for their first postseason victory since both the Rams and Raiders called Los Angeles home. But unless their is a culture change from within the Bengals organization that includes an overall concentration on winning, this will continue to be a team that will befuddle anyone who follows them.

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Will The Other Shoe Ever Drop?

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With a record of 8-0, the Cincinnati Bengals are off to their best start in franchise history. But the Bengals enter the second half of the 2015 National Football League season looking to exercise some demons that have been hovering over their franchise. The Bengals have made the playoffs in each of the last four seasons, but they have still failed to win a postseason game since January 1991. And you have to wonder if this is the year where everything will come together for the Bengals.

The fast start in 2015 for the Bengals can be attributed to the fact that they have taken care of their business by defeating the teams that they are supposed to beat. Of the eight opponents that the Bengals have faced so far, only the Pittsburgh Steelers currently have a winning record and in year’s past, Cincinnati has played down to the level of their opponents as opposed to dictating the pace. But with that the Bengals have still shown character as they trailed the Baltimore Ravens, Seattle Seahawks, and Steelers in the fourth quarter before putting it altogether in the name of getting the victory.

Andy Dalton

The quarterback position is the most important one on the football team and the Bengals are no different than any other squad. In five years as the Bengals starting quarterback, Andy Dalton has seen his fair share of ups and downs. Dalton was the Bengals second round selection in 2011 and he has been the team’s starting quarterback ever since his first day in Cincinnati. Dalton has helped the Bengals reach the postseason in each of his years in Cincy, but he has taken the brunt of the team’s criticism. Dalton’s popularity reached an all-time low this past July when he was booed by fans during a celebrity softball game in Cincinnati. Dalton isn’t a bad quarterback, but in the past he has played “hero ball” where he attempts to do too much by himself. And when Dalton plays like that, it is not beneficial to neither he nor the Bengals due to the fact that this is not a team that solely relies on one player carrying the team.

And whereas Dalton has forced the football in the past as he attempted to make plays where there wasn’t a play to be made, he isn’t doing too much of that in 2015 as the results have shown in the Bengals record. Coming into this season Dalton had thrown 66 career interceptions, but so far in 2015, he has only thrown 4 while he is enjoying a career-high in his completion percentage (67.4).

A big reason why Dalton is having a better season is that he is in his second year with Hue Jackson as the Bengals offensive coordinator. And with Jackson calling the plays, he has relied on the strengths of all of skill players. The City of Cincinnati has not had an NBA franchise since 1972 when the Cincinnati Royals left town, but what the folks in the Queen City are currently seeing from the Bengals offense is Dalton orchestrating in the mode of a basketball point guard as his job is to simply get the football to the talented play makers that are around him.

The Bengals have the ninth best offense in the National Football League as Jackson and head coach Marvin Lewis have preached balance. Running backs Giovanni Bernard and Jeremy Hill have split the carries which should result in both backs being fresh coming down the stretch of the regular season and into the playoffs. The same can be said about the Bengals passing game as five players have at least 20 receptions this season. But the Bengals still have the luxury of having one of the best wide receivers in the NFL in A.J. Green. This year Green is healthy and he’s one pace for one the best season’s as a receiver in Bengals franchise history.

But you cannot overlook the solid play of the Bengals offensive line this season at it has been the backbone for their success. Dalton has only been sacked 11 times this year and the law firm of offensive tackles Andrew Whitworth, and Andre Smith, guards Kevin Zeitler and Clint Boling, along with center Russell Bodine have been a no-named unit all season long, but the strength of any good offensive team begins with the play of their line.

Marvin Lewis

Before becoming the Bengals head coach in 2003, Lewis made his reputation in the National Football League as a defensive coordinator which included him helping the Ravens win Super Bowl 35 in January 2001. And what Lewis has done with the Bengals is to build depth at every position. Defensively the Bengals are currently ranked 11th in the NFL in total defense and they possess talent at every level which ranges from the likes of defensive end Carlos Dunlap, middle linebacker Vincent Rey, and free safety Reggie Nelson who leads the team in interceptions this season with 3.

But what the Bengals currently have in each faze of the game is something that they’ve lacked for a very long time which is discipline. During the 2000’s, the Bengals became the laughing stock of the National Football League as some players consistently found themselves on the wrong side of the law. Sadly the Bengals off-the-field issues resulted in NFL commissioner Roger Goodell paying them a visit as he looked for them to put an end to their issues and become more responsible. And that irresponsibility showed up on the field for the Bengals as they would consistently come apart in key situations. However the current Bengals are truly a team as there isn’t a player on this team in 2015 that is attempting to put himself ahead of the team which is resulting in a better team. And just as the Bengals have become a more disciplined team off of the field, they have done the same on it as they aren’t getting as many penalties while the players are simply doing what is asked of them which is not to play “hero ball”.

Heading into Week 10, the Bengals find themselves up four games in the loss column on the Steelers. And with Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger expected to miss a few weeks after suffering a foot injury this past Sunday against the Oakland Raiders, Pittsburgh doesn’t have a good shot to catch the Bengals for first place in the AFC North. The Bengals should win the AFC North in 2015, but they need to adjust their mindset to more than just reaching the playoffs. The Bengals are tied with the New England Patriots for the best record in the AFC as each team is undefeated while they are one game up on the Denver Broncos which is vital if Cincinnati will be able to get a first-round bye. Securing the top seed is important for the Bengals due to the fact that in each of their AFC Championship seasons, they had the best record in the conference as the road to the Super Bowl went through Cincinnati.

What the Bengals must attempt to do now is avoid the second-half swoons that have undone them lately as this is the only way for them to shed their reputation of not being able to get it done in the months of December and January when the chips are pushed to the middle of the table while the entire football world is watching.

Of the Bengals remaining eight regular season contests, they will only meet three teams that currently have winning records, but that doesn’t mean that things will be easy. In Week 12, the Bengals will face the St. Louis Rams who arguably have the most physical team in the National Football League which will be followed by road trip to Northern Ohio to meet the Cleveland Browns as there is no love lost between these two organizations. But the Bengals ultimate test will come in Week 16 when they travel to meet the Broncos in a game that could decide home-field advantage in the AFC. The Bengals control their own destiny and along with it, an opportunity to exercise some demons: it’s just a matter of whether or not that they’ll be up for the challenge.

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2015 AFC North Projections

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X-Baltimore Ravens 11-5

After failing to make the National Football League Playoffs in 2013, the Baltimore Ravens were able to bounce back and make the postseason in 2014. And in the playoffs, the Ravens were oh so close to defeating the eventual Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots in the AFC Divisional Playoffs. Now as the Ravens are preparing to embark on the 2015 NFL season, they are ready to put the tough loss to the Patriots last January behind them.

Joe Flacco

Joe Flacco is set to begin his eighth season as the Ravens starting quarterback. Flacco is the most prolific quarterback in Ravens franchise history and he has a career record of 72-40. But 2015 will mark Flacco’s fourth different offensive coordinator since 2012. Marc Trestman spent the past two years as the head coach of the Chicago Bears and he is now the Ravens offensive coordinator as it will be important for Trestman and Flacco to develop some early chemistry for the sake of the Ravens offense.

Running back Justin Forsett has been a journeyman for his entire NFL career, but he was able to find a home with the Ravens last season as he rushed for 1,266 yards along with 8 rushing touchdowns. And in 2015, Forsett is out to show that he isn’t merely a flash in the pan as far as the ability for him to be a featured running back.

Steve Smith Sr.

Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith Sr., is set to begin his 15th National Football League season and the same hunger that fueled him in 2001 when he first broke into the league with the Carolina Panthers is still in place for the future Pro Football Hall of Famer. Smith is now in his second season with the Ravens and he is out to prove that he can still get it done at a very high rate. The Ravens are high on their first round pick in wide receiver Breshad Perriman who is a big, physical wide player that is expected to do big things this fall in Baltimore. Perriman enters the NFL as the son of a former player as his father Brett was in the league for ten years; most notably with the Detroit Lions. Along with Perriman, the Ravens are hopeful that their second round pick Maxx Williams can come in and be an immediate contributor. The Ravens have a long history of quality tight end play and it doesn’t hurt themthat the team’s general manager Ozzie Newsome is a Hall of Fame tight end himself as Williams can get advice from him while looking to keep that tradition going. And like Perriman, Williams is also the son of a former NFL player as his father Brian played for the New York Giants.

The Ravens offensive line does not receive a ton of credit, but the law firm of offensive tackles Eugene Monroe and Jah Reid along with guards Marshal Yanda and John Urschel with center Jeremy Zuttah have been together for a few seasons as it always important for an offensive line to have cohesion as the fate of the offense begins with them.

Defense has always been the hallmark of the Ravens organization and you can once again expect some strong play on that side of the football this season in Baltimore. The Ravens were eighth in the National Football League last season in total defense, but they will have to find a way to replace five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata who was traded this off-season to the Detroit Lions. Under defensive coordinator Dean Pees, the Ravens continue to have one of the strongest linebacking units in pro football with the likes of outside linebackers Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, and Courtney Upshaw, along with inside backers Arthur Brown and Daryl Smith.

The Ravens secondary has the potential to be one of the best secondaries in the National Football League this season. Strong safety Will Hill has potential, but the Ravens will miss the presence of strong safety Matt Elam who suffered a biceps injury at the beginning of training camp. But even without Elam’s presence in the Ravens secondary, cornerbacks Lardarius Webb and Kyle Arrington possess underrated coverage skills.

For Ravens head coach John Harbaugh, he has a team that can contend for the Super Bowl Title. And like every other team in the National Football League, the Ravens must avoid the injury bug as they’re already a man down with Elam. Five of the Ravens first seven games this season will be on the road as they’ll tango with the Denver Broncos, Oakland Raiders, Pittsburgh Steelers, San Francisco 49ers, and Arizona Cardinals, but come January they should be their typical battle tested selves.

Y-Cincinnati Bengals 10-6

The Cincinnati Bengals have proven that they can win in the regular season, but for this organization to gain some respect, they are going to have to find a way to win in January when all eyes are on them. The Bengals have made the postseason in five of the last six years and they have been eliminated in the first round each time with each defeat being more painful than the previous one.

Andy Dalton

The brunt of the last four playoff losses has been thrust onto Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton. Dalton has the Bengals starting quarterback for the last four seasons and he has a regular season record of 40-23-1. But when Dalton signed a six-year, $115 million contract extension last summer, he opened himself up to a ton of criticism being that he wasn’t able to get it done in January when all eyes were on him. At 6’2″, 215 lbs., Dalton has good size for a National Football League quarterback along with speed and a strong throwing arm. Dalton has 99 career touchdown passes to 66 interceptions and he has a career completion percentage of 61.6, but he unfortunately he has built a reputation as far as not making the best football decisions when the chips are down which is tough to digest being that he has a ton of talent around him on offense.

Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green had made the Pro Bowl in each of his four NFL seasons and he is a matchup nightmare for cornerbacks due to his freakish athleticism while Cincinnati is stacked at the running back position with Jeremy Hill, Rex Burkhead, and Giovani Bernard. The Bengals used their second round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft this past spring on offensive tackle Jake Fisher and in the process they put veteran offensive tackles Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith on notice about their demand for contract extensions.

After longtime defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer left last year to become the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings, the Bengals took a steps backwards last season as they finished 22nd in the National Football League in total defense. Paul Guenther is entering his second season as the Bengals defensive coordinator and Cincinnati has to put more emphasis on getting to the quarterback this season as they only has 20 quarterback sacks in 2014. But led by defensive ends Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap, the Bengals have the personnel to get it done.

The Bengals have been able to hold their own in the AFC North against both the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens in recent years. But for Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, it comes down to whether or not that his team can finally win a playoff game. Three of the Bengals first four games this season are against teams that didn’t make the playoffs in 2014 and a fast start could be just what the doctor ordered for them.

Pittsburgh Steelers 9-7

Last year the Pittsburgh Steelers were able to win their first AFC North Title since 2010, but their trip to the postseason was short lived due to a injury that was sustained by running back Le’Veon Bell in the final game of the regular season. And as the Steelers are set to embark on another National Football League season, they are a team that will be in transition.

In 2015, the Steelers defense won’t resemble the unit that the folks in Western Pennsylvania have been accustomed to. Longtime defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has left the Steelers and he is now the defensive coordinator of the Tennessee Titans. Cornerback Ike Taylor along with strong safety Troy Polamalu have decided to retire and their leadership will be difficult for the Steelers to replace. And now the Steelers will have a new face leading their defense.

Keith Butler has spent the last 12 years as a linebackers coach for the Cleveland Browns, but know it will be his turn to run the Steelers famed 3-4 defense. The Steelers used their first round pick on outside linebacker Bud Dupree as they are searching to beef up their pass rush. The Steelers were 26th in the National Football League in sacks last season with 33 which is something that is very uncommon for them given their long and storied defensive history. The Steelers are hopeful that Dupree will have a short learning curve and they also need outside linebacker Jarvis Jones to step up and be the impact player that they expected him to be when they made him a first-round pick in 2012. The Steelers will be inexperienced at the cornerback position, but they’ll rely on strong safety William Gay and free safety Mike Mitchell to provide some veteran leadership in the secondary.

Ben Roethlisberger

But when all else fails, the Steelers still have quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. In 11 seasons as the Steelers starting quarterback, Roethlisberger has a career record of 106-52 and he only needs a pair of victories to surpass Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw for the most wins by a starting quarterback in franchise history. Bell is still important to the Steelers offense, but they will be without his services for the first three games of the season as he has been suspended by the NFL stemming from an arrest last year which will hurt the offense as he is a strong runner and receiver out of the backfield.  “Big Ben” still has wide receiver Antonio Brown who is one of the most explosive players in the NFL and Steelers wide receiver Martavis Bryant could be ready to be a breakout performer in 2015.

The Steelers have a veteran offensive line that is led by center Maurkice Pouncey. And if this unit is able to remain healthy, they could be the best offensive line in the National Football League.

The suspension of Bell along with the departure of LeBeau, Polamalu, and Taylor could be too much for the Steelers to overcome as they look to win the AFC North for consecutive seasons.

Cleveland Browns 3-13

Last year saw the Cleveland Browns show signs of life, but at the end of the day they still recorded their seventh consecutive losing season. The one thing going for the Browns as they are set to embark on the 2015 National Football League season is that they have decided to retain their general manager and head coach which hasn’t been the case there. Ray Farmer is entering his second season as Browns general manager and Mike Pettine as well as the head coach in Cleveland which is shocking with the recent revolving door there.

And as far as revolving doors go with the Browns, they have used 22 different starting quarterbacks since they re-entered the National Football League in 1999. The Browns used a first round pick on quarterback Johnny Manziel in 2014 and even though that the organization is hopeful that “Johnny Football” can be the franchise quarterback in Cleveland, he still has a ton of growing up to do. Manziel entered a rehabilitation facility this off-season in the effort to kick his addiction to alcohol and he must also gain the trust of his teammates as some still view him as immature. The Browns allowed quarterback Brian Hoyer to leave as a free agent, but if Manziel isn’t ready to be the full-time starter, Cleveland will look to Josh McCown to be their quarterback. The McCown name has to be familiar to the folks in Cleveland as Josh’s brother Luke was a quarterback with the Browns in 2004.

With a young quarterback in Manziel who will be trying to get his footing, the Browns will need to find a way to run the football as they were 23rd in the NFL last season in rushing which will be tough being that their leader rusher was running back Terrance West with just 673 yards in 2014.

With center Alex Mack and offensive tackle Joe Thomas, the Browns still possess on the best offensive lines in the National Football League, but their stellar play is unable to mask the problems that Cleveland continuously has had at the offensive skill positions.

Defensively the Browns will be on the field a ton this season being that their offense lacks explosiveness and they’ll only get worn down as the season goes along.

The Browns have new uniforms this season, but at the end of the day, it’s the same old team which means another losing campaign in Cleveland.

X-Clinched Division

Y-Clinched Wild Card

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The Bengals $115 Million Mistake

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In 2011, the Cincinnati Bengals were in need of a quarterback and in the second round of the National Football League Draft that year they selected quarterback Andy Dalton. In his rookie season Dalton threw for 3,398 yards to go along with 20 touchdown passes and 13 interceptions as he helped the Bengals reach the playoffs. The Bengals would fail to advance in the postseason, but they appeared to have a foundation to build off of with Dalton. With Dalton as their starting quarterback, the Bengals would once again qualify for the playoffs in 2012 as a wild card. But just like 2011, Cincinnati was unable to navigate past the Houston Texans in the first round. Last season the Bengals began the year with a record of 6-2 and the folks in Southern Ohio were thinking about the Super Bowl. Dalton passed for a career high in passing yards (4,293) to go along  with 33 touchdown passes and 20 interceptions. The Bengals won the AFC North for the first time since 2009, but the home-field advantage in the AFC Wild Card Round wasn’t a welcome sight for them as they lost to the San Diego Chargers 27-10. In the game Dalton had two costly interceptions along with a fumble. This past off-season Bengals owner/president Mike Brown signed Dalton to a six-year, $115 million extension as he believes in the man from TCU to be his franchise quarterback. But did Brown and the Bengals make the right move?

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Andy Dalton

Unlike most rookie quarterbacks that enter the NFL, Dalton came into a good situation. Dalton wasn’t a first round pick and thus he didn’t have a ton of pressure heaped on him. The Bengals play in one of the smaller markets in the National Football League and Dalton doesn’t have to endear a ton of media scrutiny. Also the Bengals team has been a talented bunch for him to work with. Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green is one of the best in the business as far as catching passes and he has been a huge security blanket for Dalton. In three-plus seasons with the Bengals, Green has 283 receptions for 4,214 and 32 touchdowns. Last season the Bengals had the 10th best offense in the NFL while this season they are currently 12th. The Bengals are currently 5-3-1 and they appear to be winning in spite of Dalton.

The Bengals began this season with a huge 23-16 road victory of their division rival in the Baltimore Ravens. In the game Dalton was 25-of-38 passing for 301 yards and a touchdown. The Bengals started the season with a record of 3-0 and they had a chance to make a statement coming off of their bye week in Week 5 on Sunday Night Football as they traveled to take on the New England Patriots who were trying to rebound from a blowout loss in their previous game. But it was Dalton and the Bengals that were blown out by the Patriots 43-17. In Week 6, the Bengals tied with the Carolina Panthers 37-37. Dalton did put the Bengals in position for the game-winning field goal that was missed by kicker Mike Nugent to end the game. But it was Dalton that threw a pair of costly interceptions in regulation when the Bengals were up and they were preparing to put the game out of reach which allowed the Panthers to get back into the game. In Week 7, the entire Bengals team did not show up as they were blown out by the Indianapolis Colts 27-0. In the game Dalton was 18-of-38 passing for 126 yards and no touchdowns. In the Bengals last four games Dalton has only thrown two touchdowns to just six interceptions. The bottom completely fell out for Dalton this past Thursday night versus the Cleveland Browns. Dalton had his worst game as a pro as he was just 10-of-33 passing for 86 yards with no touchdowns and three interceptions. The Bengals were steamrolled by the Browns at home 24-3 as a national television audience was able to see Dalton implode firsthand.

Dalton was paid as if he is an elite quarterback, but in three-plus seasons he has been unable to take his team or his game to the next level. Dalton has been without Green for the majority of the season who has been out with a lingering toe injury, but he just seems to be making the mistakes that you would expect a rookie to make. While in the pocket Dalton has not done a good job of ball protection while on his throws he is forcing the football too often. This season Dalton has 8 touchdown to 9 interceptions.

Unlike the past few seasons it is going to be tougher for the Bengals to get into the playoffs as every team in the AFC North currently has a winning record. More than ever Brown and Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis need Dalton to step up and be a leader and he isn’t doing it. The Bengals offense has been at its best this season when they have balance in their run and passing games; not when Dalton is taking it upon himself to play “hero” ball.

Dalton is 27-years of age and their is room for him to improve in order to become a consistent quarterback. At 6’2″, 215 lbs., there is not a throw that Dalton cannot make, but he needs to take a lesson from a pair of Super Bowl winning quarterbacks in the AFC North. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco and Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger have combined to win three Super Bowl Championships. Flacco and Roethlisberger have the ability to take their games to another level as they simply impose their will on their teammates which is what Dalton needs to do. Aside from not having Green, Dalton lost his offensive coordinator for the past three seasons in Jay Gruden who is the current head coach of the Washington Redskins. But when you’re paid as handsomely as Dalton was it is time to show us what you can do and lead the orange and black to bigger and better things.

After being demolished by the Browns, Dalton and the Bengals are set to embark on the remainder of their schedule which could see them miss the playoffs for the first time since 2010. The final seven games of the season begin with three straight road games. Next Sunday the Bengals will travel to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome where the New Orleans Saints are very tough to beat. After the Saints, the Bengals will travel to take on the Houston Texans who have an opportunistic defense. Those two games will be followed by a road game versus the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who in spite of their losing record are playing hard under head coach Lovie Smith and anything can happen. The final four games of the season will see the Bengals have their rematch with the Browns and a home game against the defending AFC Champions in the Denver Broncos which will be sandwiched between two games with the Steelers. If ever there was a time for Dalton to assert himself and show that he is the $115 million man it is right now.

Source: Pro-football-reference.com

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