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2018 NFL Season Preview: The AFC North

AFC North
This season is set up to see Le’Veon Bell get a healthy amount of touches. Consider the rest of the AFC North on notice. (Photo Credit: Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports)

Projected Afc North End-of-Season Standings

1 Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5)

2 Baltimore Ravens (7-9)

3 Cleveland Browns (5-11)

4 Cincinnati Bengals (4-12)

Pittsburgh isn’t without questions, especially on defense, but they clearly have the most talent in this division.

Baltimore may not even be as good as a typical seven-win team, but being in a relatively bad division gets them an additional win or two.

Cleveland is trending upward for the first time in recent memory. They upgraded at a number of positions, but still have a long ways to go in order to approach a winning record, much less become a legit contender. After getting shut out in the win column last year, only one way to go, right?

Cincinnati just feels like the leading candidate for 2018’s “the wheels have officially come off” award. Not much to be optimistic about here.

QB Watch (Because it’s the most important position)

Pittsburgh: Ben Roethlisberger is on the downside of his career and has openly pondered retiring (though maybe not all that seriously). He’s a good match for this offense though. His big arm can lead to plenty of big plays for Antonio Brown and the rest of Pittsburgh’s receiving corps. But you know how we know Big Ben is getting old? He had to have Fortnite explained to him.

Baltimore: Joe Flacco was put on the clock as soon as Baltimore took Lamar Jackson in the draft. This will be one of the more fascinating QB battles to watch as the season progresses. Baltimore has a fairly easy schedule early on which could buy Flacco some time, but expect to see Jackson under center before the season is over.

Cleveland: Tyrod Taylor is the NFL’s man without a home. Even though he had some perfectly fine years in Buffalo, it seemed like the organization never got fully behind him. Now in Cleveland, he’s got the reigning number-one pick (Baker Mayfield) behind him. Taylor’s time in the AFC North may already have a cap on it, but he’s in pretty good shape to prove himself yet again, even as Cleveland will continue to struggle.

Cincinnati: Andy Dalton just hasn’t progressed the way many in Cincy thought he would. We generally think of head coaches as being on the “hot seat” as far as being replaced, but that term certainly applying to Dalton this season as well.

Non-QB Positions/Players to Watch

Pittsburgh: Le’Veon Bell. This might seem too obvious, but all sides appear to be content with this being Bell’s last season with the Steelers. That would incentivize Pittsburgh to use him as much as they possibly can, as they don’t have any long-term health concerns if he’s playing elsewhere. Bell would readily accept that challenge. It’s really an interesting situation because they are contractually on opposite sides of the deal-making spectrum, but it’s also in the best interest of both sides to do one thing: feed Bell the ball.

Baltimore: Wide Receiver. Michael Crabtree is a fine player, but not necessarily someone considered to be a game-breaker. Somebody other than Crabtree needs to take a huge leap. If not, teams could double the newly acquired WR and force the ball elsewhere. That, in itself, is enough to cause the Baltimore downfall this season.

Cleveland: Myles Garrett. If the former top pick can infuse a consistent pass rush in Cleveland’s defense, it could end up kind of decent. And decent is, well … not bad.

Cincinnati: Secondary. Despite the concerns about Andy Dalton, the offense still has capable players in Joe Mixon and A.J. Green. However, stopping teams – especially from getting the ball downfield in the air – has to give Bengals fans nightmares.

Crazy Wild Scenario

If the Steelers defense doesn’t take a meaningful step up and the two of Roethlisberger, Brown, and/or Bell are forced to miss some time (entirely possible), we could be looking at a wide-open division … in the worst way possible. If that happens, it’s possible an 8-8 record could win the division, in which case nothing can be ruled out. Yep, say it with me: The Cleveland Browns, 2018 AFC North Champs!

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2018 NFL Season Preview: The AFC North


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