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AFC North: 2015 NFL Divisional Preview

In the second part of our traditional NFL previews, things take us to one of the toughest divisions to call: the hard-hitting AFC North. Ever since its current formation adopted in 2002, only twice has the division seen a winner repeat for consecutive years (2007-08 Steelers, 2011-12 Ravens), and we are now looking on a streak of 3 years with different division champions. We are also fresh off a season in which the North sent three teams to the playoffs, as the division has sent at least one wild card all but once from 2008 to 2014.

Heading into 2015, we are again looking at the usual modus operandi of the division, with three potential contenders headlining over a dysfunctional franchise that seems far away from relevancy. With the North scheduled to have its season-long with both the AFC and NFC West, we will surely be looking at a brutal season full of close games for the division, with intra-divisional games looming large as the potential deciding factors.

Standings predictions are carried from worst to best, and include over/under picks using the latest odds posted by Bovada Online.

Cleveland Browns
Odds to Win Division: +1200
Over/Under Wins: 6.5

With a 7-9 season, Cleveland’s 2014 doubled as a mild disappointment and also was the franchise’s best year since 2007. The Browns were 6-3 at one point and getting competent QB work from Brian Hoyer, only to finish 1-6 amid their traditional internal turmoil, which included a lot of Johnny Manziel controversy and even a bizarre NFL punishment for executives texting plays to the coaching staff. After that, it seems that again the franchise has taken a step backward.

While Manziel has made it a priority to get his act together and have a model-citizen offseason, the Browns are trusting 36-year-old journeyman Josh McCown to be the starting quarterback. It is obvious that McCown is there to hold the spot until the team deems that Manziel is ready, but even then there is nothing to suggest that Johnny Football is any good in the first place. Any hope for the Browns will probably rely on their sneaky-good defense and the development of second-year Coach Mike Pettine.

Even then, the Browns have one of the 10 toughest projected schedules, and will feature a constant quarterback controversy until Manziel gets the job, which sounds toxic for a team with a very short margin of error. In the end, the Browns are closer to the bottom than to the middle, and could easily be one of the worst teams in the AFC. Trust the Under and a lot of undeserved media coverage for Manziel, at least until he stops being marketable.

Cincinnati Bengals
Odds to Win Division: +250
Over/Under Wins: 8.5

Before this current streak of success, the Bengals franchise had only accrued consecutive playoff seasons once in its history (1981-82). Now at 4 straight years with postseason football, Cincinnati has established itself as a perennial contender, albeit one that is looking for its first playoff victory since 1990. However, there are many warning signs that point out that the Bengals may be looking at a very tough 2015, and that their window might already be closed.

To start, all numbers point out to the Bengals being a lucky, middling team in 2014 that rode its fortune to a playoff spot. The 26-10 Wild Card round dismantling by the Colts was probably a better reflection of Cincinnati’s talent level, and the offseason has done little to disprove the notion that things are getting worse. The 2014 Bengals won 10 games despite a point differential that suggested an 8.5-win team, went 3-0-1 in 7-point games, and lost a couple by 21 points. Their offense ranked 15th, and the defense was 22nd, with QB Andy Dalton remaining his boring old self. For 2015, the defense should be better and give the Bengals a chance on most games, but the offense doesn’t scare anybody.

With the Bengals also facing a tough slate, including a brutal 4-game stretch to finish the year, they will be hard-pressed to make it 5 seasons in a row of playoff football. Instead, I see the team regressing enough to have a difficult year and fall back to the 7-9 or 8-8 crowd. Also play the Under here, as the franchise is forced to make a decision on the futures of Dalton and Head Coach Marvin Lewis.

Pittsburgh Steelers
Odds to Win Division: +200
Over/Under Wins: 8.5

After consecutive disappointing 8-8 finishes, the Steelers returned to their familiar sight of January football with an 11-5 season that gave them their sixth division title since 2002. But as the old saying goes: these are not your father’s Steelers. Pittsburgh’s success in 2014 was built mostly on the strength of their offense and Ben Roethlisberger’s arm, as the Steelers finished second in total offense and only 18th in defense. And yet, just like the Bengals, the Steelers could be primed to suffer a severe pullback after an offseason that did little to solve many of the team’s underlying issues.

The Steelers also outplayed their expected point differential by a game and a half, even as it wasn’t fueled by an unsustainable record in 1-score games. Pittsburgh went a normal 4-3 in these instances, but also went 4-2 in games decided by at least 15 points, again suggesting that the Steelers were wildly inconsistent except for the 5-1 stretch that saw them close out the season. The Steelers again possess an enviable set of offensive weapons, but their defense appears to be regressing to a point that every game against a competent offense can become a shoot-out. That should not bode well for the Steelers, even as they are posing one of the youngest teams in the league.

Pittsburgh is expected to have the league’s toughest schedule, including 9 games against playoff teams from last season. This features a brutal 6-game stretch to begin the season, including the much-expected season opener versus the Patriots, and visits against interesting teams like the Rams and Chargers. And much like the Bengals, I also see the Steelers falling back to the pack. It will be close, but I like Pittsburgh to hover around the 8-8 mark, falling below the mark for another Under.

Baltimore Ravens
Odds to Win Division: +150
Over/Under Wins: 9

Among all the AFC North teams, the Ravens have the good fortune of facing the easier schedule among all 4 members. This is virtue of having out-of-format matchups versus the Jaguars and Dolphins, which could end up making all the difference when you considered how evenly matched the division is. Aside from that, 2014 ended with many positive notes for Baltimore, first defeating the Steelers in the wild card round, and then pushing the Patriots to their limit in the divisional game. With playoff berths in six of their last seven seasons, the Ravens continue to make contention a habit.

The Ravens again promise to have balance as their calling card. The team that finished 12th in offense and 8th in defense is bringing most of its key contributors back, even as it lost iconic defensive stalwart Haloti Ngata in the process. However, they still have an elite coach in John Harbaugh and the erratic but effective Joe Flacco at quarterback, which has proven to be a winning combination for a while now. Unlike the Steelers and Bengals, Baltimore was lucky enough to have a balanced schedule that should allow them to avoid long losing streaks, while also having a week 9 BYE that will allow them a refresher right in the middle of the season.

Counting all these factors and the fact that the rest of the division looks a bit disorganized, the Ravens should have no problem claiming the top spot and earning yet another playoff appearance. Even as they are not at the same level of other AFC powerhouses, a 10-6 or 11-5 season looks overly realistic and doable. Take the Over, as the Ravens are probably the safest bet in the North.

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