Best and worst case scenarios in the AFC North

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As the NFL season is right around the corner, optimism is at its finest. Every team is 0-0, tied for first place. No team has been eliminated from the postseason yet. Every rivalry’s bragging rights are still up for the taking. Every player could have THAT career-defining year.  The point of these articles is to give every team’s hopeful season and every team’s disaster season. While some teams’ best scenarios involve Super Bowls, other teams are simply hoping for signs of great potential from young players. I will disregard injuries in worst case scenarios (unless talking about an injury-prone player) because obviously anyone can get injured in football. This article will focus on the four AFC North teams: Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Baltimore and Cleveland.

Best and worst case scenarios in the AFC North

Pittsburgh Steelers

Best Case: Ben Roethlisberger clicked perfectly in Todd Haley’s quick-hit offense last season, and this year is no different. Roethlisberger builds on his career highs in completion percentage (67.1%), touchdown passes (32), yards in a season (4952) and yards per game (309.5). Returning are all of his weapons including Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant. The offensive line also remains dominant after only allowing 33 sacks last season. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh’s three most recent first round picks (all linebackers) Jarvis Jones, Ryan Shazier and Bud Dupree show signs of major progress and resemble a trio that will rejuvenate the lackluster Steelers defense. Yes, Pittsburgh’s defense is not great, but they can at least stop teams enough for this high powered offense to get the job done. Pittsburgh wins the AFC North and the yellow and black make a deep postseason run. A Super Bowl is not out of the question. Who can stop this offense?

Worst Case: Roethlisberger, now 33, proves that last year was his career year. He cannot repeat his insane 32 TD:9 INT rate and starts turning the ball over. Antonio Brown simply is not as productive as he was last year as no second option emerges in the Steelers passing attack. Martavis Bryant’s four game suspension is also costly. In the backfield, Le’Veon Bell continues to make poor off-the-field decisions and misses more games later in the season. The Steelers simply cannot score enough points to bail out their awful defense. Jason Worilds is desperately missed, and the Steelers, having only sacked the quarterback 33 times in 2014, generate even less pressure in 2015. Thus, a weak secondary is exposed that cannot cover anyone or force any turnovers. No yellow towels will be waved in the 2016 NFL playoffs as the Steelers go 9-7.


Cincinnati Bengals

Best Case: The Bengals are one of the better regular season teams over the past six years, having made the postseason five of those six seasons. However, the team has not advanced past the first round in any of those births. Sure, the fans are frustrated, but the invaluable experience finally pays off. Andy Dalton proves the critics wrong by winning his first career postseason game, and then a few more. Dalton is determined to cut down turnovers, and instead starts making smart reads more consistently. Tyler Eifert, sorely missed last year, reappears as a stud in the passing game to relieve pressure from All-Pro receiver AJ Green. Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard form the best running back combo in the NFL as well, racking up yards on the ground and in the air. On defense, nothing changes for the Bengals. Vontez Burfict is the center of the defense, and delivers powerful hits every Sunday. The Bengals win the brutally tough AFC North, and are one of the Super Bowl favorites for a chance to bring a title home to Cincinnati.

Worst Case: Bengals fans realize that losing in the first round of the postseason is a lot more fun than not making the postseason at all. Green, injury prone over the last few years, misses a few more games in 2015 and leaves Dalton without any targets in the passing game. Bengals fans are also very aware that Dalton is capable of making horrible decisions, and costly interceptions cause them to lose important games. Eifert and receiver Marvin Jones are not the same as they were prior to injuries and can’t get open when defenses double Green. Despite plenty of talent, the Bengals struggle in a tough AFC. Cincinnati wins eight games and watches the playoffs.


Baltimore Ravens

Best Case: 2015 features an improved defense led by second year linebacker CJ Mosely. The young man racked up 133 combined tackles in 2014 and improves on that count in 2015. Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs continues to pressure the quarterback and the Ravens defense capitalizes on mistakes to force turnovers and punts. The Ravens offense, while at first glance looking depleted, is surprisingly efficient and doesn’t turn the ball over. Quarterback Joe Flacco has his best year yet, using first round draft choice Bernard Perriman to stretch every opposing secondary. Steve Smith continues his late career magic and posts more than 1,000 yards receiving. Baltimore returns to the playoffs as a wildcard, the worst nightmare for any three or four seed on wildcard weekend.

Worst Case: Torrey Smith stretched every defense in 2014, and since he is now a San Francisco 49er, Flacco struggles to find open receivers. Perriman, while super athletic, proves to be a complete bust and drops way too balls. Smith shows sign of aging in his play despite insisting he is still an amazing receiver in press conferences. The defense is good, but not great and Baltimore watches Pittsburgh and Cincinnati win plenty of games and advance to the playoffs. Baltimore needs more offensive weapons and focuses on the 2016 NFL Draft.


Cleveland Browns

Best Case: $$$$$$$! Cleveland’s new favorite sign becomes every other AFC North rival’s least favorite button on the keyboard. The Browns, after initially struggling with Josh McCown at the helm, move into a new-look offense that features matured quarterback Johnny Manziel. His dynamic throwing-running ability gives defenses a headache. The Browns feature a dominant offensive line led by center Alex Mack and running back Ben Tate gets plenty of touches. Meanwhile, Barkevious Mingo leads a scary Cleveland pass rush. Rookie nose tackle Danny Shelton’s presence is felt week one, and then again in week two, and then on every other Sunday in 2015. Justin Gilbert also shows serious growth and reaffirms his potential that made him a top-10 selection in the 2014 NFL draft. Although Cleveland barely misses the playoffs in a very tough division, the team finishes 8-8 and there are major signs indicating that Cleveland is one offensive playmaker away from being a playoff team the following year.

 Worst Case: The Browns run of poor signal callers continues. As Manziel or McCown are clearly not capable of handling the offense, the Dawg Pound starts watching more and more college football to see who their new quarterback could be in 2016. Cody Kessler out of USC? Maybe even Cardale Jones out of the Ohio State University (how epic would that be, Cardale Jones leading the Browns to the postseason…). Anyways, the offense is absolutely terrible. There are no targets for McCown or any other quarterback to throw to, and the 19th overall selection Cameron Irving does not find a place on the line. Manziel is cut by the end of the season. On defense, Gilbert proves to be a bust as well, and a very good Browns defense is put to waste. Dante (w)Hitner, Joe Haden, and Mingo can make as many plays as they want, but the Browns still don’t win games and end up with another top-10 selection in the 2016 NFL draft to try and end the run of bad quarterback play.