The Ravens and Steelers should battle it out for the AFC North top spot, but don’t count out the Bengals.
Pittsburgh Steelers 9-7 record (4-2 division, 6-2 home, 3-5 away)
AFC North rank #2
- Compared to their division rivals, the Steelers have the tougher schedule on paper, but also play top teams at home who traditionally struggle away from their friendly confines, which should boost the Steelers home record.
- The Steelers have some of the top offensive weapons in the NFL with another year under their belt playing together. Luckily they will have the both Le’Veon Bell and Antiono Brown heading into their second road test (@ St Louis).
- The Steelers will put up fantasy dream numbers on many days/nights this season with the best combination of quarterback/#1WR/#1RB in the AFC North, if not the NFL.
- Before their week 11 bye, Pittsburgh has a slight break in the schedule as they play four of five at home, all winnable, with a short flight to Kansas City in the middle.
Not so fast:
- Pittsburgh’s defensive backfield is a disaster at the moment. Two of their three DBs drafted in 2015 have been cut, and the other is out for the season with injury. Projected starters Shamarko Thomas and Cortez Allen have struggled in the preseason, and may not start in the opener.
- The Steelers defensive front seven has a few question marks as well. They could be a solid group, but are thin and are counting on rookies and 2nd year men to make an impact. Its a high risk scenario.
- Offensively, besides the obvious suspensions, they lost the impact of their all-NFL center Maurkice Pouncey, and the reliability of their solid place kicker Shaun Suisham. Although their positions lack the buzz that the skill guys enjoy, these losses may prove more costly than folks are predicting.
Must wins to overachieve: 49ers, Cardinals, Raiders, Indy, four divisional games
Bubble games: @Chargers, @Rams, @ Chiefs, Broncos, two other divisional games
Tough matchups: @ Patriots, @ Seattle
Analysis: The Steelers must win divisional games to have a successful 2015. They play as many as eight playoff-caliber teams outside of the division (depending on the predictions you believe), for a total of 12 out of their 16 games without much of a break against lesser opponents. That said, their defense catches a break in 2015. While they do play some solid offenses, they only play a few games against those considered to have elite passing attacks.
With offensive line and defensive front seven depth issues, health will again be the key to a potential playoff run. The Steelers have little margin for error in that respect. If their front seven takes a hit, the defensive backfield will become even more exposed. Without a solid offensive line, the pass rush will get to their quarterback quickly. Although Ben Roethlisberger is a master of escaping and extending plays, his body can only handle so much punishment. A 9-7 record is achievable because they should be able to outscore many opponents, especially at home.
Baltimore Ravens 10-6 record (4-2 division, 7-1 home, 3-5 away)
AFC North rank #1
- The Ravens defense looks as solid as it has this decade. It might not have the flash and individual standouts it has had in the past, but has balance throughout from defensive line to cornerback.
- The Ravens finish the season with six of nine at M&T Bank Stadium, and their four trips out west are combined in two back-to-back weeks.
- The offensive line includes the best guard tandem in the NFL according to most rankings and metrics, and the line is solid throughout with some depth. Add that to a quarterback who performs at a high level when he has time, and a running back coming off a solid year, the Ravens should control the clock in most of their contests.
Not so fast:
- Six of nine at home to end the season means five of seven on the road to begin the season, including the four games out west. Its difficult to predict the effects of staying out west for 10-12 days and potential jet lag heading east, sort of similar to a west coast team playing east but with a couple days more recovery time.
- The defense might be balanced, but is injury prone. The “next man up” is never as good as the starter, who last time I checked, beat out the “next man”.
- There are question marks throughout the offense starting with wide receiver, led by an old retiring Steve Smith who ran out of the gate strong last year, and ran out of gas starting in week seven. Breshad Perriman, the rookie replacement for Torrey Smith, hasn’t seen the field since July. They have a bunch of capable receivers with upside, but none proven to be better than or consistent enough to be higher than an NFL #3 at this point in their career. The Ravens tight ends consist of players with high potential, but have a combined 10 NFL catches.
Must wins to overachieve: @ Raiders, @ 49ers, Chargers, Jaguars, Rams, four divisional games
Bubble games: @ Dolphins, Seattle, Chiefs, two divisional games
Tough Matchups: @ Broncos, @ Cardinals
Analysis: The Ravens have had a long run of success, but are also a team who seems to barely make the post season before grinding it out on the road come playoff time. Their margin of error is again small this year. Not only can one game potentially move them from the division lead missing out on the playoffs, any of three AFC North teams can win the division depending on health, momentum, confidence, and cohesion.
The Ravens were picked to win because they have the best combination offensive and defensive lines, the key to any team’s foundation and ball control, and linebacker corps. Combine that with just one nagging injury, and no suspensions, and they should start the season with the best chance to win as it stands today. The Bengals have a great defensive line, the Steelers and Bengals have the offensive weapons at the skill position, but both teams have more deficiencies throughout the 53 man roster, which leads to more question-marks over a 16 game season.