Way-Too-Early AFC North Projections

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AFC North Projections
BALTIMORE, MARYLAND - DECEMBER 30: Quarterback Lamar Jackson #8 of the Baltimore Ravens attempts to score against the Cleveland Browns in the second half at M&T Bank Stadium on December 30, 2018 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

AFC North projections in June? Okay, it may be way-too-early to begin thinking about the NFL season, but who else can’t wait until fall? In this way-too-early series, I will give my take on each of the NFL divisions and how I believe they will shape up. First up, we have the always competitive AFC North division.

Way-Too-Early AFC North Projections

Cincinnati Bengals (8-8)(2-4)

Wins: San Francisco 49ers (week 2), at Buffalo Bills (week 3), Arizona Cardinals (week 5), Jacksonville Jaguars (week 7), Baltimore Ravens (week 10), New York Jets (week 13), at Cleveland Browns (week 14), at Miami Dolphins (week 16).

Losses: at Seattle Seahawks (week 1), at Pittsburgh Steelers (week 4), at Baltimore (week 6), at Los Angeles Rams (week 8), at Oakland Raiders (week 11), Pittsburgh (week 12), New England Patriots (week 15), Cleveland (week 17).

As much as I’d love to say that my Cincinnati Bengals will surprise everyone and win the toughest division in football, it is just not going to happen. Bengals fans on social media are extremely hot and cold about the 2019 season. While there are some that fully expect the Bengals to #TankForTua, others believe that rookie head coach Zac Taylor will shine. Reports have surfaced that Taylor is planning on using wide receiver John Ross in a role similar to that of Brandon Cooks in Los Angeles, so this could provide the Bengals with a spark. Overall, I do not see the Bengals winning the division and/or making playoffs in 2019.

Every year, there are a number of instances where good teams lose to bad teams. Unfortunately for the Bengals, one of these will occur when they travel to Oakland. Cincinnati does not like to play on the west coast, so expect them to lose a close game to the Raiders. Within the division, the Bengals could easily be fourth out of four.

Cleveland Browns (10-6)(3-3)

Wins: Tennessee Titans (week 1), at New York Jets (week 2), at San Francisco 49ers (week 5), at New England Patriots (week 8), at Denver Broncos (week 9), Buffalo Bills (week 10), Pittsburgh Steelers (week 11), Miami Dolphins (week 12), Baltimore Ravens week 16), at Cincinnati Bengals (week 17).

Losses: Los Angeles Rams (week 3), at Baltimore (week 4), Seattle Seattle (week 6), at Pittsburgh (week 13), Cincinnati (week 14), at Arizona Cardinals (week 15).

2019 could very well be the beginning of a new top dog in the AFC North. These are not your daddy’s Cleveland Browns. They are young, athletic, and fun to watch. By trading for Odell Beckham Jr., the Browns showed that they are no longer messing around. Offensively, the Browns are loaded. Quarterback Baker Mayfield will continue to wake up dangerous and show the world why he was picked number one overall in 2018. His weapons on the outside are wide receivers OBJ, Jarvis Landry, and Rashard Higgins. If all of these names do not worry defenses, then the running back tandem of Nick Chubb and Duke Johnson Jr. will. Chubb opened his rookie campaign third on the depth chart and quickly made his presence known.

The Browns will be competitive in every game that they play. They should beat each of their divisional foes at least once, as well as New England. Yes, I just said the Cleveland Browns will beat the New England Patriots. The Browns have played the Patriots close in each of their recent meetings, so it is only logical that the Browns should be able to take down the reigning Super Bowl Champs with all of the talent at their disposal. If there is going to be a 10-6 team to miss playoffs, Cleveland would be the one. Don’t fret faithful Browns fans! Your turn is coming.

Baltimore Ravens (11-5)(3-3)

Wins: at Miami (week 1), Arizona Cardinals (week 2), Cleveland Browns (week 4), Cincinnati Bengals (6), at Seattle Seahawks (week 7), New England Patriots (week 9), Houston Texans (week 11), San Francisco 49ers (week 13), at Buffalo Bills (week 14), New York Jets (week 15), Pittsburgh Steelers (week 17).

Losses: at Kansas City Chiefs (week 3), at Pittsburgh (week 5), at Cincinnati Bengals (10), at Los Angeles Rams (week 12), at Cleveland (week 16).

Defense wins championships. Many AFC North projections will have the Baltimore Ravens claiming the crown. The 2019 edition of the Ravens will be led by their defense. Guys like newly-acquired Earl Thomas will help raise the Ravens’ defense to elite status. Their offense, however, is not something to take lightly. Quarterback Lamar Jackson has explosive play-making abilities. He was exciting last year, but that offense did not have the weapons that it does this year. The Ravens went and signed Willie Snead and Mark Ingram and drafted Trace McSorley (the next Taysom Hill?), Marquise Brown, Miles Boykin, and Justice Hill. This offense has the potential to outscore just about anyone they face. It will all depend on whether or not the young guys will step up.

The Ravens will also beat the New England Patriots. The Patriots do not have the hardest schedule, so they can afford a couple of losses to Cleveland and Baltimore. Baltimore should get key wins over Houston and Seattle but will split their season series against their divisional foes. The Rams and the Chiefs will challenge the youth of the Ravens, which is why they should drop those contests as well. Overall, the Ravens will be a very good team. I have them making the playoffs as a Wild Card team. Look for them to make a run then continue to be atop the AFC North divisional standings for the foreseeable future.

Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5)(4-2)

Wins: at San Francisco 49ers (week 3), Cincinnati Bengals (week 4), Baltimore Ravens (week 5), Miami Dolphins (week 8), Indianapolis Colts (week 9), Los Angeles Rams (week 10), at Cincinnati (week 12), Cleveland Browns (week 13), at Arizona Cardinals (week 14), Buffalo Bills (week 15), at New York Jets (week 16).

Losses: at New England Patriots (week 1), Seattle Seahawks (week 2), at Los Angeles Chargers (week 6), at Cleveland Browns (week 11), at Baltimore Ravens (week 17).

The Pittsburgh Steelers will win the AFC North division. Since 2001, the Steelers have won the division nine times. Until I am proven wrong, I am willing to bet on Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers to win the division, despite the fact that the Ravens won it in 2018. What makes this year better than last year? The lack of drama. Throughout 2018, the Steelers were bogged down with the drama involving Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. With these two gone, Pittsburgh can look to the future and fight to get Roethlisberger another Super Bowl appearance before he retires. James Conner and JuJu Smith-Schuster will lead them offensively. Defensively, the Steelers are beginning to rebuild to the lofty expectations they are accustomed to. They will be led by rookie Devin Bush Jr., whom the Steelers traded up in the draft to poach from going to Cincinnati.

Pittsburgh will have two key wins in Indianapolis and the Rams. While each of these teams will be great in their own rights, the Steelers match up favorably. They will, however, drop games to New England (who has had their number for years), Seattle, and the Chargers. At the end of the day, the Steelers and the Ravens will be tied atop the divisional standings, but the tie-breaker will go to Pittsburgh based on their record within the division.

The Last Word

Until the division proves me wrong, Pittsburgh will still rule. All things considered, the Ravens and Browns are certainly poised to take that crown. Both teams are young, explosive, and exciting. Look for all three to challenge each other in a close race down the stretch. As for the Bengals… well, let’s just say they’re trying. Hopefully, they can compete and make this season interesting.

It’s June, so it may be way too early for AFC North projections, but that’s what makes football great. Even though they only play for 21 weeks in the year, it keeps us talking for all 52.

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