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AFC North preview

Another divisional preview from esteemed, shrewd and astute NFL tragic Ian Steven, @deevo82.

Keep an eye out for the remaining divisional previews in the lead-up to season kick-off next week!

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AFC North

Pittsburgh Steelers

You have got to love the AFC North. Smash mouth football, competitive teams and the promise of real outdoor football in December……and the Cleveland Browns.

The defending AFC North champions step back to the plate with one of the most potent offenses and a struggling defense in what is a complete juxtaposition in terms since Bill Cowher started coaching in Steel Town in the early 90s.

One thing that remains is a powerful running game with Le’Veon Bell finishing second for rushing yards. Bell completed reinvented himself after dropping a few pounds and noticeably became a lot shiftier when running.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger should really have benefitted from a good running game, allowing the star signal caller more time to find open receivers with defences honouring the run but the ankle injury to centre Maurkice Pouncey could put a kibosh to all of that. Pouncey as one of the best interior in the game and could be the difference between the Steelers repeating and not even making the playoffs.

In terms of weapon, Big Ben only really had Antonio Bryant as a reliable target since Martavis Bryant got himself suspended for substance abuse. Bryant led the league in receiving yards and receptions last season and got paid handsomely in the off season for it- let’s hope his hunger remains after being made a very rich man.

On defense, the biggest change was the “mutual agreement” for long-time co-ordinator Dick Le Beau to leaving the franchise. The Steelers have a lot of talent in Ryan Shazier and Lawrence Timmons but lack any real pressure off the edge, so much so that James Harrison remains on the roster despite being 37 and having already once retired from the NFL.

Perhaps the weakest link on the entire roster is the secondary which is a slight as there has been a glut of talented players such as Rod Woodson and Troy Polamalu that have worn the yellow and black but with quarterbacks like Joe Flacco and Andy Dalton in the division, they risk getting picked apart.

Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens look poised at making a run for the Steelers’ crown with a roster that is sprinkled with a dose of talent.

The big armed Joe Flacco returns once again at quarterback but finds himself bereft of his usual security blanket in Denis Pitta who finds himself on the PUP list.

Wide receiver Steve Smith returns for his 15th NFL season and has lost none of the chippiness that makes him a villain and hero in equal measures. The Ravens drafted Breshad Perriman from UCF to provide a complimentary receiver opposite from Smith but the rookie has a lingering knee issue and has missed important reps in the pre-season.

The big surprise for John Harbaugh’s men last season was the effectiveness of Justin Forsett at running back. The five-year journeyman was not expected to amount to much in replacement to the wife-beater Ray Rice but managed to grind out 1,266 yards behind a very buxom offensive line.

The main components of that line return in 2015 in Eugene Munroe, Marshal Yanda and Jeremy Zuttah so expect Forsett to have another productive year minus injury.

The defensive line has lost Haloti Ngata to Detroit in free agency. Timmy Jernigan has been brought in to replace Ngata and line up beside the gargantuan Brandon Williams.

The strength of the Baltimore defense is clearly their linebacking troops. CJ Mosely and Daryl Smith are a good duo of inside ‘backers whilst Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs provide a lot of pressure off the edge. Opposing quarterbacks will not be spare by this unit.

The secondary was struck a blow with safety Matt Elam ending up on IR. Veteran Will Hill should step up to join Kendrick Lewis, Jimmy Smith and Ladarius Webb in a slightly above average unit.

Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals were my pick to win the division last year and they did not fall too far short – half a game behind the Steelers due to a tied game (the concept laments Americans so much they can’t even use the universal word “draw”) and still good enough to earn a wildcard spot.

Not much has changed on the banks of the Ohio River. Head coach Marvin Lewis returns for his 12th season as head coach and should notch up game number 20 of his head coaching career in Week nine.

Andy Dalton is back under center, much to the chagrin of some of the Bengals faithful who view the former TCU gun slinger as nothing more than a game manager who chokes in the playoffs. Be that as it may, Dalton is consistent in the regular season and gives Mike Brown’s franchise a chance of winning.

The ace in Dalton’s arsenal (first time Arsenal and ace have been in the same sentence this year!) is AJ Green who is Megatron light. Green is such a talented receiver who can do everything and when fit, he dominate games. A key factor as the secondaries in the AFC North seem under par. Tyler Eifert makes a nice complementary target to Green from the tight end slot.

The running game with Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard are pretty decent, with Hill becoming the first rookie Bengals tailback to gain 1,000 yards since Corey Dillon in 1997. There should be a lot of holes opened up the in the ground came with Andrew Whitworth manning the left tackle slot again.

As much balance as there is on offense, the defense matches that in spades. Carlos Dunlap, Domata Peko, Geno Atkins and Michael Johnson are a slid front four with Vontaze Burfict the star in a solid linebacking corps.

The only real concern is at cornerback opposite the consistent Leon Hall. Dre Kirkpatrick has looked sketchy, forcing the Bengals to take Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard with their first pick in the draft.

Cleveland Browns

When you could make a case for punter Andy Lee being the best player on the Browns’ roster, you realised Ohio’s other franchise are in a bit of trouble. A 7-9 record actually flattered a side who started on a roll with Brian Hoyer firing on all cylinders before the quarterback succumbed to injury. Much touted rookie Johnny Manziel preferred partying to preparation and flopped badly, forcing Ray Farmer to bring in the more dependable Josh McCown.

Before the season had even begun, McCown had lost his best weapon, Josh Gordon, to yet another season long suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. Gordon has all the tools to be a top five receiver in the NFL but he clearly is a moron and can’t be depended upon.

The good news for the Browns is that have a very talented line that will keep McCown upright. Joe Thomas and Alex Mack are two of their best at their positions and should gibe McCown enough time to find free agent signing Dwayne Bowe.

Farmer got rid of the disappointing first round bust Phil Taylor and replaced him with another behemoth at nose tackle in rookie Danny Shelton who looks like he has the tools to be dominant at that position.

The jewel in the crown of the defense is the secondary who boast Travon Williams, Joe Haden, Donte Whitner and Tashaun Gipson and could well be one of the top units in the NFL.

Verdict

This is a tough one to call. You can count out the Browns straight away as they are a dysfunctional franchise. The Bengals have the most balanced roster and have the best chance of winning the division but one injury to a key player in this division and that is enough to knock you out of playoff contention. If you really feel compelled then you can 3.75 on the Bengals winning the division which is a long price with Stan James. I’d normally look at wagering that the Ravens and the Bengals can get into the playoffs but the AFC North has to face both the AFC West and the NFC West and that could be enough to dent their records so teams like the Texans, Chiefs, Chargers and Dolphins sneak in instead. Too close to call.

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