In 2015, the Cincinnati Bengals took the crown in the AFC North, even with quarterback Andy Dalton missing three games. The Bengals went 12-4 on the season, but unfortunately lost a brutal game to the rival Pittsburgh Steelers in the playoffs, 18-16. Aside from the Bengals and Steelers, the 2015 season was a brutal one for the other two teams in the division, as the Baltimore Ravens finished 5-11 and the Cleveland Browns went 3-13.
The question is, can either of those teams make up some ground and get back into the mix with the Steelers and Bengals in 2016? Let’s break down the division as a whole, and get into the preseason AFC North predictions, where we believe the Red Rocket and his Bengals will get the job done once again — but just barely. Here’s how we think the teams will rank at season’s end:
- Cincinnati Bengals
- Pittsburgh Steelers
- Baltimore Ravens
- Cleveland Browns
The good news? The Cincinnati Bengals have made the playoffs in five straight seasons (six of the last seven). The bad news? They’ve lost in the wild card round every single year. We’re on board with the Bengals finally breaking that streak in 2016, assuming they can stay healthy. Holding off the Steelers won’t be an easy task, but this is a team coming off their best regular season since 1988.
The Bengals’ offensive talent is on another level, and their defense allowed the second-fewest points-per-game in 2015, at 17.4. Teams will have trouble scoring on Cincinnati, and that offense will keep on rolling, led by Dalton, A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert, and two intriguing running backs in Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard.
The Steelers will once again make the playoffs, but they’ll finish right on the heels of the Bengals in the AFC North. This is a team that literally hasn’t fallen below the .500 mark a single time since Ben Roethlisberger took over at quarterback in 2004. They’ve hit the 8-8 mark three times, but aside from that, have finished with winning records in each season.
Roethlisberger is just a pure winner, and he has one of the best wide receivers in the entire NFL in Antonio Brown. Tack on a supremely talented running back in Le’Veon Bell, and it’s easy to see why the Steelers are such a dangerous group. While their defense does have a few question marks, they’re still more than talented enough to push the Bengals, make the playoffs, and of course, potentially make another Super Bowl run.
Was the 2015 season just a fluke year for the Ravens, or is it a sign that the tides may turn in the wrong direction for this team? After seven straight seasons of finishing .500 or better, while making the playoffs six times, the Ravens dropped to 5-11, and their defense struggled mightily; they allowed 25.1 points-per-game last season. Joe Flacco had a pretty rough year as well, throwing for just 2,791 yards in 10 games due to injuries, while tossing 14 touchdowns against 12 interceptions.
The injuries to both Flacco and veteran wide receiver Steve Smith obviously played a part, but will this healthy duo be enough to overcome defensive shortcomings? Baltimore needs to get things turned around, but the issue is that both the Bengals and Steelers look like the AFC North’s dominant forces. It’s feeling like another third-place finish for the Ravens in 2016.
Sorry, Cleveland fans. While the Johnny Manziel drama may be over, and the team is at least pointed in the right direction in some areas, the amazing turnaround won’t happen in 2016. Robert Griffin III may be able to show he’s still capable of being an NFL-caliber quarterback. We’ll even go as far as saying that the Browns can win more than three games next season. Unfortunately, we won’t go much further than that.
The playoff drought that dates back to the 2003 season will continue. Their defense allowed 27 points-per-game last season, while the offense averaged just a measly 17.4 points-per-game as well, which ranked them as the third-worst overall offensively and eighth-worst overall defensively. It’s a brutal spot, but at the very least, the Browns have some young talent who may help this team turn things around eventually.