Best Case, Worst Case for each AFC North team in 2014
Expect the Ravens and Steelers to bounce back from 8-8 records, while the Bengals could return to the pack in the AFC North. The Browns, meanwhile, remain the Browns.
The whole idea started on our award-winning* podcast (embedded below): what would each NFL team look like in their “Armageddon scenario”? In other words, what’s the absolute worst thing that could happen to each NFL team? And, conversely, what’s the best-case scenario for each team? (Yes, theoretically “16 wins and the Super Bowl works, but let’s be realistic.)
We'll go by division on these and if you want to hear the breakdown for each one, subscribe to the Eye on Football podcast via iTunes. Up now, the AFC North.
DREAM WEAVER: Relatively speaking, last season was an aberration. Under John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco, who both arrived in Baltimore in 2008 and haven't missed a day since, the Ravens had always won at least nine games and have always qualified for the post season. In 2013, the lack of playmakers in both the passing and running game, along with a leaky offensive line, finally caught up with them.
But Anquan Boldin was shipped to the 49ers, Dennis Pitta missed much of the year with a hip injury, Ray Rice suddenly looked old and slow and the O-line couldn't block an office chair. By the time it was over, the unit ranked 30th ahead of only the Giants and the Jaguars, according to Football Outsiders, and Flacco was 35th in QB efficiency just behind Matt Schaub, Chad Henne and Christian Ponder.
Not surprisingly, the Ravens got to work this offseason, signing wide receiver Steve Smith, who spent his first 13 NFL seasons with the Panthers. Yes, he's old but he can still play. Don't forget, Derrick Mason excelled for years in the Ravens' offense as Flacco's security blanket and Smith can do the same opposite Torrey Smith.
So how much does Smith have in the tank? TheMMQB.com's Andy Benoit calls the wide receiver the best free-agent signing of the entire 2014 offseason. Put another way: Expect the Ravens to bounce back -- 11 wins sounds about right -- from their .500 record and do what they usually do: Contend for a division title.
ARMAGEDDON: The closest Flacco has ever come to missing a start came as a rookie, when he was behind Kyle Boller and Troy Smith on the depth chart. Through a series of events, neither was available for the 2008 regular-season opener, Flacco won the job by default, and six seasons later here we are. While consistency -- at least in non-playoff games -- has been a problem for the former first-rounder, durability has not. So it truly would be football armageddon if Flacco missed any time, forcing the team to hand the offense over to Tyrod Taylor.
Gary Kubiak, the architect for the Texans' forgettable 2-14 season in 2013, is now the new offensive coordinator. He brings West Coast concepts to Baltimore, which, when it works, should get the ball out of Flacco's hands and to his playmakers.
A bigger issue would be if right tackle Ricky Wagner doesn't pan out, though to be fair, a) he has held his own this preseason, according to Harbaugh, and b) it's not like Michael Oher ever proved worthy of that first-round pick.
There are also questions about the 35-year-old Smith being able to play at a high level for an entire season, as well as the team's other pass-catching options behind him. (As it stands, the Nos. 3 and 4 jobs belong to Jacoby Jones and Marlon Brown.)
Life after Ray and Ed has gone surprisingly well; the defense is coming of a quietly solid 2013, but the secondary could be the unit's weak link. Former first-rounder Matt Elam will man one safety spot, but the other goes to former Ram Darian Stewart, who was the definition of value over replacement last season. According to Pro Football Focus, Stewart ranked 41st out of 85 safeties.
By Week 3, we'll know where this team stands because its first three games are against division opponents. Not exactly how you want to ease into September, but even if the Ravens somehow stumble to 0-3, there's no way they lose more than eight games. It's never happened under Harbaugh and Flacco and it won't start now.
DREAM WEAVER: Let's just put this out there now: We don't have a lot of faith in Andy Dalton when the lights are brightest. Yes, he's helped the Bengals to the playoffs in each of his first three seasons, and yes, he's earned that six-year, $115 million contract (be sure to read the fine print), and, yes, he's been on fire this preseason...
... But so has Brandon Weeden. And while it's unfair to compare Dalton -- or, hell, anybody -- to Weeden, the point remains: Dalton not only struggles in the postseason, he has been maddeningly inconsistent in nationally televised games.
This is where you point out that Dalton's still young, still improving, and still has A.J. Green, Gio Bernard, Tyler Eifert, a good offensive line and an even better defense. And we can't disagree with any of it. There's a lot to like. But we also can't get over the fact that this group has underachieved and it starts with the head coach.
Marvin Lewis now 0-5 in playoff games, expected to win 2.44 games pic.twitter.com/fC5Nnnh9i9— Football Perspective (@fbgchase) January 5, 2014
With both the Ravens and Steelers improving in 2014, we think the Bengals will finish a close third in the division. But if everything falls into place, including Dalton showing up in big games, Cincinnati could get to 11-5, another division title, and who knows, maybe even a win in January.
ARMAGEDDON: Worst-case scenario: Dalton summons Mark Sanchez's spirit, spends his Sunday afternoon short-hopping passes all over the field and recreates his own version of the Butt Fumble. More likely: Cincy slips because of that first-place schedule -- which includes games against the Patriots and Broncos -- and ends the season with seven wins. That's if everything goes wrong; we're thinking 9-7 sounds about right, while the Ravens and Steelers could win the division with 10-6 records.
If nothing else, we're living in an age where "the Bengals slipping" means that they win nine times.
DREAM WEAVER: Monday Night Football color commentator and former Super Bowl-winning coach Jon Gruden said it before the Browns-Redskins get-together: Johnny Manziel just needs to show a week's improvement from his first preseason game.
Didn't happen. Manziel looked like a rookie overwhelmed at times with the sheer volume of information flying at him.
And while it will get better for him, the Browns remain a below-average squad. It's hard to blame first-year coach Mike Pettine for that, but he could have done a better job handling the Brian Hoyer-Johnny Manziel media-manufactured quarterback drama. Jaguars coach Gus Bradley said from the moment the team drafted Blake Bortles third overall that the rookie wouldn't play in 2014. That, for the most part, ended the "So, when can we expect to see him?!" discussions. And even if Bradley decides in, say, Week 7 to turn to Bortles, he'll be able to do it on his terms, not because of perceived pressure from fans or media.
It's a lesson Pettine didn't learn when he was the Jets' defensive coordinator back in 2012 and the team thought it made sense to trade for Tim Tebow. That ended exactly how you thought it might.
As for the 2014 Browns, whoever's under center, the offense lacks playmakers. Josh Gordon could be looking at an eight-game suspension, right tackle Mitchell Schwartz is going to get something killed with his "blocking optional" approach to pass protection, and while the defense could be very good, spending 45 minutes on the field because of an inept offense generally tends to negate any schematic or athletic advantages.
If general manager Ray Farmer finds some magic beans, the Browns could win six games. The reality is that four is much more likely, though neither will make owner Jimmy Haslam happy. Which means he'll probably fire everybody in the offseason and draft another quarterback in the spring.
We're using this as an opportunity to relive the magic of Johnny Football's first MNF game.
Johnny Manziel letting the Redskins bench know how many scoring drives the Browns have been on tonight. pic.twitter.com/Sbtf2zzByB— John Breech (@johnbreech) August 19, 2014
No doubt inspired by former Browns punter Chris Gardocki:
As for who will be the starter against the Steelers in Week 1, Pettine channeled Mr. Hand.
DREAM WEAVER: It all starts with Ben Roethlisberger, who looked sharp against the Bills Saturday, throwing two touchdown passes behind a revamped offensive line. In fact, the biggest story this offseason isn't about Big Ben finally getting that big wideout (rookie Martavis Bryant has a long way to go), or that the running game will include Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount, or that Markus Wheaton will make everybody forget about Emmanuel Sanders. It's that the offensive line, long the laughing stock of this unit, could be its biggest strength.
We've said it before but offensive line coach Mike Munchak is Pittsburgh's most important free-agent acquisition and we've already seen that in two preseason games. Roethlisberger, who continues to look very comfortable in Todd Haley's offense (hey, they're friends now!), has also had very little in the way of pressure. It's welcome news for a quarterback who spent much of the first decade of his career taking a beating.
Here's Roethlisberger and Wheaton hooking up for a 16-yard touchdown last Saturday. Pay particular attention to the pass protection, Wheaton's precise route running (he sets up Stephon Gilmore with a nice post-corner route), and Roethlisberger's pinpoint accuracy.
ARMAGEDDON: The defense is a concern but for different reasons than we're used to hearing. No longer is this group considered old. In fact, it is exceedingly young, save Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor. Rookie first-rounder Ryan Shazier couldn't have looked better in his debut against the Bills, but consistency in both phases could be an issue for this group as it gets comfortable with one another.
But unlike a lot of teams, the Steelers' offense can score, which will keep them in just about every game.
The AFC North is probably the second- or third-best division in football after the NFC West and NFC North. But there isn't much drama for our purposes here. Like the Bengals and Ravens, we expect the Steelers to win anywhere from eight to 11 games, maybe 12 if everything falls their way. One advantage Pittsburgh has over its division rivals: a relatively easy schedule in October and November that could set up nicely for a strong December. And, if all goes well, a return to January football after a two-year absence.
* As far as we know, not true.
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