X-Pittsburgh Steelers 12-4
When you think of the history of the National Football League, you can’t go that long without recognizing the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers have been an NFL franchise since 1933, and since 1972, Pittsburgh has only had seven losing seasons which is remarkable. Some other outstanding traits that are displayed by the Steelers organization is that they preach patience and consistency with their head coaches as they’ve only employed three head coaches since 1969, which is a far cry from the majority of the other franchises around the NFL where there is constant turn over at the head coaching position. Mike Tomlin set to begin his 10th year as the Steelers head coach, and like his two predecessors in Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher, he has led Pittsburgh to at least one Super Bowl Championship. The last two years have seen Tomlin get the Steelers to the playoffs, but he has a team in 2016 that is more than capable of adding a seventh Vince Lombardi Trophy as Super Bowl Champions to the display case in Western Pennsylvania.
As long as the Steelers can keep quarterback Ben Roethlisberger healthy, they have a legitimate shot of winning it all. Roethlisberger has been the Steelers starting quarterback since 2004, and all he has done is win while displaying a toughness that the folks in Western Pennsylvania can relate to. At the age of 34, Roethlisberger isn’t showing any signs of slowing down while he still can throw one of the best deep balls in the National Football League. Last year with Roethlisberger at the helm, the Steelers had the third ranked offense in the NFL, and you can expect more of the same in 2016.
Very rapidly Antonio Brown has become one of the better wide receivers in football. In the last three years Brown has gained nearly 5,000 yards of receiving yards and he has become Roethlisberger’s most dependable target in the process. The Steelers will miss the contributions of wide receiver Martavis Bryant who will have to sit out the entire 2016 National Football League season after a failed drug test, and tight end Heat Miler who retired after spending his entire 11-year career in Pittsburgh. But the Steelers are hopeful that wide receivers Sammie Coates, Markus Wheaton and Darius Heyward-Bay can step up to make contributions in the passing game to offset the losses of Bryant and Miller.
The Steelers are also hopeful to have a healthy pair of running backs in Le’Veon Bell and De’Angelo Williams. Last year injuries limited Bell to just six games and he’ll miss the first three games of 2016 after being suspended by the National Football League due to the fact that he missed a drug test. But the Steelers need the combo of Williams and Bell in the backfield as each are solid at picking up the blitz for Roethlisberger, while also having the knack to be receivers in the passing game.
The Steelers should once again have one of the better offensive lines in the business as long as center Maurkice Pouncey and guard David DeCastro can remain healthy as this unit has a high level of physicality attached to them.
As the Steelers defense is set to begin its second year under defensive coordinator Keith Butler, you can expect the term “Blitzburgh” to once again be used to describe this unit. Last year the Steelers amassed 48 sacks which was third in the National Football League, and with the likes of inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons and veteran outside linebacker James Harrison back on the scene, Pittsburgh is ready to show that they are still the bullies of the AFC North.
As a rookie in 2015, outside linebacker Bud Dupree totaled 4 sacks, but if he is able to become the pass rusher that the Steelers envisioned when they drafted him, their defense could become very stingy. Rookie inside linebacker Tyler Matakevich was the Steelers seventh-round pick this year and after being an All-American last year at Temple, his strong work ethic and determination will be a welcomed sight to Pittsburgh’s blue-collar work ethic.
On the Steelers defensive line, defensive end Cam Heyward is turning into a star and fellow defensive end Stephon Tuitt is no slouch either as ability to rush the passer and stop the run opens up Pittsburgh’s linebackers to make more plays.
The Steelers have a chance to make a statement in Week 2 when they host the Cincinnati Bengals as there is no love lost between these two AFC North rivals; especially after last season’s wild card game which was won by Pittsburgh. Overall four of the Steelers first five games in 2016 are against teams that finished last season with winning records. But the Steelers chances to win the AFC North will come down to their final three games of the season as they’ll face the Bengals, Baltimore Ravens, and Cleveland Browns in consecutive weeks.
Y-Cincinnati Bengals 11-5
The last five National Football League seasons have seen the Cincinnati Bengals reach the playoffs. But each time the Bengals have been unable to win a playoff game. Last year’s playoff loss for the Bengals stung more than the others as they had the Pittsburgh Steelers on the ropes until they came apart at the seams. A fumble by Bengals Jeremy Hill late in the contest gave the Steelers life. And when Pittsburgh got the ball back, Bengals outside linebacker Vontaze Burfict and cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones made sure that they did their part in helping the Steelers win. The Bengals began last season with a record of 8-0 as they finished the regular season with a record of 12-4 for their best mark since 1988 which marked their last trip to the Super Bowl. However as good as the Bengals were in 2015, what does head coach Marvin Lewis have up his sleeve to motivate this team to not only make the postseason for a sixth consecutive year, but to also win their first playoff game since January 1991?
In each of the last five years Andy Dalton has been the Bengals starting quarterback and he has a career record of 50-26-1. But Dalton’s career playoff record of 0-4 record, along with the fact that he typically comes up short when the Bengals need him the most have made him a lightning rod for controversy in the Queen City.
Last December, Dalton suffered a fractured thumb which put him on the shelf for the rest of the season as he is looking to get back on track here in 2016. But Dalton will miss the guidance of his former offensive coordinator Hue Jackson who is now the head coach of the Cleveland Browns as former quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese will be calling the plays in Cincinnati.
Behind a strong offensive line that features left tackle Andrew Whitworth, the Bengals have a solid running game with their tandem of running backs in Hill and Giovanni Bernard. And if Bernard and Hill can combined to get 400 carries this season, it should symbolize another trip to the postseason for the Bengals.
In the past I have talked about the need for Dalton to not play “hero ball” in order to help the Bengals win games. And although that wide receiver A.J. Green is one of the better wide receivers in the National Football League, Dalton shouldn’t try to force feed him the football, while another receiver such as tight end Tyler Eifert needs to step up and become a consistent option for Cincinnati in the passing game.
After the Bengals finished 2015 11th in total defense, there’s nothing that can stop them from being a top-five unit this season except themselves as they have a wealth of talent. The Bengals can rush the passer with defensive end Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson, while the interior of Cincinnati’s defensive line is stout with defensive tackles Geno Atkins, Domata Peko, and Pat Sims. There’s plenty of talent in the Bengals linebacking unit with Burfict, middle linebacker Rey Maualuga, and outside linebacker Vincent Rey, while picking up a veteran middle linebacker in Karlos Dansby could help the Bengals finally get over the hump and win a playoff game. In the secondary, the Bengals can cover with the likes of veteran cornerbacks Adam Jones and Kirkpatrick, but it just a matter of this unit staying focused under defensive coordinator Paul Guenther.
The schedule makers were not kind to the Bengals as they’ll begin the upcoming season with consecutive road games against the New York Jets and Steelers, while they will have their home opener against the Denver Broncos who are the defending Super Bowl Champions. And if the Bengals get off to a slow start, they will be fighting an uphill battle in the AFC North against the Steelers and Baltimore Ravens to win the division.
Y-Baltimore Ravens 10-6
You have to go back to the 2005 National Football League season to find the last time that the Baltimore Ravens missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons. Injuries derailed the Ravens chances in 2015 as they went 5-11. And for Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome and head coach John Harbaugh, they’ve been hard at work this off-season to get Baltimore back on track in the AFC North.
Last year marked the first time in the National Football League career of Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco that he missed time due to an injury. In Week 11, Flacco suffered a torn ACL which put him on the shelf for the remainder of the season. As the Ravens starting quarterback, Flacco has a career record of 75-47 while also sporting a 10-5 mark in the postseason which includes leading Baltimore to a Super Bowl Title. Flacco has been rehabbing from his knee injury, and the Ravens are going to need him to be fully healthy when they take the field in September.
Aside from Flacco, the Ravens must get more continuity from their rushing attack that was ranked 26th in the National Football League last season. Baltimore’s leading rusher in 2015 was veteran running back Justin Forsett with just 641 which isn’t going to get it done in the NFL; even though that the league is now very pass happy.
Injuries also hurt the Ravens offensive line last year as they were unable to provide protection for Flacco or open up holes in the running game. The Ravens would use the sixth overall pick of the 2016 National Football League Draft on offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley who has the potential to be an anchor on the offensive line for the coming years. The Ravens also have veterans on the line in the form of center Jeremy Zuttah and guard Marshal Yanda that will need to find cohesion early in order to provide blocking the skills players in Baltimore’s offense.
Last year was supposed to be wide receiver Steve Smith Sr.’s final hurrah in the National Football League. But after Smith suffered an Achilles injury which abruptly ended his campaign, he is back for one more go at it in 2016. Smith has been one of the better pass catchers of this era as he has the potential this season to become just the sixth player in National Football League history to record 15,000 receiving yards.
The Ravens were eighth in total defense in 2015, but the unit’s issues began in Week 1 when outside linebacker Terrell Suggs suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon which robbed Baltimore of their defensive leader. Suggs is back for the upcoming season, and the Ravens have picked up former San Diego Chargers free safety Eric Weddle, but will there be enough play makers on this side of the football to get Baltimore back to the post season?
In recent years punter Sam Koch and place kicker Justin Tucker have been vital to the Ravens success. Last year Koch had a net average of 42.9 as his kicks can change field position, while Tucker is one of the better field goal kickers from within 50 yards. And special teams will be a huge factor for the Ravens; especially when the temperature begins to drop in the months of November and December.
If the Ravens want to be a playoff team in 2016, they must take care of business in the first half of the season as only one of their first seven opponents made the playoffs last year. The Ravens last two games of the season will be on the road against the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals as Baltimore will have its work cut to make the playoffs in January.
Cleveland Browns 5-11
It’s the same old song for the Cleveland Browns as they are beginning another National Football League season with a term attached to the them which is “starting over”. Since the Browns returned to the NFL in 1999, they have had three different owners, eight general managers, nine head coaches, and they are working on their 25th different starting quarterback. Browns owner Jimmy Haslam didn’t help himself in his most recent front office hires as he hired a new team president in Paul DePodesta and general manager Sashi Brown. Neither man has a football background as DePodesta has worked in the front offices of Major League Baseball franchises, while Brown has a law background.
At least the Browns hired a football guy as their next head coach in former Oakland Raiders head coach Hue Jackson. In one season with the Raiders, Jackson posted a record of 8-8 as he was charged with changing the culture there. And that is exactly what Jackson is attempting to do with the Browns as they’ve only had two winning seasons since 1999.
As the Browns are coming off of a 3-13 season, the only way for them to go is up. The Browns resisted selecting a quarterback early on during the 2016 National Football League Draft and instead of drafting a quarterback early on in the proceedings, they instead decided to try their hand at a reclamation project.
Quarterback Robert Griffin III was the second overall pick of the 2012 National Football League Draft by the Washington Redskins and he took the league by storm. In 2012, Griffin became the NFL’s Rookie of the Year as he helped the Redskins win the NFC East. But a knee injury towards the end of the 2012 season, along with missing the entire training camp for the following campaign put Griffin behind the eight ball. And when Jay Gruden became the Redskins head coach last year, he never warmed up to Griffin being his starting quarterback which made him expendable. The Redskins would part ways with Griffin this off-season and he is looking to re-kindle some of the magic from 2012 now with the Browns.
Jackson has been known to develop quarterbacks and the main thing that Griffin needs to work on is his pocket awareness, but he will be a welcome sight in Cleveland after the Browns parted with another quarterback from the State of Texas this off-season in Johnny Manziel.
Last year the Browns were 25th in total offense in the National Football League and they are in need of more consistency. The Browns still have nine-time Pro Bowl offensive tackle in Joe Thomas anchoring their offensive line, but he is becoming disgruntled with the team’s inability to win. Longtime Browns center Alex Mack left this off-season to join the Atlanta Falcons and Cleveland is hopeful the center Cameron Erving who was a first-round choice of the team in 2015 is ready to fill the void.
With Jackson running the show in Cleveland, the team is in the process of a roster overhaul which means that there is a competition at nearly every position and somebody has to step up and become a play maker on offense.
The same can be said on defense where the Browns need to be more aggressive under first-year defensive coordinator Ray Horton. The Browns must find a way to put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks with their front seven as their 29 sacks in 2015 were 28th in the National Football League.
Jackson is attempting to change the culture for the Browns and he will spend 2016 simply weeding out the guys that don’t fit his system. But hopefully Jackson gets the chance to establish himself with the Browns as they don’t have patience with their head coaches.
Y-Clinched Wild Card