AFC North: Handicapping the race
The AFC North sent three teams to the postseason last year. The Pittsburgh Steelers won the division in 2014, while the Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens qualified as wild cards. Pittsburgh and Cincinnati lost in the Wild Card round, while Baltimore capitulated to the New England Patriots in the Divisional.
Going into 2015, getting three teams into the playoffs again is nothing more than a pipe dream. In fact, it is much more likely that only the division winner will get in, while the rest will sit and watch the postseason from their respective couches.
Last season, the AFC North teams had the luxury of playing an insanely easy schedule. While the inter-divisional games were difficult, the others were a walk in the park. The AFC North played against the AFC and NFC South divisions, which consisted of exactly one team with a winning record between them, the Indianapolis Colts. The others combined to have the top three picks in the draft (Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars in that order) along with the Atlanta Falcons picking in the top 10.
Despite playing that cupcake slate, none of the AFC North teams could eclipse 10 victories. This time around, they will get the AFC and NFC West divisions, which have the potential to send five or six teams to the playoffs – depending on your opinion of the St. Louis Rams – with double-digit wins.
The offseason was not particularly kind to any of the AFC North squads. The Steelers are incredibly hamstrung by the salary cap after years of questionable management. They were unable to fill voids left by the departures of Ike Taylor, Troy Polamalu, Brett Keisel, Jason Worilds and Brice McCain. Add in the loss of longtime defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, and Pittsburgh has a litany of issues on that side of the ball.
Cincinnati was relatively quiet as usual, signing an old friend in Michael Johnson. The Bengals lost veteran corner Terence Newman but not much else, keeping the team in tact but failing to improve. Baltimore watched Torrey Smith and Haloti Ngata leave, while watching Dennis Pitta continue to miss time.
According to BOVADA, the Steelers are the best team in the division, getting +900 odds to reach the Super Bowl. Baltimore is sitting at +1100 while Cincinnati checks in at +1800. The Cleveland Browns lag far behind at +5000, not considered a real threat due to Johnny Manziel and Josh McCown fighting to start at quarterback.
It will be a fascinating division to watch, with Andy Dalton trying to prove he can win in January, the Steelers aiming to replace a legend, and the Ravens hoping to win a championship before Steve Smith Sr. retires. Vegas says bet on Pittsburgh to come out on top, but that defense is a total stay-away.