(Andy Dalton photo courtesy of the Cincinnati Bengals)
(Ben Roethlisberger photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Steelers)
Talk of Fame Network
There’s a great team in the AFC East, but it’s not a great division. The New England Patriots have won seven consecutive division titles and 12 of the last 13.
The same holds true for the AFC West. There’s been a great team (Denver), but it’s not been a great division. The Broncos have won five consecutive AFC West crowns.
Great divisions feature balance, with multiple teams having a shot at a division title every year. That’s what makes the AFC North the best division in football these days. Three different teams have won the division over the last four seasons – Baltimore, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.
The Bengals have won the division twice during that stretch, and the Ravens went on to win a Super Bowl. In addition, the Bengals, Ravens and Steelers have all qualified for the playoffs as wild cards in the last four years. The only laggard has been Cleveland, which has now gone 13 consecutive seasons without reaching the post-season.
So who will be the best team in the AFC North in 2016? Here are your candidates:
Baltimore Ravens: The Ravens have a Super Bowl coach (John Harbaugh) and a Super Bowl quarterback (Joe Flacco). But injuries riddled the Ravens last season, dooming them to a 5-11 finish. Flacco finished the season on injured reserve, missing the final six games. Baltimore’s best wide receiver (Steve Smith) and best running back (Justin Forsett) also finished the season on IR. Smith missed the final eight games and Forsett six. Left tackle Eugene Monroe missed 10 games, and Baltimore’s best pass rusher Terrell Suggs missed the final 15 games. Just a healthy roster will make for a competitive roster in 2016. The Ravens also drafted a blocker (Ronnie Stanley) in the first round and pass rushers (Kamalei Correa and Bronson Kaufusi) with their next two picks.
(Steve Smith photo courtesy of the Baltimore Ravens)
Cincinnati Bengals: The Bengals have qualified for the playoffs for five consecutive seasons, the longest such streak in the division. But they are 0-5 in the playoffs. That said, there isn’t a more complete team in the division right now. The Bengals finished in the Top 5 in the NFL in takeaways last season and the Top 10 in sacks. Only three NFL teams rushed for more touchdowns in 2015, and quarterback Andy Dalton won his first AFC passing crown. The Bengals bolstered their defense last April by selecting cornerback William Jackson in the first round, linebacker Nick Vigil in the second and tackle Andrew Billings in the third.
Cleveland Browns: When you go 13 seasons without making the playoffs, you have holes. And the Browns certainly have their share of them. But they took a big step toward filling those holes with that blockbuster trade that sent the second overall pick of the 2016 draft to the Philadelphia Eagles for five premium selections – first-, third- and fourth-rounders in 2016 and first- and second-rounders in 2017. Cleveland wound up with 13 picks in the 2016 draft, including eight in the first four rounds. First-round wide receiver Corey Coleman and pass rushers Emmanuel Ogbah (second round) and Carl Nassib (third) should have immediate impacts. New coach Hue Jackson also cut bait on the Johnny Manziel experiment and brought in another former Heisman Trophy winner, Robert Griffin III, to take over at quarterback.
(Robert Griffin III photo courtesy of the Washington Redskins)
Pittsburgh Steelers: The Steelers have a Super Bowl coach (Mike Tomlin) and a two-time Super Bowl quarterback (Ben Roethlisberger). So talented are the Steelers that they started three different quarterbacks and won games with all three of them on the way to a 10-6 wild-card finish. Roethlisberger missed five games last season and 2014 AFC rushing champion Le’Veon Bell missed 10 games. A return to health by the two offensive stars should signal a return to Super Bowl contention this season. Defense dragged the Steelers down last season, finishing 30th in the league, but they addressed that in the draft. Pittsburgh used its first three selections on defenders – cornerback Artie Burns in the first round, safety Sean Davis in the second and tackle Javon Hargrave in the third.