This article is part of The Intermission’s 2018 NFL Preview. Click the link to visit the centralized page that’s home to all related NFL Preview content.
The Steelers have become the pinnacle of the AFC North, which figures to remain the same in 2018. They should continue to outscore teams at an explosive rate. Although, I expect some fierce competition between the other three teams in the division, especially the upstart Browns, who have a vastly improved roster and collection of talent on both sides of the ball. The Ravens and Bengals both feature quarterbacks and coaches that are on the hot seat and potentially playing for the longevity of their careers this season.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers
2017 record: 13-3
2018 Projection: 11-5
As long as the three Killer B’s are intact (Ben, Bell and Brown) for at least one more season, it’s hard to envision any other outcome than the Steelers claiming their fourth division title in the last five seasons. Head coach Mike Tomlin lost his coveted offensive coordinator, Todd Haley within the division to the Browns. However, don’t expect much to change with this offense, as it’s been one of the premier over the past decade. Meanwhile, JuJu Smith-Schuster might be ready to catch a ton of balls opposite Antonio Brown en route to a breakout season. Defensively, the team has struggled to replace Ryan Shazier (after his life-threatening injury back in December), its heart and soul in the middle of the field. But don’t feel too bad for the Steelers defense, who performed better than you might think in 2017, ranking #7 overall in Points Allowed and #5 in Yards Allowed. As long as the team outscores its opponents on a regular basis, which they should, the defense can get away with being mediocre.
Best case scenario: At 13-3, they simply repeat what they did last year and find a way to rid themselves of a pesky team like the Jags, and reach the Super Bowl, where they’ll have a great shot. All the while, they figure out a way to retain Le’Veon Bell at the end of the season.
Worst case scenario: The injury bug wreaks havoc on the key pieces of this roster. That seems like the only thing that could potentially slow this team down in the regular season. Pittsburgh’s worst nightmare would be a playoff collapse similar to that against Jacksonville last season.
Bottom line: Behind huge individual seasons from the Killer B’s, the Steelers will easily win another 10+ games, capture the AFC North once again and obtain a Bye in the first round of the playoffs. However, this season, expect nothing less than the AFC Championship Game.
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2. Cleveland Browns
2017 record: 0-16
2018 Projection: 8-8
Ridiculous, right?! From a winless season, to a .500 record and second place finish in the North, over the course of only a few months. That’s how strongly I feel the Browns did in both the draft and the offseason as a whole. My rationale has already been documented as to why I’m extremely high on a Cleveland Browns turnaround this season. In short: It’s the talent. This team made several significant moves, with serious upgrades to the offense. I like the Tyrod Taylor move. I like the Jarvis Landry acquisition. I liked the drafting of Baker Mayfield at #1 overall. I like the probability of a David Njoku breakout season. I like the offensive line. And I like the depth of their backfield and receivers (I still think they’re going to sign Dez Bryant before the season starts). Defensively, they’ll start three Pro Bowl-quality linebackers, a very active front line featuring last year’s #1 pick in Myles Garrett and the changes to the secondary look smart on paper. They might not make it all the way to 8 wins, but I’m jumping on the bandwagon for a big improvement from the past three seasons. It’s time.
Best case scenario: The talent plays up to its hype on paper and the team quickly leapfrogs the Ravens and Bengals as the second best team in the division. A playoff appearance would shock the football world, but isn’t out of the question if Taylor can sustain the efficient play he’s demonstrated throughout his career and the diverse backfield runs the ball like a juggernaut.
Worst case scenario: Redundancy. The “talent” comes up short and the optimism fades rapidly. Tyrod starts out of the gate slowly and the Dawg Pound begins to call for Baker. Once again, it’s a quarterback “controversy” in Cleveland. Hue Jackson gets canned, the heads of management roll once again and the Browns fall into the rabbit hole once more.
Bottom line: I think the Browns are somewhere in between the two scenarios described above, though I think they’re closer to the best case version. Even if problems arise, I don’t think this team finishes with less than 4-5 wins, which is an upward trend compared to recent seasons. But I’m feeling a Browns revival this season.
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3. Baltimore Ravens
2017 record: 9-7
2018 Projection: 7-9
Yawn. This Ravens team defines what it’s like to be “in flux.” They have been average at best for the past three seasons and as fate would have it, missed the playoffs in each. The Joe Flacco “elite” days appear to be dead and gone, though the team made some cushy offseason moves to give him one last shot at glory (receivers Michael Crabtree, John Brown and Willie Snead join the team). If he doesn’t produce, dynamic rookie and soon-to-be fan favorite Lamar Jackson, waits in the wings. Flacco’s leash could be extremely short. The defense is an aging one and though they were slightly above average last season, that performance could be challenging to duplicate. The Ravens schedule is certainly an uphill climb to start the season, as they start with 5 of 8 games on the road and feature a six-game stretch in Weeks 4 through 9 of: at Steelers, at Browns, at Titans, Saints, at Panthers, Steelers. If the team doesn’t take care of business during the first three weeks, the season could evaporate in rapid succession.
Best case scenario: Flacco starts in complete sync with the new receivers, Alex Collins handles the full running back workload with ease and the defense performs to typical “Ravens standards” of the past. Or, Flacco flames out early and Lamar Jackson saves the season and makes a inspiring run at a wild card slot.
Worst case scenario: Flacco continues his bad habits and makes an early exit, but Lamar Jackson isn’t quite ready for the big time. The running game lacks a true workhorse and indecision lingers from the committee approach. Terrell Suggs finally shows his age or can’t stay on the field. John Harbaugh’s seat reaches a melting point. The Ravens remain irrelevant.
Bottom line: We know Flacco still has the arm strength, but his accuracy leaves something left to be desired with the surplus of turnovers. Football fans will be ready for the Lamar Jackson Experiment to commence anyway. Regardless, Baltimore doesn’t quite have the mojo or the makeup to make a serious playoff run in the AFC and an impending rebuild seems likely. Hey, at least they aren’t the Orioles!
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4. Cincinnati Bengals
2017 record: 7-9
2018 Projection: 6-10
Is this the final run for Andy Dalton and head coach Marvin Lewis, who’s been in Cincy since before Christ? All signs point to YES. The Bengals situation is haunting similar to that of the Ravens above. The team certainly has some talent on both sides of the ball, including depth at running back (Joe Mixon could be huge this season) and receiver, an upgraded offensive line and a dynamic defensive line. But like seasons past, the question will be continuously floated as to whether that talent with translate to actual wins during the course of a tricky schedule. To me, within the AFC North, Cincinnati and Baltimore are practically interchangeable.
Best case scenario: Dalton leads another season of dynamic offense in which the Mixon/Bernard combo and A.J. Green (the model of wide receiver consistency) have BIG years. The defense features a ferocious pass rush and they’re able to hold down the fort until Vontaze Burfict returns to the middle after a four-game suspension. A wild card appearance saves Lewis’ job.
Worst case scenario: The offensive line’s protection doesn’t match the hype and the running game suffers. Dalton feels the heat in the pocket and can’t utilize his weapons. Also, the teams around them are more improved and the team dips further into mediocre purgatory. Lewis finally loses his job and the season is a write-off.
Bottom line: The Bengals are one of those “ho-hum” teams to me. A few exciting individual players but collectively, average. I think they will duplicate the formula that they achieved last year in that they’ll beat up on the bad teams and lose to all the playoff-caliber teams. Regardless, I think they finish on the wrong side of .500 for the season.