From top to bottom, the AFC North was definitely the league’s most-contested division last season. Three North teams went to the playoffs last year, and there’s a decent chance that the same thing could happen again in 2015. The big question, though, is who will emerge this year following Pittsburgh winning the division crown. And can the Cleveland Browns be more competitive this season to challenge the Steelers, Baltimore and Cincinnati? Let’s discuss all of these matters below.
4th in Division: Cleveland Browns; 5-11 W/L Projection
Strengths: While Seattle’s “Legion of Boom” secondary may grab all the headlines, Cleveland also has one of the NFL’s top secondaries. Joe Haden headlines this group, as he’s one of the best corners playing the game today. Safeties Donte Whitner and Tashaun Gipson are also excellent after making the Pro Bowl last season. Either Justin Gilbert or Pierre Desir has the potential to play great at the other cornerback spot, making this secondary a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks.
Weaknesses: Cleveland exceeded expectations last year after going 7-9, with all nine of their losses being by just one score. This season figures to be worse, though, namely because the QB and wideout situation is so dismal. Josh McCown will take the reigns after a terrible season in Tampa Bay, while Johnny Manziel is waiting in the wings should McCown play badly again. Dwayne Bowe leads an uninspiring group of wide receivers that won’t give McCown or Manziel much help.
3rd in Division: Baltimore Ravens; 9-7 W/L Projection
Strengths: For well over a decade, the strength of Baltimore has been their all-around defense. 2015 should see more of the same coming off a season where they ranked second in sacks at 49. Elvis Dumervil (17 sacks) and Terrell Suggs (12 sacks) led this effort, while C.J. Mosley and Timmy Jernigan were also instrumental in pressuring quarterbacks. Adding D-lineman Carl Davis and inside linebacker Za’Darius Smith should also bolster this defense.
Weaknesses: Receiver is the glaring weakness here, especially with deep threat Torrey Smith going to the San Francisco 49ers. Steve Smith had another solid 79-catch campaign; but how much of the load can you place on a guy who’s 36? First-round pick Breshad Perriman was supposed to help shore up the problems at receiver; but he hasn’t had much practice time after spraining his PCL early in camp. Overall there are enough good players on this Baltimore team to potentially make the playoffs, but probably not enough to win the division.
2nd in Division: Cincinnati Bengals; 10-6 W/L Projection
Strengths: Cincinnati will have one of the NFL’s toughest running back duos to stop. Both Jeremy Hill and Giovanni Bernard are coming off seasons where they gained over 1,000 yards from scrimmage – something made even more impressive when considering that Hill didn’t play regularly until mid-way through the season, and Bernard sat out three games due to injury. Hill, the power back, and Bernard, the speedy receiving back, can give the Bengals so many different looks out of the backfield that it’s ridiculous.
Weaknesses: Andy Dalton did not play well in 2014, despite having a number of weapons to help his cause. The fifth-year player threw just 19 TDs against 17 interceptions last season, which is pretty bad when you have A.J. Green to toss the ball to. Even worse is his 1:6 TD-INT ratio in the postseason, which fairly places the blame on his shoulders if Cincinnati can’t get out of the divisional playoff round.
1st in Division: Pittsburgh Steelers; 12-4 W/L Projection
Strengths: Pittsburgh may have more offensive weapons than any other team in the league. Ben Roethlisberger is coming off a season where he tallied over 5,000 yards and 32 touchdowns, while his favorite target, Antonio Brown, had 129 catches, 1,698 yards and 13 touchdowns. Add in emerging wideouts Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant and it’s easy to see the Steelers passing offense being even more prolific in 2015. RB Le’Veon Bell will also get plenty of targets out of the backfield.
Weaknesses: The secondary is full of holes, beginning with outside corners William Gay and Cortez Allen, neither of whom are great. Mike Mitchell is an average free safety while the raw Shamarko Thomas will battle the aging Will Allen for the starting strong safety slot. Slot corner Brandon Boykin may be the only truly solid commodity here.