Culture of Hoops

2015 NFL Season Preview: AFC North

Image courtesy of Erik Drost/Flickr.

Image courtesy of Erik Drost/Flickr.

AFC Division Previews: AFC East | AFC North | AFC South | AFC West
NFC Division Previews: NFC East | NFC North | NFC South | NFC West
Preseason Power Rankings | Top 10 Storylines | NFL Players on New Teams | Top 10 Offensive Players | Top 10 Defensive Players | NFL Rookie of the Year | Breakout Players | Bust Players

Position Lists: Top 20 By Position List | Top QBs to Target | Top RBs to Target | Top WRs to Target | Top TEs to Target | Top Ks to Target | Top Team D/STs to Target
Sleepers | Shouldn’t Drafts | Rookies | Breakout Players | Draft Strategy

In this NFL season preview, we look at the AFC North division, which is consistently one of the top divisions in football, and there is no reason why that will not hold true once again this season. It was the only division in the AFC that had more than one team reach double-digit wins, as the Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens, and Cincinnati Bengals each had at least ten wins and reached the NFL Playoffs. Even the Cleveland Browns went 7-9 after a 7-4 start. If the Browns can play like they did last season, the race for the division will be the best in the NFL.

Most Important Player: Josh McCown, QB, Cleveland Browns
The quarterback is the most important player on the field. His play determines the success of a team. This does not mean he must play perfectly, but rather he must be careful with the ball and avoid mistakes. Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco have proven their success with Super Bowl victories, and Andy Dalton has been in the playoffs in each of his first four seasons.

McCown is important because his play will determine if the Browns can compete in this division, as they did through the first 11 games of last season. If he does poorly, Johnny Manziel will likely be thrust into the starter’s role before he is ready, and the team will be set back several years. Out of all four teams in the division, the Browns are the most susceptible to falling apart or doing well based solely on the play at the quarterback position.

X-Factor: DeAngelo Williams, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers
The running back position is one riddled with injuries as DeAngelo Williams very well knows. He will serve as the backup to Le’Veon Bell, who has already spoken out about how he is looking to improve on his 1,361-yard 2014 season. But what happens if Bell goes down to injury? Williams will be expected to carry the load.

Williams saw his numbers stay steadily under the 900-yard mark once Cam Newton became the quarterback in Carolina, but this is a running back who had back-to-back 1,000+ yard rushing seasons with 1,515 in 2008 and 1,117 in 2009. That was a lifetime ago in running back years, but the Steelers would not have signed him if they did not think he was capable of performing at a high level.

This prediction is not to insinuate that Bell will go down to injury, but anything can happen and if it does, Williams will be one of the most important players in the entire division.

Best Team: Pittsburgh Steelers
After an 11-5 finish to last season, the Steelers see most of their roster returning. One notable name missing is that of the retired Troy Polamalu, but his absence will not be anything that makes the defense play at a lesser level.

The main thing is consistency, which is why this was a tough choice between the Steelers and Ravens. Based on how the division has played in the past, the Bengals can argue that they should be chosen as the best team. However, I see the Steelers as the team that can go the farthest in the postseason, which means more than the difference between an 11 or 10 win season.

The Bengals and Andy Dalton may put up double-digits wins, but failing to advance out of the first round of the playoffs each of the past four seasons relegates Cincinnati in this discussion. As for the Ravens, they are still up there, but the Steelers are just a tiny bit better. Realistically, each of the three teams will all be 7-3 and tied for first, but the Steelers will separate themselves.

Team That Could Surprise: Cleveland Browns
This relates back to Josh McCown being the most important player in the division. It is easy to forget that the Browns started 7-4 last season before Josh Gordon returned and Brian Hoyer was replaced by Johnny Manziel.

Josh McCown is a similar player to Brian Hoyer in the sense that neither will do anything spectacular, but as long as mistakes are limited the offense can do enough to where the Joe Haden-led defense can hold opponents.

Also, first-round pick Danny Shelton is a monster at the nose tackle position, which should help with a run defense that finished last in the NFL last season. They were 7-4 last season. Just saying…

Bold Prediction: The Cincinnati Bengals will miss the playoffs for the first time since 2010
The AFC North drew the lucky card of playing against the teams in both the AFC West and NFC West. This means games against the Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers, and the Denver Broncos. This does mean that the Oakland Raiders are on the schedule, but that is one easy game among 15 difficult ones.

The Bengals have the second-toughest schedule in the NFL based on the records of their opponents in 2014. So they will have to really enjoy their opening game in Oakland, as it only gets worse after that. Much, much worse.

Offensive Player of the Year: Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh Steelers
Roethlisberger has only gotten better as time has gone on. He matched his career high last season with 32 passing touchdowns, and set a personal record with 4,952 passing yards.

He is clearly benefiting under the pass-heavy offense in Pittsburgh, which will make him a threat on the actual and fantasy fields respectively. With much focus being put on Le’Veon Bell in the backfield, Roethlisberger should be able to take advantage of defenses all season. And if he can do that with the toughest strength of schedule in the league, we will be seeing the Steelers come February.

Defensive Player of the Year: Joe Haden, CB, Cleveland Browns
Joe Haden has been the best player on a bad team for a long time. But no matter how poorly the Browns are playing, opposing #1 receivers are rarely able to get anything going against Haden. Stats aside, just watching him shut down the likes of Calvin Johnson and A.J. Green proves that he is not only one of the best defensive players in the AFC North, but in the NFL as a whole.

Final Standings:
1. Pittsburgh Steelers: 11-5
2. Baltimore Ravens: 9-7
3. Cincinnati Bengals: 7-9
4. Cleveland Browns: 6-10


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