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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Y-Clinched Wild Card