by Matt Cassista
I bet you’re all shocked the SoulSista got dibs on the AFC North preview. Well you’re all in for a real treat…I got plenty to say about it. Hopefully you get some great incite to a division which has drawn an AWFUL lot of attention this offseason with Johnny, Ray Rice, and an ongoing frustration Big Ben has been having with his contract issues. Even more so, I bet I could slide a fantasy football tid-bit in here for you to enjoy.
I’ll start with what appears to be the least talked about team in this division and that’s the Cincinnati Bengals. Despite an inept performance in the playoffs again last year, the Bengals are still the team to beat in this division. They still have a top-3 WR who shows no signs of letting off the gas, a QB (although I did hint last week, is in a “Make-or-Break Season”) that still can throw with the best of them. Dalton may not be as flashy as your Mannings, Brady, Rodgers, etc but his numbers are surprisingly on par with a lot of them. Last year he threw for nearly 4300 yards, had a QBR of 88.8 and that was in large part to the 33 TD passes he had (he added 2 on the ground as well.) The “Red Rifle” may have something to prove this year as to avoid being lumped in with the Romo discussions for playoff appearance, but you can rest assure that bidding a meltdown, Dalton will lead his offense to another division title….and that stout D will make sure it’s a done deal. They do have some heavy hitting opponents this year though so it will not be an easy run for them. They have NE in Week 5, CAR in Week 6, IND in week 7, NO Week 11, and DEN Week 16. The good news for the Bengals is with so many question marks with their divisional opponents…maybe a 9-7, 10-6 record will be enough to get into the second season.
Big Ben may be known to extend the plays and swat off defenders, but he’s going into his 11th season and if he’s looking to get another 4-5 year deal out of the Steelers, it’s crucial he minimizes those chances this year.
Next on the agenda is the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers yet again had a very anti-climactic offseason as for trades, free agency, and the draft is concerned. They gave a one-way plane ticket to Emmanuel Sanders for DEN and they managed to tick off their franchise quarterback with this whole contract dispute. I get your philosophy may be to play your contract out and then we’ll give you another deal…but you should take notice when a man looks at his fingers and sees two Super Bowl Rings on it and looks to you and says “We can make an exception right?” I’ll take a moment to give Todd Hailey his dues, despite butting heads with Big Ben last year, he came up with a playbook that gave his QB more opportunities to throw the ball while taking less hits in the process. Big Ben may be known to extend the plays and swat off defenders, but he’s going into his 11th season and if he’s looking to get another 4-5 year deal out of the Steelers, it’s crucial he minimizes those chances this year. This is big for Ben, he’s publicly came out and said he wouldn’t play for another team, so despite my personal hatred for the individual, expect some magic from him this year to prove he worth more dollars and more years. It works to his advantage he could have the best running back in the division as well in Le’Veon Bell. That man can dance and if he plays all 16 games this year, expect some top-10 rushing numbers out of him. I’ll leave it at that though for the Steelers. I’m too fearful to say if the 0-6 start of last year is the true Steelers team of now, or the 8-2 team that finished the year.
Next, my Baltimore Ravens. Coming off a disappointing season where all they had to do was win 1 of their last two games to make it into the playoffs. This year they are circling a lot of question marks again. Ray Rice missing two games this season is a big deal, he may have had a rough season last year but with a healthy offensive line this year and a better attempt at the vertical game that Harbough wanted in the first place should free some space for Rice and let him go back to his all-star form of a few seasons ago. It’s nice to see Owen Daniels scooped up in the offseason because Flacco loves his TE check downs and adding another sturdy one next to Pitta should only help Flacco’s completion percentage which usually floats in the toilet somewhere. To Flacco’s credit, he has a significantly higher ratio of downfield passes then the rest of the QB’s in the NFL and thanks to some motivational help from myself (see @BLFCsports tweet where I suggest Steve Smith to the Ravens and hour before they sign him.) You can expect Flacco to be up in arms throwing bombs downfield to “The Law Firm of Smith & Smith Associates.” What I can be most excited about for the Ravens this year is their first round draft pick CJ Mosley. This is a big deal because the need for an inside linebacker was there last season for the Ravens and not only did you get one, you got an “NFL ready” one. Stacking him up with Suggs and Dumervil should create a lot more sacks then people will think. It’s too bad that Aaron Ross went down for the season too already, he’s no playmaker but he too would have been a nice compliment to Matt Elam on the back end of the defense. I see the team getting statistically better but I’m not sure yet if their record will reflect it. Another 8-8 season could be in their future.
Lastly, it was only deserving I slot the Browns last in this run down because of all the media attention they have gotten this offseason. I won’t dwell tooooo much on the Manziel pick because I am sure you are just as fed up with that scene as I am. Here’s what I will say about that team. Their defense behind Joe Haden and company is already a playoff caliber defense. Their off-season pick-ups of veterans Dansby and Whitner will make offense for their opponents much harder than it needs to be. The Browns only real issue is their offense. The one that only has one wide receiver in Josh Gordon and chose not to draft one…and then lost Josh Gordon. Now I will say their offseason pick-ups of Miles Austin and Nate Burleson to compliment Jordan Cameron actually is a solid enough core of wide receivers. There are no playmakers there, but there are catches to be had. This “open” QB competition appears more and more lopsided by the minute in favor of Hoyer. It is a shame too, I understand the Browns aim to put Johnny Football in his place but knee-capping him I don’t think is the way to go about it. Ask Rex Ryan how that worked out for him with Tim Tebow. (For no reason am I comparing Manziel’s talent to Tebow’s…just alluding to the same scenario that appears to be playing out here.) Manziel is going to get his time, and I got a feeling his MO is going to be a 350yds-3TD-2INT stat line. Something to get excited about if you are a Browns fan. I hope Hoyer the Destroyer plays this team to a few wins but if he starts getting shelled and they start calling for Manziel, everyone will come out a loser in that scenario. Know this, in the last 4 college seasons; the highest Total QBR belongs to Bradford in ’10, Luck in ’11, Wilson in ’12, and Manziel in ’13. Wilson has a Super Bowl Ring, Luck has a playoff win under his belt, and Bradford was coming off his best career performance till his injury last year. A much improved Browns team this year still fall short however of playoff hopes and finishes with a 7-9 record.