By: Brandon Blake
In 2015, the Cincinnati Bengals were one of the best teams in the NFL as they started the season with a 10-2 record and looked primed to be one of the favorites to go to the Super Bowl. Even though Andy Dalton was out with a thumb injury, the Bengals still won the AFC North and hosted a playoff game at home.
But in that playoff game, the Bengals loss to their AFC North rival, the Pittsburgh Steelers in the most bizarre and ugly playoff finishes in my recent lifetime. The loss sent the Bengals home and kept them from winning their first playoff game since 1990.
Heading into the 2016 season, the question for the Bengals is this: With Andy Dalton returning from injury, can the still talented Bengals repeat as AFC North champions and win a playoff game for the first time in 26 years?
Can the Pittsburgh Steelers keep their offensive firepower going despite the year-long suspension of wide receiver Martavis Bryant and the three game suspension of running back Le’Veon Bell while the defense looks to improve on their solid play from last season?
The Baltimore Ravens were doomed by injuries to key players last season which led to a rare losing season for them in 2015. Can those key players come back at 100% and return the Ravens back to the postseason in 2016?
Stop me if you heard this before but the Cleveland Browns are not a good team. Yet they do have a lot of draft picks and some talented players on the offensive side of the ball. Can former Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III and those Browns receivers make the rebuild in Cleveland a little less painful?
Here are my projections for the AFC North
*-Denotes who will win the division
#-Denotes who will win the Wild Card
*Cincinnati (11-5)- To me, the Bengals are similar to the New England Patriots in that despite the losses Cincinnati had in free agency (Leon Hall, Marvin Jones, Mohammed Sanu, Reggie Nelson, Andre Smith), their core pieces are still in place (Andy Dalton, AJ Green, George Illoka, Geno Atkins, Tyler Eifert) and that should be more than enough to withstand any drop in statistical production the Bengals may face in 2016. I like the Bengals to repeat as division champions over the Steelers on the strength of Cincy’s defense. Now, if the Bengals would win a dang playoff game.
# Pittsburgh (10-6)- The Steelers boast one of the best offenses in the NFL with Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown as their one-two offensive punch. But there is a possibility that injuries and suspensions could derail their offense. Still at 80%, this offense is terrifying to go up against if you are an opposing defense. The Steelers defense in 2015 forced a lot of turnovers and the odds are that they will not repeat that feat in 2016 but there is enough talent in spots to make them an average unit at best. The Steelers should return to the postseason in 2016 on the strength of their fantastic offense.
Baltimore (9-7)- A lot of things went wrong for the Ravens in 2015 with injuries to key players like Joe Flacco and Terrell Suggs to name a few. Those players are back for Baltimore and while they give the Ravens more than a good chance of returning to the postseason, they are an older team and they may not be 100% back to their normal selves before the injuries. I think an easier schedule puts the Ravens in the playoff picture but ultimately, they’ll fall short in making the postseason in 2016.
Cleveland (5-11)- Once again, the Browns are in rebuild mode and do have extra draft picks that will help them restock their roster for the future. But in the present, this team as a whole is not very good. They do have an intriguing trio of wide receivers in reinstated wide receiver Josh Gordon, quarterback-turned-wideout Terrelle Pryor and first-round pick Corey Coleman. These are a group of talented receivers that could help rejuvenate the career of one Robert Griffin III. But the rest of the team, especially on defense, has holes and is a mess. It’ll be interesting to see if the few remaining talented players on this team can help lay the foundation for the Browns to finally have a successful team.