The AFC North is no doubt an interesting division. For over a decade, the Pittsburgh Steelers have dominated, while the Baltimore Ravens have had their fair share of winning division titles and getting to the playoffs.
Then there are teams like the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns who can never seem to get out of the NFL’s mediocrity chamber, sometimes showing flashes, but not quite enough to win the division or even post a winning record.
Heading into 2018, the Pittsburgh Steelers will still dominate with the trio of Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, and Ben Roethlisberger, while the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals appear to once again be primed to have mediocre seasons. Meanwhile, the Cleveland Browns have made significant improvements and appear to at least be better on paper.
Below, you’ll find team-by-team previews for each AFC North franchise.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers
Best/worst potential record: 12-4/9-7
Playoff prediction: AFC Championship Game
Team MVP: Antonio Brown
Biggest Free Agent Acquisition: ILB Jon Bostic
Biggest Free Agent Loss: OT Chris Hubbard
Draft Grade: B
Best Draft Pick: WR James Washington, Oklahoma
It’s been nothing but dominance in the Steel City since Mike Tomlin took over as head coach in 2007. And now, heading into 2018, it’s fair to expect the same. The Steelers had an interesting offseason. Le’Veon Bell’s future still remains up in the air while Ben Roethlisberger’s eventual replacement was drafted in Mason Rudolph. And with Ryan Shazier not returning in 2018, the team signed Jonathan Bostic away from the Indianapolis Colts to solidify the linebacker position.
The draft was interesting for the Black and Gold. In the first-round, with the players such as Harold Landry, Nick Chubb, and Mike Hughes on the board, the Steelers opted to take Safety Terrell Edmunds, someone with a day two grade. Then on day two, the Steelers drafted a pair of rookies from Oklahoma State in wide receiver James Washington and quarterback Mason Rudolph. As solid as the Steelers draft class was, Kevin Colbert’s best move was drafting Washington and Rudolph. Both played college football at Oklahoma State University and a now a strong connection that was formed in Stillwater will eventually translate over into the NFL.
The regular season for this team will be no easy task. To prove that they are about as tough as anyone, the Steelers must show the ability to beat teams such as the Jaguars (Week Eleven), Patriots (Week Fifteen), and Saints (Week Sixteen) all three of whom are expected to be Super Bowl contenders going into the season. Last season, Pittsburgh had a chance to beat the Patriots and possibly secure the second seed in the AFC, but in what was a controversial final play against the Patriots, the Steelers blew any chance they had at homefield advantage.
While everyone will be distracted by the Le’Veon Bell situation over the next few months, expect Mike Tomlin to have his team ready. Last year, things were going great until the Ryan Shazier injury, but after a full offseason, Tomlin will have his team ready to go in what should be another successful 2018 campaign.
2. Cleveland Browns
Best/worst potential record: 8-8/5-11
Playoff prediction: None
Team MVP: Josh Gordon
Biggest Free Agent Acquisition: LB Mychal Kendricks
Biggest Free Agent Loss: Isaiah Crowell
Draft Grade: B
Best Draft Pick: QB Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma
Face it, no matter what you think the Cleveland Browns are on the rise. This offseason, new general manager John Dorsey used the team’s plethora of cap space and draft picks to speed up a rebuild that was once led by Sashi Brown. This offseason, it’s been clear what Dorsey’s vision has been: Get this franchise back to relevancy. And he’s done so with a number of trades, free agent signings, and draft picks. A young core consisting of guys like Myles Garrett, Denzel Ward, Emmanuel Ogbah, and Baker Mayfield is now in place, meaning the Browns finally have what it takes to compete. Now, the Browns have one of the most exciting young rosters in the league.
To kick things off, the Browns traded for Pro Bowl wide receiver Jarvis Landry, then being aggressive in free agency and signing guys like Carlos Hyde, Mychal Kendricks, and E.J. Gaines. Then in the NFL Draft, Dorsey stuck with what his gut told him and selected Baker Mayfield, one of the most accurate passers to come out of college over the last few years, while adding cornerback Denzel Ward, running back Nick Chubb, and speedy wide receiver Antonio Callaway.
However, it may be another year until we start seeing the Browns in the playoffs. In 2018, the Browns will play five teams (Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Atlanta, Kansas City, and Carolina) that made the playoffs in during the 2017-2018 NFL season. Then, they’ve got games against other competitive teams such as the Ravens, Chargers, Texans, and Broncos. Overall for this group, 2018 will be a year that is more about competing and learning to mature than it will be about winning games. Keep in mind that since Hue Jackson is still the head coach, many fans probably do not have high expectations, but nonetheless, there seems to be a positive vibe in Cleveland.
3. Cincinnati Bengals
Best/worst potential record: 10-6/6-10
Playoff prediction: None
Team MVP: A.J. Green
Biggest Free Agent Acquisition: LB Preston Brown
Biggest Free Agent Loss: RB Jeremy Hill
Draft Grade: C
Best Draft Pick: C Billy Price, Ohio State
The Cincinnati Bengals are an unpredictable team. Just three years removed from a 12-4 campaign, the Bengals have won a total of thirteen games over the last two years. Marvin Lewis is still the head coach, with the consistently inconsistent Andy Dalton leading the charge at quarterback. The arrow for this team appears to be pointing sideways.
It’s clear that this is a team that didn’t do much to improve this offseason. While the rest of the AFC North made significant moves in order to prepare for the future, Cincinnati stood pat and seemed to think that a team led by Andy Dalton and A.J. Green would be enough to get them to the playoffs. Inconsistent play is what tends to be the downfall of this team each year. With Lewis back for a sixteenth season, there’s no knowing what to expect. Either somehow this team shows flashes of the 2015 regular season campaign they had or they limp to the finish line being in the playoff hunt along the way only to fall short in the end.
The Bengals look primed for another mediocre season. Beginning in week three, they play three potential Super Bowl contenders (Carolina, Atlanta, and Pittsburgh), over a four-week period, with games against the Chiefs and Saints shortly before Halloween and Thanksgiving. It is these five games that will showcase what type of team the Bengals are. If Marvin Lewis’s crew is interested in proving people wrong, they’ll have to win games like these. They’ll either go down to the wire or be complete blowouts. Come mid-November it won’t be a surprise as to if this team is in the hunt for a Wild Card Playoff spot, but it also won’t be a surprise if this team is eliminated from playoff contention.
You control your own destiny Cincinnati.
4. Baltimore Ravens
Best/worst potential record: 6-10/4-12
Playoff prediction: None
Team MVP: LB C.J. Mosley
Biggest Free Agent Acquisition: WR Michael Crabtree
Biggest Free Agent Loss: RB Terrance West
Draft Grade: B
Best Draft Pick: QB Lamar Jackson, Louisville
The Baltimore Ravens are ready to begin a new era. With Ozzie Newsome in his final season as general manager, there’s no knowing what direction the Ravens will be going in. To be clear, I’m not saying that the Ravens are ready to completely blow things up, but it’s all a possibility when you look at who’ll be general manager in 2019: Eric DeCosta. John Harbaugh could be on the way out, as could longtime starting quarterback Joe Flacco after the Ravens drafted quarterback Lamar Jackson.
It seems as if the Ravens have been trying to stave off rebuilding for years and 2018 might be the year that things finally catch up to them. Terrell Suggs is in the twilight years of his career as is Eric Weddle. While the Ravens competed last year, it’s hard to expect them to be any better in 2018. Last year, this team posted a record of 9-7, but some of the teams they played like the Packers and Texans were playing without their star players meaning the Ravens record could have easily been 7-9.
Beginning in mid-October, the Ravens will be battle-tested. A brutal stretch beginning in week six, the Ravens will play four teams that could be Super Bowl contenders in 2018. It is in these games where we’ll begin to get a glimpse as to what the Ravens future could look like and where we could see more questions arise than the Ravens have answers to. How much longer can Joe Flacco keep playing? While the defense has young pieces such as Marlon Humphrey and C.J. Mosley, is it time to move on from guys like Terrell Suggs?