Today's question: Who will win the division, and how many teams from the division will make the playoffs?
Jeremy Fowler, Pittsburgh Steelers: The Steelers are loaded. The offense has a chance to be Ben Roethlisberger’s best top to bottom, and the defense has to improve from its No. 25 rankings in yards-per-rush allowed and interceptions. And to think the Steelers still won 11 games with that defense. This is their year until proved otherwise. They should win the division. Baltimore will have another Baltimore year -- quietly win 10 games, catch a few teams in the playoffs. It will play meaningful games in January. The Bengals get left out here despite a winning record. Spots in the AFC are limited. The Broncos, Colts and Patriots should be locks. Either San Diego or Kansas City should get in, or both. That leaves Baltimore and Pittsburgh fighting for the last one or two spots. Baltimore has a manageable schedule, but the revolving door at the playmaker spots, plus a new coordinator, could cause a slow start for Joe Flacco.
Coley Harvey, Cincinnati Bengals: Because of how weak the AFC North is expected to be this season with games against the strong AFC West and NFC West, it’s unlikely that the division will send three teams to the playoffs like it did last year, especially with the travel element added to the challenge. That said, it’s still possible two teams come out of the division: the Bengals and Steelers. As good of a draft as the Ravens had, they still don’t seem as strong at present as Pittsburgh. The Bengals basically bring back the same team they had a year ago. Consistency and stability can help, that’s for sure. As for the ultimate division champ? Until someone dethrones them, it’s hard picking against the Steelers, another team that brings back a number of players in key positions.
Jamison Hensley, Baltimore Ravens: The Ravens are going to be the only team that makes it out of the AFC North this season. Last season, three teams reached the playoffs largely on a schedule that included eight games against the soft AFC South and NFC South divisions. Playing the west divisions is going to be an increased challenge just based on the extended travel alone. The Steelers’ downfall is going to be their defense. The Bengals didn’t take the necessary step forward this offseason after a fourth straight one-and-done in the postseason. And the Browns should struggle with the lack of a legitimate passing attack. That leaves the Ravens, who added young playmakers (wide receiver Breshad Perriman and tight end Maxx Williams) in the draft and upgraded on defense (safety Kendrick Lewis and cornerback Kyle Arrington) in free agency. It won’t be easy. The first team to 10 wins takes the division this season.
Pat McManamon, Cleveland Browns: The AFC North has had at least one wild-card team in every season but one since 2008, with two wild-card teams in two of the last four years. This season, the AFC North has a difficult task of playing the AFC West and NFC West, which will eliminate one wild-card team. Pittsburgh loses Le’Veon Bell for three games due to suspension but gets to face New England without Tom Brady in the opener. The Steelers have too much talent not to win the division. The question then is the wild-card team. It won’t be Cleveland, but it will be Cincinnati. A.J. Green is healthy, Jeremy Hill is a force and the Bengals' defense improved as last season went on. Pittsburgh will win the division and Cincinnati will be a wild-card team.