This is the division with the most meaning in Northwest Ohio. Here’s the order of finish.
1. Cincinnati Bengals
Here’s a team that went 11-5 and won the AFC North for the 3rd time since the league was reorganized 2002. Cincinnati lost 1 starter on offense and replaced him with a better center and lost 2 starters on defense, sort of, as James Harrison will not be missed. Andy Dalton, who completed nearly 62% of his passes, threw for 4300 yards and 33 TDs, against 2o Interceptions, and received a big contract extension over 6 years ($115 Million), must take his game to the next level and this team has to win a playoff game or Marvin Lewis will be looking for a job. A.J. Green is sensational, while Marvin Jones upped his game, and TE Tyler Eifert, 2013s 1st round draft pick, will only get better. They have options in the backfield with Green-Ellis, Giovanni Bernard, and 2014 second round pick Jeremy Hill. An early bye week (4) combined with a tough route in the opening 6 games (@Baltimore, @New England, Carolina at home, and @Indianapolis) has this team around .500 mid season. Games against Pittsburgh Week 14 and Week 17 could decide the division with the loser on the outside looking in regarding the 2014 NFL Playoffs. 10-6 but an 8-8 season with Marvin Lewis being replaced isn’t out of the realm of possibility.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers
In flag city USA, the 45840, this may be the most popular team because of Findlay High School graduate, and famous Ohioan, Ben Roethlisberger and as long as he is the QB of the Pittsburgh Steelers, they can never be counted out of the playoff picture because in today’s NFL, 8-8 gives you a legitimate shot at the playoffs and a division crown. In 2013, a shanked 41 yard field goal by Ryan Succup of Kansas City in Week 17 kept the Steelers out of the 2013 AFC playoffs. Roethlisberger, with a career completion percentage of 63.3, is coming off his best statistical year where he threw for 4300 yards, with 28 TDs against 14 INTs. The addition of LaGarette Blount and Dri Archer in the backfield, combined with the emergence of Le’Veon Bell, a healthy Maurkice Pouncey and Heath Miller, compensates for the loss of starting WR Emmanuel Sanders to Denver and the Steeler offense is more than viable. Landing stud LB Ryan Shazier mid first round, absolutely stealing lineman Stephen Truitt from Notre Dame in the second round, and hope for the emergence of 2013 first round pick Jarvis Jones, helps with a shaky defensive unit that finished 13th overall in 2013. The late games against Cincinnati decide the division and playoffs. 10-6
3. Baltimore Ravens
In 2013, when I predicted the Ravens to miss the playoffs for the first time in the Joe Flacco era, maybe I should have added a caveat the Ravens don’t make the playoffs again in the Joe Flacco era, which is another grueling 5 years Baltimore fans. Looking at Baltimore’s draft and free agents, I expect about the same kind of season for the Ravens in 2014. The offense struggles, as Ray Rice and Steve Smith continue to regress, the defense continues to be decent (finishing 12th overall in 2013), and there seems to something favorable in the schedule for Baltimore (Week 14 @Miami, Week 15 Jacksonville, Week 16 @Houston). 9-7, which could make the playoffs, but something tells me the 2014 NFL Playoffs with be sans Flacco for the second year in a row.
4. Cleveland Browns
Is there any team generating more buzz in the NFL than the Cleveland Browns? Johnny Manziel is here to save Ohio and the country’s most tortured sports city. And hey, LeBron is here as well. It’s a good time to be in Ohio. However, 2014 simply isn’t the year anything is going to happen for this franchise but there is certainly hope in the imminent future. An outstanding 2014 draft, yielding Manziel and uber-talented CB Justin Gilbert, plus two first round picks in 2015 (thank you Buffalo for a Top 5 pick), signing Donte Whitner and Karlos Dansby (to fill holes created by the loss of T.J. Ward and D’Qwell Jackson), has this writer thinking NFL playoffs in Cleveland are only a year away. Josh Gordon will be sorely missed, but the combination of Andrew Hawkins/Miles Austin/Nate Burleson (plus whoever can be signed before the season begins), the maturation of Jordan Cameron, the addition of Ben Tate, and solidity along the offensive line could have this team around .500 heading into Week 12. Is there any doubt who is taking the majority of snaps in 2014 for the Browns? After they start 0-3, have their bye week (4), is Johnny Football going to save us all?
4-12, only because Cleveland is looking to the 2015 draft to compliment their franchise QB and improve a defense that finished in the Top 5 in 2014.