In the AFC North, the first thing that comes to mind is the defending champion Ravens.
However, after a lot of things have shaken up during the offseason, Baltimore may not only not be favorites to successfully win back-to-back Super Bowls, but they may not even be favorites in their own division.
The Ravens lost ray Lewis, Ed Reed, and several other defensive standouts. It will certainly be interesting to see if bringing in Chris Canty and drafting Matt Elam will be enough to retain Baltimore’s fame for solid defense every season.
However, what may be even more interesting will be the questions on offense. Losing Anquan Boldin was huge, as he was Flacco’s go-to target during the postseason. Will Torrey Smith be able to step up as a true No. 1 receiver?
Meanwhile, the Steel City countered problems of its own at the start of the offseason. The team had to cut a few key veterans to meet its salary cap, and that loss of experience could potentially hurt the team. Ben Roethlisberger has dealt with injuries on and off for the last six months, and his health will be the single largest factor as to whether the Steelers can make the playoffs this year.
The Bengals may be in the most interesting position this season. After adding Giovani Bernard and Tyler Eifert, Andy Dalton will have a plethora of weapons to tear through pretty much any defense.
Speaking of defense, Cincinnati has found a way to retain all of its key players. It wouldn’t be too much of a surprise to see the Bengals boast a top-three defense this year, and the team should be in every game come the fourth quarter because of it.
The Browns are still rebuilding, but their defense is becoming nastier by the minute. Important additions like Mingo through the draft and Kruger through free agency will bolster the middle and solidify a pass rush. The offense has some questions to answer, but with a defense to keep them in games, they have time to search for the right pieces for young gunslinger Brandon Weedon.
As for the playoffs, three teams could very well be in play here. The Ravens and Bengals are the two favorites to vie for the division title, and it could go either way. It’s too early in the season to see how injuries and momentum will play out, but I’m leaning towards the Bengals here, strictly because of pure, overall talent.
Whichever way it lands, the other team will almost certainly claim the a Wild Card spot, with the Steelers my favorite in the AFC to secure that last playoff spot.
Cincinnati Bengals: 11-5
Baltimore Ravens: 11-5
Pittsburgh Steelers: 10-6
Cleveland Browns: 6-10