Monday, August 25, 2014

Long And Suite Preview: The AFC North

The Ravens and Steelers were once the class of the AFC, but both missed the postseason in 2013. Can they bounce back this season?
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin) and Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

The AFC North is about as wide open as a division can be. Not quite to an NFC East level, perhaps, where all four teams could have conceivably won the division entering each of the last three seasons (with nothing to say of this one), but over the last three seasons, it's been anybody's guess as to who will reign supreme in the American North (unless your guess has been Cleveland).

The AFC North has represented the conference in the Super Bowl in two of the last four years and three of the last six, which doesn't seem overly impressive, but they're the only division in the conference that has had two representatives make the Big Game in the last half-decade (the NFC West has had three different teams make the Super Bowl since 2009).

But those two teams, Pittsburgh and Baltimore, have regressed a bit over the last 12 months. Both the Steelers and Ravens finished 8-8, leaving the division open for Cincinnati to claim, and for the first time since 2007, there was only a single entry from the division in the AFC Playoffs.

Here's how the division breaks down - separated into two groups. Teams better than you think they are, and teams not as good as you think they are:

(It should be noted here, and will be repeated, that how a team is classified here is not indicative of their relative quality within the division. For example, the Browns are listed as being better than advertised, and the Ravens are listed as being worse. That doesn't necessarily mean that the Browns will be better than the Ravens. It just means that one team is over-valued and one team is under-valued.)

These Teams Are Better Than You Think They Are

Cincinatti Bengals

2013 Outcome: 11-5, 1st in AFC North, Lost in AFC Wild Card Round
Odds To Win Division: +175
Over/Under Wins: 9

The Bengals are 30-18 over the last three seasons, and have won more games each year than the year before. But they're 0-3 in the playoffs under Andy Dalton, so everyone assumes that they most not be a real threat. But here's the secret: the fact that they've made the playoffs in each of the last three years (and improved each year along the way) is much more indicative of their quality than their performance in the playoffs themselves. It's purely sample size - 48 games is a more reliable sample than three games.

Are the Bengals the favorite in the AFC? No. They're a distant third, at best. But are they an also-ran to disregard simply because they haven't had success in the playoffs? Also no.

(Although, to be honest, you could probably argue that 14 of the 16 teams in the conference are also-rans to disregard simply because they aren't the Broncos or Patriots. But on the other hand, the last decade of NFL postseasons has seemed to show us that pre-season favorites usually don't make the Super Bowl. Except last year, when it was straight chalk all the way through. So basically, my point is, I have no idea.)

Here's what we know about the Bengals: They have an above-average quarterback (Andy Dalton) whose life is made easier by one of a premier talent at wide receiver that only comes around once or twice in a generation (A.J. Green), but at the same time made more difficult by the fact that they can't find reliable receivers to play opposite him (Marvin Jones? Mohamed Sanu? Andrew Hawkins?). They play well in the middle of the field, with an underrated tight end duo (Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert) who combined for 85 catches and 903 yards last season, and an underrated running back duo (BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovanni Bernard), who compliment each other well in a classic Thunder-Lightning exchange. They have a strong defense (ranked 5th last year by Football Outsiders) that makes up for a lack of top-flight star talent (unless you want to count Geno Atkins, who will be coming off an injury) by featuring above-average-to-good players at just about every position.

Here's what we don't know: Both Offensive Coordinator Jay Gruden and Defensive Coordinator Mike Zimmer are no longer with the team. Gruden took over the head coaching vacancy for the Redskins, Zimmer took over at the helm in Minnesota. So while head coach Marvin Lewis is still around, expect there to be a few changes to Cincinnati's schemes on both sides of the ball. Cincinnati has been a good team, but not so good that they qualify for the "if it ain't broke..." treatment, so maybe a few changes here and there would be good.

One way or the other, the Bengals are (technically) the favorite in the division. Playing a first-place schedule (the Patriots and Broncos are their *extra* games this season) will certainly make repeating as division champions more difficult, but they have as good a chance as anyone. Probably better.


Cleveland Browns

2013 Outcome: 4-12, 4th in AFC North, Missed Playoffs
Odds To Win Division: +700
Over/Under Wins: 6.5

The Browns were just 4-12 in 2013, but they had the scoring margin of a team expected to win 5.5 games. Under-performing your expected win-loss by that much is the best possible harbinger for future improvement.

Also a good sign for improvement? They actually have quarterbacks this season.

In 2013, the Browns were 3-0 with Brian Hoyer under center. They were 1-12 with Jason Campbell and Brandon Weeden. Neither are still with the team. Hoyer was a well-regarded backup when he was with the Patriots but never got a chance as a full-time starter until last year. He won his first three starts before missing the rest of the season with a knee injury. The Browns bolstered their bullpen by drafting Johnny Manziel in the first round of the draft, and Hoyer and Manziel are battling for the starting spot (last week, it was announced that Hoyer will be the opening day starter, but I would expect that's not set in stone).

They added some weapons elsewhere on offense - Miles Austin and Ben Tate give Cleveland NFL-level talent at wide receiver and running back, which they sorely lacked last season. The year-long suspension to Josh Gordon is still up in the air (the appeal was heard nearly three weeks ago and no response has been made yet), but if it gets reduced, the Browns offense could be one of the more underrated units in football.

An improved defense should help them as well - they added Karlos Dansby and Donte Whitner, which should shore up the middle of their defense, which had a few holes last year. Barkevious Mingo was raw as a rookie, picking up just five sacks, but his effortless athleticism suggest he has All-Pro production lingering just beneath the surface. They also drafted cornerback Justin Gilbert in the first round, and will pair him with Pro Bowler Joe Haden. If Gilbert pans out, they could have the best pair of cornerbacks in the division, possibly in the entire conference.

Don't expect the Browns to win the division - there's a reason they have the longest odds. But don't expect them to just go away quietly, either - there's a reason why their odds are better than most other 4th-place teams from last season.


These Teams Aren't As Good As You Think They Are

Baltimore Ravens

2013 Outcome: 8-8, 2nd in AFC North, Missed Playoffs
Odds To Win Division: +250
Over/Under Wins: 8.5

The Ravens won the Super Bowl in 2012 and missed the playoffs in 2013. Their 2013 campaign is probably more indicative of the direction they're moving.

Joe Flacco isn't a very good quarterback. He's a household name because he plays for a good team, had one great postseason run, and won a Super Bowl, but he's barely an above-average quarterback, if that. Football Outsiders ranked him 40th out of 45 quarterbacks who qualified for their metrics last year. This wouldn't be a huge problem if not for his hysterically over-priced contract. Flacco is the 4th-highest paid player in the league, making more than Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and every single non-quarterback in football.

In his early years, the Ravens didn't need Flacco to be a world-beating quarterback, because his low cap figure allowed them to spread money around everywhere else, especially on defense, where their bread was buttered. Now that Flacco is being paid through the roof, they need him to be an elite quarterback, because they just don't have the depth anymore to sustain themselves.

Last season was exhibit A. Flacco didn't really play a single great game, the rushing attack disappeared (they finished dead last in yards per rush attempt), and going into Week 16, only needing one win in their last two games to secure a playoff spot, they lost by a combined score of 75-24 and missed the playoffs.

So where did Baltimore improve? Well, they added Steve Smith, which gives them another target in the passing game, and they drafted C.J. Mosley and Timmy Jernigan to play middle linebacker and nose tackle. But that's really it. Their depth on the offensive and defensive line is starting to wear thin, and their running game will probably struggle again, especially with Ray Rice missing time due to his suspension.

Flacco will likely be better in 2014 than he was in 2013. And the 2013 Ravens were close to making the playoffs. A slight improvement from Flacco could be all it takes to put them over the hump. Also helping will be playing a 2nd-place schedule while Cincinnati has to run the gauntlet against the AFC's elite. But the Ravens have a lot of work to do to get back to Super Bowl level, and I wouldn't hold my breath for it happening any time soon.


This Team is Better/Worse Than You Think

Pittsburgh Steelers

2013 Outcome: 8-8, 3rd in AFC North, Missed Playoffs
Odds To Win Division: +175
Over/Under Wins: 8.5

I guess this placement really depends on what you think of the Steelers, and that opinion seems pretty split these days. Some see an aged team hanging on to the remnants of squads that won two Super Bowls and three AFC titles from 2005-2010, while others see a consistently solid franchise with a star quarterback and potentially stellar defense rebuilt on young speed.

Both of those opinions are valid, by the way.

The Steelers have, in fact, held onto some stars from great teams past for too long. Ike Taylor never got his due when he was doing great things on some great defenses, but now even Ike can't Swag his way past Father Time, and the same can be said about players like Larry Foote, Brett Kiesel and Ryan Clark, who were all allowed to walk after last year.

Well, Kiesel was just brought back at a discounted rate to add depth, but the point is Pittsburgh made a commitment to get younger, and significantly faster, particularly on defense. That usually stellar D was 13th in yards allowed, 19th in points allowed and 24th against the pass in 2013, and that was with a healthy Troy Polamalu, something even the most die-hard of Steelers fans knows you can't count on.

This year, Pittsburgh has rebuilt its defense around a pair of veterans that have produced in recent years in inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons and defensive end Cameron Hayward. The Steelers are still waiting on 2013 first round pick Jarvis Jones to produce some sacks, but coaches seem optimistic about the sophomore's progression and, despite over-paying to keep him in town, the staff is in love with Jason Worilds' abilities as a pass rusher and in coverage.

Are they the next Lloyd and Greene or Harrison and Woodley? Probably not, but combined with Timmons and this year's first round pick Ryan Shazier, at least the Pittsburgh linebackers will again have speed. They better, because the situation at corner is bleak with Taylor and William Gay/Cortez Allen looking like the best options, and the fragile Polamalu roaming at safety with free agent signing Mike Mitchell.

On offense things will again revolve around Roethlisberger and an offensive line that can, if it stays healthy, be solid. Maurkice Poincey was given a big extension by the club, probably because they thought, mathematically speaking, he has to stay healthy at some point, right? David DeCastro looks to be on the verge of some big things at guard, but a lack of talent at tackle could again mean Roethlisberger is running for his life, and a dearth of talent/experience outside of Pro Bowl receiver Antonio Brown means he won't have many weapons to choose from.

The best case scenario involves LeBackfield (Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrett Blount) picking up the slack in the ground game behind a solid interior line, while sophomore receiver Markus Wheaton breaks out next to Brown, and veteran Lance Moore is solid. Any one or two of those things could happen, but I wouldn't bet on all of them, or the newly revamped defense gelling quite as well as planned.

Still, with Cincy treading water, Baltimore in flux and Cleveland still being Cleveland (even with Johnny Football and LeBron in town) don't be surprised to see Pittsburgh take home a division crown… Or finish 8-8 again. Hell, I don't know.


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