Carnage predicted for the AFC North.. again!
Having covered the National Football Conference, we now turn our focus to preview the American Football Conference and each of the teams within its four divisions.
The old AFC Central, these teams love to stop the run and are extremely physical at the line of scrimmage. The Steelers and Ravens used to fight it out for the division title annually, but Cincinnati has taken their blueprint and ran with it.
Always an incredibly tricky division to call, one thing’s certain; the 2014/15 AFC North will be a dogfight!
In 2013, the Bengals were primed to make a deep run into a weak AFC playoff field and then suffered a meltdown at home against San Diego to end their season. In that game, Cincinnati moved the ball well for most of the game but couldn’t overcome quarterback Andy Dalton’s three interceptions, most of which were on ill-advised passes.
Seems like the Bengals brain trust got the message; out with pass-happy play caller Jay Gruden, and in with running game guru offensive coordinator Hue Jackson.
In 2014, the Bengals will be without receiver Marvin Jones for a few games, who scored ten touchdowns in 2013, finally giving the team a reliable target opposite A.J. Green. It may not matter as much as the Bengals seem intent on giving backs Giovani Bernard and rookie banger Jeremy Hill upwards of 200 carries each, to form a lightning and thunder combo.
The Bengals look to throw 150 fewer times than they did last year. They are also two deep at tight end with Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert manning the position. The offensive line doesn’t have any real holes, either.
The defense will miss their coordinator Mike Zimmer, who now coaches the Vikings, but still remain the most talented defense in the division right now. Defensive lineman Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap could combine for 17-18 sacks and Margus Hunt could step into Michael Johnson’s shoes without missing a beat. Running the ball will not be fun against the Bengals.
At linebacker Vontaze Burflict was a revelation and new rookie cornerback Darqueze Dennard will team up with Terence Newman and a returning-from-injury Leon Hall. That’s quite the threesome at corner.
Overall: The Bengals are the class of this division, defensively they are loaded, and Jackson’s play calling could get Dalton doing right by the fans in Cincinnati. Eleven wins is certainly plausible.
The BetBright Verdict
10-6 (1st in the AFC North) – We have them priced as fourth favourites in the betting for the AFC conference at 11/1.
Bengals’ opening game: Cincinnati Bengals vs Baltimore Ravens at 6pm on Sunday September 7th at M&T Bank Stadium.
The Steelers are a team that is probably in decline, yet finished the season 6-2 after a sluggish start. They experienced growing pains in 2013, but have reloaded adding key pieces in the draft and free agency and look poised to put together another division run in 2014.
On offense, the Steelers are caught in Todd Haley’s sometimes schizophrenic offense, switching from ground and pound to having Big Ben throw 40 times a game. In 2013, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger put up one of the quietest 4,261 yard seasons in history and Le’Veon Bell adding a spark on the ground.
They’ve added LeGarrette Blount as an interesting change of pace back, and are ready to see major improvement from wide receiver Markus Wheaton, replacing the departed Emmanuel Sanders. Wide receiver Antonio Brown will be Big Ben’s go-to guy in key situations and no receiver is more dangerous after the catch.
Tight end Heath Miller will need to catch some passes in the end zone, as Pittsburgh struggles in that area. A healthy offensive line with David DeCastro is a huge boon to the offense.
On defense, Pittsburgh got caught unawares for big plays several times in 2013. They welcomed in draft picks and free agents; safety Mike Mitchell, linebacker Ryan Shazier and defensive end Stephon Tuitt all have shown great flashes of talent in the preseason.
The Steelers cornerbacks were a big let-down last year and Ike Taylor and Brice McCain may not be able to stop great receivers without help. Good thing Cleveland’s Josh Gordon is out for the year.
Overall: Compared to their divisional foes, Pittsburgh has a good mix of veteran stalwarts with young talent. An AFC North title seems doable, providing they keep the lid closed on big plays allowed on defense.
The BetBright Verdict 9-7 (2nd in the AFC North) – We have them priced as fifth favourites in the betting for the NFC conference at 12/1.
Steelers’ opening game: Pittsburgh Steelers vs Cleveland Browns at 6pm on Sunday September 7th at Heinz Field.
After winning a Super Bowl two years ago, the Ravens showed quite the hangover in 2013, with a less-than inspiring offense and a creaky defense.
Baltimore, never one to stand-pat, went out and hired former Texans coach Gary Kubiak as their offensive coordinator. He’s a great fit for the talent on the roster, as we’ve seen what we can do with some talent in Houston.
In 2013, the Ravens offense was particularly hard to watch. The wheels fell off on Joe Flacco-his 2013 quarterback rating was 73.1 easily a career-low. Running backs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce found wave after wave of defenders in their face as soon as they got the handoff; Flacco was sacked nearly 50 times and no one besides Torrey Smith made much of a pass-receiving impact.
In 2014, the offensive line was remade into what they hope will be a productive zone-blocking machine for Pierce and Rice. The Ravens in their heyday always pounded the rock on the ground, as Flacco is not built for throwing 50 times a contest. If tight end Dennis Pitta and new receiver Steve Smith can return to 2012 form the Ravens could run away with the division.
The Ravens defense has never allowed opposing ball carriers to average 4.0 yard per carry or better season-long ever since moving to Baltimore. They’ve actually improved their defensive ranking in 2013 from 2012 and collected more sacks–but that wasn’t the perception.
With such an abysmal offense, the Ravens defense was on the field far longer exposing their young rookies, such as safety Matt Elam.
If Ladarius Webb and Jimmy Smith get hurt, there isn’t great depth at the corner position, not good in a division with A.J Green and Antonio Brown. Rookie C.J. Mosley has been as good as advertised.
Overall: No one would be surprised if Kubiak gets the Baltimore offense straightened out and the defense plays Ravens defense. But will Flacco rebound?
The BetBright Verdict
8-8 (3rd in the AFC North) – We have them priced as sixth favourites in the betting for the AFC conference at 13/1.
Ravens’ opening game: Cincinnati Bengals vs Baltimore Ravens at 6pm on Sunday September 7th at M&T Bank Stadium.
Ah, the Browns. The epicenter of football for a month during the preseason was rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel as he had the universe’s attention.
Now back to reality; Josh Gordon is suspended for the entire year and Brian Hoyer is the starting quarterback–with Miles Austin the Browns’ presumptive number one receiver. The Browns saw glimpse of Hoyer’s ability in 2013 when he was 3-0 as a starter, and that is cause for optimism in Cleveland; there’s a new coach in Mike Pettine and a new running back in Ben Tate.
In 2013, the Browns actually started the season 3-2 before going into freefall. Their defense couldn’t get off the field and the offense couldn’t stay on it.
In 2014, the Browns added a rookie cornerback in Justin Gilbert to team up with Joe Haden and they also signed Ben Tate from the Texans to employ in a new zone blocking scheme.
On offense, now suspended Josh Gordon led the NFL in receiving yards and tight end Jordan Cameron was a revelation. The Browns hadn’t had that type of receiving duo since the 1980s. Now only Cameron will suit up this year, joining a good offensive line and the first legitimate running back since Jamal Lewis retired.
The wide receivers aren’t going to scare anyone, but Andrew Hawkins is a dark horse to be a T.Y. Hilton-type player in the slot.
On defense, the Browns were solid against the pass and okay against the run and still gave up points in bunches. They added linebacker Karlos Dansby, who has wealth of experience wreaking havoc in a 3-4 scheme. They possess an intriguing collection of pass rushers in Barkevious Mingo, Paul Kruger and Jabaal Sheard, and they added Donte Whitner to solidify the strong safety position. There is certainly talent here.
Overall: The Browns could be the NFL’s best bad team; they should present problems for divisional foes but won’t threaten for AFC North title just yet. If Hoyer could somehow make chicken soup…
The BetBright Verdict
5-11 (4th in the AFC North) – We have them priced as eleventh favourites in the betting for the AFC conference at 30/1.
Browns’ opening game: Pittsburgh Steelers vs Cleveland Browns at 6pm on Sunday September 7th at Heinz Field.
Coverage of the AFC South is up next, with another four teams previewed ahead of this season’s NFL action.