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2014 NFL Preview: AFC North

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Image courtesy of Navin75/Flickr.

Image courtesy of Navin75/Flickr.

It is a great thing that the season is starting next Thursday because it seems that the teams of the AFC North have been surrounded with bad news this offseason. The Cleveland Browns will be without Josh Gordon this year, and the Baltimore Ravens will be without Ray Rice for the first two games. Mike Tomlin must deal with his two recently arrested running backs, Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrettee Blount (insert cheesy pun on his name here).

For once, it appears that the Cincinnati Bengals may be the one team in the AFC North without any significant off the field issues. Their biggest offseason story was signing Andy Dalton to a massive 6-year $115 million contract. Obviously it’s not all guaranteed, but that number really stands out for a player who has yet to win a playoff game. This leads into the first part of the preview:

Most Important Player: Andy Dalton, QB, Cincinnati Bengals
Gordon held this spot until Wednesday when he was officially suspended for the entire season. The spot goes to Dalton because he has such high expectations with his new contract. He is important in the sense that all NFL fans, and specifically those in Cincinnati, will be looking for him to have a season that lives up to that type of deal.

A poor season may also hurt quarterbacks looking for big contracts, as GMs may shy away from such deals if Dalton falters. Andy Dalton’s success this season stretches far beyond the reaches of the Ohio River, and if he fails to get a playoff win there may be changes in Cincinnati.

X-Factor: Steve Smith, WR, Baltimore Ravens
Unlike with Andy Dalton, there are not too high of expectations on Steve Smith as he joins the Baltimore Ravens. He gets this spot because of these low expectations. Opposite Torrey Smith, there will be legitimate chances for him to boost his stats from last year, which only included four touchdowns from 64 receptions.

He may not be a fantasy star, but he is someone who will only benefit the Ravens as they attempt to eclipse the .500 mark that they ended with last season.

Best Team: Baltimore Ravens
You may be questioning this prediction. To clarify, I feel that the Bengals will win the division, but the Ravens are indeed the best team in the AFC North. Last year was not a bad year, and came after losing Ray Lewis along with dealing with the beauty of a Super Bowl hangover. They went 8-8 and their only issues to deal with are not having Ray Rice for two games.

Those two games will be played in a matter of five days, as they play Cincinnati the opening Sunday and then Pittsburgh the following Thursday, but they have been preparing to play without Rice for those games, so the impact will not be as extreme as some may think.

Team That Could Surprise: Cleveland Browns
(Money fingers). That’s right, the Cleveland Browns are my pick to surprise this year. They are not a legitimate playoff contender, especially with Gordon being out for the year, but with Hoyer as the quarterback they show some great upside. They can surprise by winning seven or eight games, which would be great for a team that hasn’t gotten past the four or five win mark since 2007. Just getting to the 8-8 mark would be a major surprise, as they have only finished above .500 twice since their return in 1999. Will Johnny Football play at all this year?

Bold Prediction: Johnny Manziel Will Not Play At All
The Browns of recent history have loved to rush young quarterbacks onto the field and let them struggle to the point of a ruined career. It appears that the current regime has enough common sense, or so it appears for now, to let Manziel mature in the offense before putting him on the field. Unless Brian Hoyer gets injured or forgets how to throw a football, there is no reason to put Manziel out there. It would be far more beneficial to give him some time so next year he can compete at a higher level for the job in training camp.

Offensive Player of the Year: A.J. Green, WR, Cincinnati Bengals
Gordon’s absence will likely allow Green to take over as the yards leader in the AFC North this season. Even with a mediocre Andy Dalton, A.J. Green allows the passing offense of the Bengals to rank in the top-10 of the league. Stats aside, there is really not much to say about this prediction. The name itself draws images of consistently great play.

Defensive Player of the Year: Joe Haden, CB, Cleveland Browns
Joe Haden has been a bright spot on a horrible Cleveland team the past few years. He made his first Pro Bowl last season and is only getting better as time goes on. He had 20 pass breakups last year, which is a remarkable number when remembering that he is always on the other team’s top receiver. He has shut down the best in the league and will continue to do so this year.

Final Standings

Cincinnati Bengals: 10-6
Baltimore Ravens: 9-7 (AFC Wild Card)
Pittsburgh Steelers: 8-8
Cleveland Browns: 6-10

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