Think back, all the way to February.
Reminisce freely about the last time you settled on the couch, turned on the television, and dialed in an NFL game. Of course, the only NFL game played in February just happened to be the Super Bowl, but that counted for something, right? It WAS a game, after all, and although few outside of Seattle and Boston claimed to have a rooting interest in either participating team, it was a memorable, hard-fought game, worthy of the billions of ad dollars and total overexposure it received.
Now, let your mind wander back to January.
The playoffs are wonderful. For the AFC North, it’s become somewhat routine. As the lone division to have three representatives in the playoff draw, fans of The North were immensely proud. The fact that only one participant progressed beyond their first game notwithstanding, it’s tough to consider 2014’s AFC North as anything but the best division in the NFL, both from talent and record perspectives. The Bengals may not have been able to claw their way out of their annual first-round collapse, but simply getting there for a fourth consecutive season is something most fans should have appreciated. The Steelers, despite injuries and suspect defense, claimed the divisional crown and a first-round bye, and appeared to find their stride early, particularly offensively. The Ravens progressed enough during their regular season to witness some stellar offensive line play in the playoffs, which nearly propelled them to the AFC Championship Game.
Three divisional rivals in one postseason. That’s pretty damned cool.
All four teams in the AFC North had winning records at the start of the month. The divisional crown was still wide open. Each team had warts – the Ravens’ secondary was using its seventh and eighth choices at cornerback and safety, the Steelers‘ defense had marked issues with both the pass and the run, the Bengals suffered from a lack of depth and quality quarterback play, and the Browns simply lacked consistency…and, yes, quality quarterback play. Still, fans had to appreciate the tight, bunched nature of the division to that point. Each team felt the urgency of the playoff chase; some responded positively, and others…didn’t.
Remember September, October and November?
The AFC North teams were unceremoniously beating the hell out of each other. The Bengals suffered a humbling defeat in Cincinnati to the Browns, to be paid back at a later date. The Ravens and Steelers exchanged 20-point humiliations. The Browns avenged a narrow loss to the Steelers early with a thorough dismantling of Pittsburgh a month or so later. The Bengals, using the exact game plan in each contest, swept the Ravens. Each game was potentially a nail-biter, each injury a heart-breaker. Everything had implications.
Remember the preseason? No? Don’t sweat it – no one else does either, beyond the fact that it a) happened, and b) represented an end to the off-season. Can’t wait™ for it this year.
So, here we are. Since that last fateful game in February, we’ve spent the bulk of our time perusing the NFL headlines for any item of interest, and we couldn’t have cared less which division that item pertained to. We watched the media frenzy surrounding “Deflategate” with avid interest, and will continue to do so as rulings are appealed and rosters are reorganized. We looked forward to the draft with unparalleled glee, and touted our teams’ picks while trashing others, fueling NFL conversations for at least a week. We’ve pored over every bit of information gleaned from the media’s coverage of the latest OTAs. We crossed our fingers that our players would stay healthy until the season starts (with apologies to injured blue-chipper Dante Fowler). And we debated, endlessly, which team had improved the most, which teams were best suited to contend in 2015, and which teams had…
Because ultimately, hope is all we have at this time of year. The Ravens hope the changes they have undergone at receiver, cornerback, and defensive line translate into continued success. The Steelers hope the upgrades to their defense will be enough to buoy their superlative offense. The Bengals, with a largely complete roster, hope quarterback Andy Dalton finally discovers consistency. And the Browns hope that their excellent defense will provide enough cushion for their unsettled offense to find itself.
So when you’re studying the countdown clock above and speculating that it’s actually running backwards, think back to last off-season and remember that there’s no need to trust in hope.
It’ll all happen soon enough. And you’ll be there to see it.