Following is our
TGS preview of the AFC North, presented in predicted order of finish, with 2014 straight-up, spread, and O/U marks included. Next up:  AFC South...

                                                         by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Much like its counterpart NL Central division appears to be in this year’s MLB race, the AFC North dominated conference playoff slots a year ago. With both of the AFC wild cards, the North would have three postseason participants in a year in which no other AFC division would have more than one. And while no North team made it further than the Division Round, it can be safely said that the division was the NFL’s strongest a year ago.

The same is likely to be the case in 2015, though we suspect the order of finish in the North might jumble a bit from last season.

Arguably, since HC John Harbaugh was hired in 2008, no AFC team (even New England) has accomplished more than the Baltimore Ravens (2014 SUR 11-7, PSR 10-8, O/U 9-9; beat Steelers 30-17 in Wild Card Round; lost to Patriots 35-31 in Division Round). Harbaugh’s squads have reached the playoffs in six of seven seasons (the same as Bill Belichick’s team), won a Super Bowl, and also won at least one elimination game in every year they qualified for the postseason. A year ago, that was as a wild card, losing out to Pittsburgh for the regular-season North crown and a half-game behind Cincinnati for second place in a Pimlico-like photo finish, but Harbaugh had the last laugh on the Men of Steel with a comfy playoff win at Heinz Field. Baltimore then had New England very much on the ropes in the Division Round before the Patriots would rally for a 35-31 win, a game in which many observers believed the better team had lost.

The quick recovery to playoff status a year ago, and working around the various distractions caused by the Ray Rice controversy, were the latest indicators of the deft touches of both Harbaugh and GM Ozzie Newsome after the roster had undergone a needed transformation following the Super Bowl win over the 49ers three years ago. Age and cap considerations forced Baltimore to do a semi-overhaul of the roster in a 2013 season that would prove Harbaugh’s only playoff miss. The return to the postseason a year ago, and prospects for more of the same this fall, are the further confirmations that Newsome and Harbaugh are one of the elite GM-HC combos in the league.

Now the Ravens return the core of a team that with a break or two might have been playing for its second Super Bowl title in three years last February 1. Not that GM Newsome didn’t have some repair work to do in an offseason in which Baltimore entered with glaring needs in the secondary at the WR spots, and dealing with another tight salary cap situation that prompted the trade of Pro Bowl DT Haloti Ngata to the Lions and allowing other key cogs such as WR Torrey Smith and LB Pernell McPhee to walk in free agency.

Another change from a year ago is the departure of o.c. Gary Kubiak, who would move back to his old home in Denver as the Broncos’ new HC after Baltimore recorded franchise records in points (409) and yards (5838) in 2014. While on the surface the Kubiak departure might appear a concern, AFC sources do not necessarily concur, and cite the quick rapport that well-traveled new o.c. Marc Trestman, most recently the head coach of the Bears, has forged with QB Joe Flacco, off of career-highs of 3986 YP and 27 TD passes a year ago. Trestman thus becomes the Ravens’ fourth o.c. in as many seasons, but evidence from training camp and the first preseason game vs. the Saints should allay fears, especially in regard to Flacco, who was nearly flawless in his one series vs. the Saints and has looked increasingly comfy in the Trestman offense this summer.

Newsome went to work immediately in the draft to find some receiving help for Flacco and would land UCF WR Breshad Perriman in the first round and arguably the best TE available, Minnesota’s Maxx Williams, in Round Two. Still around for one more valedictory season is the veteran Steve Smith, Jr., who proved a year ago that he still had some gas in his tank when catching 79 passes good for 1065 yards. He is the only returning Baltimore receiver with more than 25 catches, and Ravens fans need to enjoy him while they can, as Smith has announced that the 2015 campaign will be his last.

A lingering concern in camp, however, regarded injury issues for both Perriman (knee) and Williams (eye), who each missed practice time and the early preseason games. In the wake of vet TE Owen Daniels following Kubiak to Denver in free agency, and with vet TE Dennis Pitta on the PUP list and a best-case scenario to return at midseason, getting the well-regarded rookie Williams healthy and up to speed in a hurry will be a priority in the final weeks of the preseason.

There are also some remaining doubters regarding RB Justin Forsett, who emerged from the Ray Rice vacuum a year ago to prove one of the league’s most pleasant surprises with 1266 YR and 44 catches out of the backfield. At near 30, however, some wonder if Forsett might have been a one-year wonder, and sorts such as 2nd-year Lorenzo Taliaferro and Southern Cal rookie Buck Allen might be asked to handle a portion of the infantry load. The OL, solid a year ago, appears stout again, but it is not unreasonable to wonder if Forsett is going to be able to come close to repeating his 2014 heroics, of if one of the new wideouts emerges as a deep threat that Flacco could use.

While not quite the elite defensive platoon of the best Ray Lewis years, Baltimore has remained formidable on the stop end for several campaigns under veteran schemer Dean Pees, whose 3-4 looks continue to confound enemy attacks. This term, Pees will have to fill the gaps created by the aforementioned departures of the impactful Ngata and McPhee, and try to build some depth in front of and around ILB C.J. Mosley, a revelation as a rookie in 2014 and the latest apparent Newsome homerun in the draft. Though getting a bit long in the tooth, OLBs Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervill (with 17 sacks a year ago) are still adept at getting to the QBs from the edges, and even minus Ngata, Baltimore figures to be stubborn as usual vs. the rush, as it was a year ago when ranking fourth in run defense (just 88 ypg).

The questions on defense are mostly in the secondary, which leaked a bit much last season and would be mostly responsible for the blown lead at Foxborough in the playoffs. Keeping CBs Jimmy Smith (off of a serious Lisfranc foot injury) and Ladarius Webb (with a history of ailments) both healthy would be a nice start, and SS Matt Elam needs to start playing like the first-round pick that he was a couple of years ago. But this was another top ten-rated “D” a year ago, and the clever Pees likely has enough pieces at his disposal to craft another difficult puzzle for opponents to solve.

Spread-wise, while the Ravens have flattened out in most categories over the past few years, they have usually saved their best for the postseason, where Harbaugh has covered seven straight playoff games and is now 11-4 vs. the line in the playoffs since 2008. And we believe we’ll have another chance to cite the Harbaugh postseason history when January rolls around...this time with the Ravens as North champs.

In a profession where job security is about as fleeting as one of Erin Andrews’ relationships, Marvin Lewis has remained an enduring presence with the Cincinnati Bengals (2014 SUR 10-6-1, PSR 8-9, O/U 6-11; lost to Colts 26-10 in Wild Card Round) since his hire as head coach in 2003. Lewis has rewarded the faith of the Brown family by delivering four straight playoff berths to the Queen City, though Cincy’s postseason win drought now extends a quarter-century, back to the long-ago Sam Wyche era when the Bengals beat the old Houston Oilers in a 1990 Wild Card round game.

While some franchises (Denver comes to mind) change coaches after early playoff exits, that apparently is not the case in Cincinnati, where Lewis seems in no imminent danger after the latest postseason flop-a-roo against the Colts last January. After all, Lewis had earlier survived years such as 2008 (at 4-11-1) and 2010 (at 4-12) and lived to tell about it at Paul Brown Stadium. Though fans in the tri-state are getting a bit antsy at the playoff drought, owner Mike Brown does not seem overly concerned about the Bengals failing to clear their first postseason hurdle every year. That might change, however, with either a playoff miss or another early postseason exit.

We do know that a fourth straight flame-out in the wild card round did not cost QB Andy Dalton, who still seems to have the support of Lewis and both Mike and Pete Brown...at least for one more year. Dalton's big six-year, $96 million deal, inked after the 2013 campaign, can reduce to a 2-year, $25 mill deal and terminate after this season without causing much of a cap hit in 2016. If anyone in Cincinnati ought to be nervous about the future, it is Dalton, as the pressure to make a move at QB will be hard for Lewis and the Browns to avoid if the Bengals flame out in a similar manner in 2015.

If comparing the last four Bengals one-and-dones in the postseason, last season might have at least been the best work done by Lewis, who had to deal with the departures of both of his coordinators (Jay Gruden, who took the Redskins HC job, and Mike Zimmer, who took the Vikings HC job). Hue Jackson (offense) and Paul Guenther (defense) seamlessly stepped into those respective breaches. But the bar is now raised in Cincinnati, as both Lewis and Dalton still must prove they can win in the postseason with almost the same team from a year ago. And with several key players entering the final years of their contracts, it could be now or never for Lewis and Dalton with the Bengals.

Dalton, whose TD-interception ratio of 19-17 last season does not inspire much confidence, cannot complain about a lack of supporting weapons. Lewis has surrounded his QB with plenty of talent, with a deep-threat WR corps led by A.J. Green and an inside-out running combo featuring shifty Gio Bernard and power back Jeremy Hill, the ex-LSU Tiger who was one of the revelations of last season when banging for 1124 YR.

The mercurial wideout Green is one of those Bengals entering their contract year and is a prime go-to target for Dalton after A.J. nabbed 69 passes a year ago. There is depth at the wideout spots with Marvin Jones returning from ankle and foot injuries that cost him the entirety of the 2014 season, while ex-Rutgers star Mohamed Sanu emerging as a reliable intermediate threat and chain-mover after catching 56 passes a year ago. It will also help greatly if another of the infirmed from a year ago, Tyler Eifert, is beyond the dislocated elbow that ended his 2014 season in the first half of the opener at Baltimore, though Eifert’s TE position has not been a “fantasy-friendly” one lately for Cincy.

Meanwhile, a veteran OL has held up adequately against talented AFC North defensive fronts in recent years, and it’s worth noting that starting tackles Andre Smith and Andrew Whitworth are among the many Bengals entering their contract years and figure to be primed for big efforts.

More pressing needs in the offseason appeared to exist on the defensive side, especially after the Bengals sagged to a league-low 20 sacks a year ago. Seeking an immediate upgrade in free agency, Cincy inked Tampa Bay DE Michael Johnson, a onetime Bengals star who left for the Bucs last year but returns to Paul Brown Stadium, where he first emerged as a pass rushing force. Also up front, DT Geno Atkins is another year removed from his devastating 2013 ACL tear and should be closer to his pre-injury form, as hopefully will be impact OLB Vontaze Burfict, himself off of serious mircofracture knee surgery. Third-round pick Paul Dawson, a LB from TCU who dropped down the draft board in spring due to reported attitude problems, will have a chance to prove his detractors wrong and perhaps provide some of the pass-rush pressure that Cincy was seeking in the offseason.

Improved harassment of opposing QBs will also be welcomed by a secondary that was plagued by inconsistencies a year ago. While Reggie Nelson is a force at box safety, Lewis could use some upgrades from his CBs, especially Dre Kirkpatrick, who needs to start earning his big contract, or second-year Darqueze Dennard.

While projecting schedules is often an inexact science, the Bengals enter the fall with what would have been the second-toughest slate a year ago. Though it looks much what is faced by other North contenders who also see the AFC West and NFC West cycle through the schedules this fall. Still, it doesn’t appear easy, and the Bengals will need to use every ounce of their considerable firepower to prevent regressing and missing the playoffs. Which might not cause the end of the Marvin Lewis era, but could precede a mass exodus of free agents and perhaps the end of Dalton’s run at QB in Cincy. The stakes are high on the banks of the Ohio River this fall.

How long have we been around at TGS? Long enough to remember the days when the Pittsburgh Steelers (2014 SUR 11-6, PSR 9-8, O/U 10-7; lost to Ravens 30-17 in Wild Card Round) were regarded as the laughingstocks of the league. The Steelers had never reached the postseason until 1972, a year we recall so well at TGS beyond that as the one of the Watergate break-in and George McGovern’s well-past-midnight acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention in Miami Beach. The competing storylines of the NFL that fall were not only the Miami Dolphins’ quest for a perfect season but also Art Rooney’s Steelers shedding their decades of futility with the powerhouse that HC Chuck Noll had assembled at then fairly-new Three Rivers Stadium. Indeed, the enduring memory from the 1972 campaign is not anything specific about the 17-0 Dolphins but rather Franco Harris’ “Immaculate Reception” against the Raiders in the Division Round, a miracle TD in the final seconds that set the stage for four-plus decades of Pittsburgh as a contender, and six Super Bowl titles along the way.

We do recall the Steelers as a contender in the early 1960s and even a participant in one of the NFL “Playoff Bowls” that was a CBS-TV creation  in that decade for conference runners-up, but we still find it hard to fathom that in the 46 years since 1969, Pittsburgh has employed exactly three head coaches--the aforementioned Noll, Bill Cowher, and Mike Tomlin, each with Super Bowl wins (in Nol’s case, four of them). All in stark contrast to the gloomy period of the mid-to-late 60s, when the Steelers would go through three coaches (Buddy Parker, Mike Nixon, and Bill Austin) in a brutal four-year stretch between 1964-68. Hard to believe that the Men of Steel have had as many coaches in the nearly five decades since as they did in that one wretched stretch in the 60s, and a 14-53-3 record between 1965-69, which included Noll’s first season as coach.

Which brings us to current HC Mike Tomlin, now beginning his ninth season (can it be?) and as secure as any coach in the league. Although there are a few more questions being asked about the 2015 Steelers, the first time under Tomlin’s watch in which sage d.c. Dick LeBeau and his legendary zone-blitz schemes will be absent from the Pittsburgh equation. Depending upon which story to believe, LeBeau either left of his own volition or was gently nudged out at the end of last season. Whatever, he now works on Ken Whisenhunt’s staff at Tennessee.

If Tomlin had indeed been leaning heavily upon LeBeau, as some insiders expect, over the past several years, we will likely find out this fall.

The new d.c will be Keith Butler, promoted from LB coach, but the Steelers likely do not stray far from LeBeau’s philosophy or his 3-4 alignments. Still, Pittsburgh had regressed in recent years on the stop end, and last year’s number 18 rating in overall defense was its worst in the 21st century. New faces abound on the platoon, and not just because of LeBeau’s departure; familiar names such as Troy Polamalu, Jason Worilds, and Ike Taylor have all retired, while bearded DE Brett Keisel was released and CB Brice McCain moved to Miami in free agency. Thus, what was recently one of the oldest defenses in the league now projects to an average age of 26.5 years for the projected starters.

Butler, however, has his work cut out, as among other shortcomings, the Steelers dipped to just 33 sacks a year ago. Seeking to address pass-rush pressure in the draft, GM Kevin Colbert immediately nabbed Kentucky DE-LB Bud Dupree with a first-round pick. Dupree is now penciled into a WOLB slot and expected to supply pressure from the edge. Another rookie, 2nd-round CB Senquez Golson from Ole Miss, is also expected to crack the starting lineup. Meanwhile, safeties Mike Mitchell (a disappointment a year ago after moving from Carolina and signing a big FA contract) and Shamarko Thomas had yet to play together thru the first two preseason games because of minor injuries.

Whatever, this is far from a settled equation on the stop end, with a lack of proven players in the back seven and with a new d.c. seeking to fit many new pieces together. Not quite business as usual at Heinz Field.

All of which meaning that Ben Roethlisberger and the offense are going to be asked to carry an especially heavy burden, more so in the early portion of the season as the defense looks to coagulate. Early in September, that task will be a bit more daunting with leading rusher Le’Veon Bell (1361 YR and 83 pass receptions a year ago) suspended for the first two games vs. New England and San Francisco. Ex-Panther DeAngelo Williams, signed in free agency, and 2nd-year ex-Kent State scatback Dri Archer will likely fill in until Bell returns for the September 27 game at St. Louis, though it is worth noting that the offense bogged down without an injured Bell in the playoff loss to the Ravens.

Big Ben, however, should continue to post prodigious numbers after passing for a whopping 4932 yards and 32 TDs a year ago. The Steelers led the AFC in total offense last season (411 ypg) and Roethlisberger has almost all of the supporting cast still on hand, including All-Pro WR Antonio Brown, who caught a staggering 129 passes good for almost 1700 yards a year ago. Fellow wideout Martavis Bryant, a legit deep threat who gained over 21 yards per catch last fall, gives Big Ben the potential of having a pair of 1000-yard WRs at his disposal, while Markus Wheaton and TE Heath Miller are reliable intermediate threats. And after a couple of years of re-tooling, the OL has once again emerged as a strength, led by ex-Stanford G David DeCastro, though a potential season-ending ankle injury suffered by C Maurkice Pouncey in the August 23 preseason game vs. Green Bay is cause for concern.

The margin for error in Pittsburgh, however, is razor thin, as underlined when the offense struggled minus an injured Bell in the playoffs. And then there is Roethlisberger, still able to slide and buy time as well as any in the pocket, but also entering his 12th season and having endured plenty of wear and tear along the way. True, Big Ben has enjoyed a couple of relatively injury-free seasons in a row, but he had some physical issues beforehand, and keeping him on the field for 16 games is not a given. Roethlisberger’s presence will be necessary for the Steelers to make a playoff run, confirmed by watching the various struggled of the offense in early preseason action when Big Ben was on the sideline. The preseason injury to PK Shane Suisham, who had learned to deal with Heinz Field’s swirling winds, is another concern.

In conclusion, as long as Big Ben avoids injury, Pittsburgh likely stays in contention. But we also see a lot of ways for the Steelers to veer off course. There is no guarantee that Pittsburgh gets back to the playoffs this fall.

Where do we begin with the mess that is the Cleveland Browns (2014 SUR 7-9, PSR 9-6-1, O/U 5-11)? Let’s start with the new combination of uniforms, in which the franchise has tampered yet again with its unique seal brown-and-orange scheme, which can lend itself to some very tasteful football outfits. (Nothing wrong with the white shirts-and-brown-or-orange pants). Or, if not careful, into some gaudy combinations, such as all-brown or an all-orange pumpkin-like look that borders on garish, and the unnecessary “Cleveland” in block letters on the fronts of the uniforms. The new costumes have also tampered with traditional striping combinations. To this point, the Browns have at least not altered their traditional helmets, but we cringe at some of the unsightly combinations we are likely to see in this new uni look in the fall. You’ve been forewarned.

Fashion reviews aside, let’s now meet the NFL’s new most-dysfunctional franchise, a label that hardly seemed to fit for a while last fall when the Brownies jumped to a surprising 6-3 break from the gate and briefly emerging as one of the top storylines in the league. But that was before the campaign would once again completely unravel down the stretch and jeopardize the jobs of HC Mike Pettine and GM Ray Farmer, as owner Jimmy Haslam toyed with the idea of a fourth HC and GM in as many years. (Farmer is now under NFL suspension for the first four games of the regular season after illegal texting of coaches during games in 2014.). Moreover, the plight of immature Johnny Football (who spent part of the offseason in rehab for some sort of vice) and Haslam’s apparent souring on the 2012 Heisman winner has the team’s QB situation back up in the air, especially after Brian Hoyer, who helped whip Cleveland into contention past midseason, left in free agency for the Texans. Josh McCown, recently with the Bears and Bucs, was signed in free agency as a stop-gap.

The change theme, however, continued at the offensive coordinator spot, when Kyle Shanahan escaped to Atlanta. John DeFilippo, most recently the QB coach in Oakland, was subsequently enlisted and becomes Cleveland’s seventh o.c. in eight years. This will also be DeFilippo’s first run as a play-caller, which has not fostered a lot of confidence after the five-game losing streak to conclude 2014. Moreover, TE Jordan Cameron, who emerged as a reliable threat in 2014, left in free agency for Miami, while troubled WR Josh Gordon, after dealing with off-field issues and a suspension to begin 2014, only to be suspended again late in the season, is now on the shelf for the entirety of the 2015 due to league suspension. A Pro Bowl receiver in 2013, Gordon’s plight is consistent with the travails of a franchise that appears to be spinning out of control.

DeFilippo will likely try to simplify this year’s strike force, leaning upon the journeyman McCown’s qualities as a low-risk game manager and hoping to take advantage of a substantial OL (at least as long as key C Alex Mack returns to full strength after an injury-shortened 2014) now fortified by Cleveland’s second first-round draft pick, Florida State’s versatile Cameron Erving. Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell are functional if not flashy runners; Miami-Fla. rookie Duke Johnson could eventually enter the mix but has been slowed by a hamstring injury in preseason.  GM Farmer also signed wideouts Dwayne Bowe (ex-Chiefs) and Brian Hartline (ex-Dolphins) to give McCown some viable targets. Early preseason performances for the offense, however, have hardly gone smoothly, and Cleveland does not appear  capable of prevailing in many shootouts this fall.

On the plus side, the thought among most AFC observers is that the defense ought to be good enough to keep the Browns in most of their games. There were some shortcomings last season, including ranking last in rush defense, which can be partly blamed upon injuries, though poor tackling was also a recurring theme.

Nonetheless, the stop unit did play well in stretches, and the addition of first-round draft pick DT Danny Shelton from the University of Washington should begin to help plug some of the holes in the defensive middle. Farmer also went D-line in the second round (the Brownies’ third overall selection) with Utah pass-rush demon DE Nate Orchard. Established playmakers ILB Karlos Dansby and OLB Paul Kruger populate the LB corps.

The strength of the stop unit should be in the secondary, where CB Joe Haden and safeties Donte Whitner and Tashaun Gipson all qualified for the Pro Bowl a year ago. The top defensive FA addition was CB Tramon Williams, who moves from Green Bay and likely starts opposite Haden. But until the run defense improves, and the Brownies start forcing more quick three-and-outs, the upside for the platoon is limited.

Numbers-wise, note that Cleveland continued as one of the primo “under” teams in the league last season, going that way in 11 of 16 games, and now ”under” 44-24-1 their last 69 games. The Browns were also 7-2-1 as a dog last season, but their chalk mark is a subpar 3-7 since 2013.

While HC Pettine impressed for a while in his debut last season, like his predecessors he seemed helpless to stop the inevitable slump once losses began to mount. And it is hard to see where the Brownies upgraded where they needed to most, on offense, in the offseason. A team needs to score a lot of points to stay afloat and make a breakthrough in the rugged AFC North. Not this year for Cleveland fans, who have already dismissed the Indians on the baseball side.

As a year ago, the city’s best chance to end its 51-year championship drought will have to wait for LeBron and the Cavs to hopefully give it another go in the NBA Finals next June.

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