Cleveland Browns 5-11 record (1-5 division, 4-4 home, 1-7 away)
AFC North rank #4
- The Browns could jump out of the gate quickly with three winnable non-conference games to start the season. Winning early always has the potential of giving a team confidence regardless of the competition
- The Browns have a powerful second year running back in Isaiah Crowell who had a solid rookie year with eight touchdowns and 4.1 yards per carry.
- Both Browns potential starting quarterbacks had positive outings in their final preseason games (Josh McCown 17-23 117 yards, 2 TDs in game three; Johnny Manziel 10-18 118 yards, 1 TD in game two).
- The Browns play three of the lowest ranked teams in the NFL, as well as three to four others with major question-marks according to consensus preseason rankings, and only play only two teams outside of the division considered to be the top tier of the NFL.
Not so fast:
- On the field, the Browns just traded their number 1a running back (and 2014 3rd round pick) for a conditional 7th rounder siting immaturity issues. Their other 1a running back, Crowell, did not have a great preseason, which would not be as big of a deal if he hadn’t struggled down the stretch last year (but to be fair, the entire team fell flat). Their projected #1 wide receiver Dwayne Bowe is struggling even more during the preseason than he did during his last couple of years in Kansas City, igniting rumors last week that he could be cut (which made no sense but rumored non-the-less).
- Off the field, the Browns coaches and front office haven’t done the team many favors in the distraction department. Aside from the West trade, the Browns will be without their general manager who is serving a 4-game suspension, and their offensive line coach is suspended indefinitely pending an investigation of a possible assault (although no charges have been filed yet)
- Regarding opponents, the Browns schedule may lack top tier teams, but is still more difficult than last year’s schedule when they finished 7-9. The also have to play three legitimate playoff teams in the AFC North, counterbalancing the easier out-of-division opponents.
Must wins to overachieve: @Jets, Raiders, Titans, 49ers, one divisional home game
Bubble games: @Chargers, @Rams, Cardinals, @ Chiefs, two other divisional home games
Tough matchups: Denver, @ Seattle, divisional road games
Analysis: If the Browns can stabilize their quarterback position and stay healthy at running back and offensive line, they could get close to the .500 mark in 2015. Unfortunately that would take quite a bit of luck and a lot of “ifs”, especially when they are counting on players in key positions that don’t have much game experience. Add in major question marks at wide receiver and depth throughout the offense, it could be a challenging year once again for the browns. On defense, health is once again the key, but they have formidable players at multiple positions and can withstand a couple of injuries that will almost certainly crop up.
With question marks throughout the offensive skill positions, it would be a stretch to predict a Browns .500 season, but expect a few surprises over the first eight games similar to last year. Expect depth and strength of schedule to take its toll in the second half of the season unless Johnny Manziel can create Tebow type of magic. Luckily for the Browns, he has similar escapability and a much better arm, although he isn’t quite as durable.
Cincinnati Bengals 8-8 record (3-3 division, 6-2 home, 2-6 away)
AFC North rank #3
- In 2014 the Bengals once again made the playoffs, a trend they have enjoyed since 2011. Their roster hasn’t had major tweaks on either side of the ball other than a couple of injuries, and have one of the more balances rosters in the league including solid skill players throughout the offense and defense
- Geno Atkins again looks like one of the best defensive tackles in the league
- Andy Dalton, A.J. Green, and Co. have another year under their belt working together as a unit, which has been a successful formula for many teams. Dalton is essentially in a contract year the way his deal is structured, with no guaranteed money after the season
- If Dalton does struggle, AJ McCarron showed more than just flashes of NFL caliber talent during the preseason
Not so fast:
- Five of the first seven games on the Bengals schedule are against potential playoff teams. A bad start to the season could add even more pressure to Dalton and company.
- While the Bengals have arguably the most balanced roster in the AFC North, they haven’t made many roster changes and are flirting with the definition of “insanity”. They haven’t experienced a different result in four years running.
- The pressure is mounting for the Bengals to perform well and move towards a first round bye. As a team (more than just the quarterback), they just haven’t shown they can play well under pressure.
Must wins to overachieve: @ Raiders, Chargers, Texans, Rams, @ 49ers, three divisional games
Bubble games: Chiefs, @ Bills, @ Cardinals, three divisional games
Tough Matchups: @ Broncos, Seahawks
Analysis: The Bengals are on a four-year playoff run despite winning no more than three division games a year. Just when the Bengals seem poised to move over the hump, strange things happen. In 2013, they went 8-0 at home, the last five by a combined 127 points, but lost their 1st round home playoff game. Last year they lost two divisional home games in the 2nd half of 2014, their only two regular season losses in two years, costing them the division title. It would seem natural that a team would start reeling or excelling after experiencing such near misses, but they haven’t done either to this point.
If the Bengals somehow get through the first seven games at 4-3 or better, they may again be in the position to make a potential playoff run. If they go 3-4 or 2-5, expect the reeling to start, or at the very least, a quarterback change.