Thompson’s AFC North Predictions, Part 2

Thompson’s AFC North Predictions, Part 2
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Do the Bengals once again leap over the Ravens?

By Michael Thompson, aka Reglidan

Baltimore Ravens (10-6 2014)

The Ravens are always among the tougher teams to forecast in the NFL, although they really probably should not be. After all, the team has had a winning record and made the playoffs in six of the last seven seasons, winning the Super Bowl in 2012, and reaching the conference championship game in 3 of those 7 years. There is, however, a lingering perception to doubt whether Joe Flacco is worth the contract he received after that Super Bowl victory. A doubt that could also include the team’s ongoing struggles to adequately surround him with elite receiving options. Mabye the team is not as good as their success over the last decade would indicate. The losses of dependable play-making options like Anquan Bolden, Ray Rice, and Torrey Smith in recent years would certainly seem to point to a team whose offense would not be as prolific as it has been in the past, but Baltimore’s 409 total points in 2014 was the highest in this seven year span, ranked 8th in the NFL. Additionally, the losses of legendary middle linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed would lead one to think that the Ravens’ defense would be entering a period of decline, but Baltimore’s 302 points allowed was their best since 2011 and ranked 6th in the NFL. More troubling for Ravens fans was that in 2014, Baltimore only played 7 of its 16 games against teams that ended the season with winning records and went 1-6 against those teams. So it would be fair to say that the 2014 Ravens feasted on the weakness of the schedule, while struggling mightily against the more difficult part of it. The team did, however, win a playoff game against division rival Pittsburgh and held a 14 point leads over eventual Super Bowl winner New England twice before eventually losing in the divisional round, the furthest that any AFC North team advanced in the playoffs.

So despite the team’s success over most the past decade, it is difficult to categorize them at the moment. If they are the team that struggles against better opposition, this could be a long season for Ravens’ fans. If they are the team that has achieved a sustained level of success, then that 1-6 record against winning teams was simply a momentary aberration. Time will tell.

Defensively, there is a lot to like about this team. They have an excellent rotation of pass rushing linebackers, led by perennial pro bowler Terrell Suggs. Elvis Dumervil, who had 17.5 sacks in 2014, seems to have a lingering achilles injury that may hamper his production in 2015. However, the Ravens run the same base 3-4 defense that they have been running for many years and that teams seemed to have figured out in 2012 and 2013. It will be interesting to see whether their success in 2014 was a momentary pause in a longer decline or whether they have righted the ship. The Ravens’ defensive line will be playing without Haloti Ngata for the first time since he was drafted in 2006 after inexplicably trading the veteran defensive lynchpin away to the Detroit Lions essentially for scraps. The weakest part of the Ravens’ defense is the secondary, making it essential that the unit’s front seven succeed in putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Overall, despite the losses of some key players, the general expectation is that this unit will be able to maintain and build on its 2014 success.

Offensively, it is a bit of a different story. Here, the Ravens look the weakest they have looked in many years, especially given rookie Breshad Perriman’s lingering, mysterious knee injury that has limited him throughout training camp and the preseason. This means that the only dependable wide receiver target for Flacco is the venerable Steve Smith, who has announced his retirement at the end of the season. With Owen Daniels gone to free agency and Dennis Pitta on the PUP list, the Ravens will be depending on 2nd year player Crockett Gilmore and rookie Maxx Williams at the tight end position. They are also hoping that 29-year-old running back Justin Forsett will be able to duplicate his sudden late career success in 2015. Overall, this offensive unit, on paper, apart from Flacco, does not really look more intimidating that the Browns’ much-maligned unit, but head coach John Harbaugh has admittedly had success with offensive personnel that have not impressed me in the past. I suspect, however, that the Ravens are going to really struggle to put points on the board this season. Flacco is the type of quarterback who excels when he has the correct personnel around him in the correct scheme. Other than when he outperforms himself in the playoffs, he is not the type of quarterback who elevates a team on his own.

The Ravens, like all of the AFC North teams, are likely to be impacted by the much more difficult 2015 schedule. Given their tendency in 2014 to beat up weak opponents, while struggling against tougher competition, the dropoff for them may be even more severe than I am predicting here. However, they have the type of defense that will allow them to grind out victories, even if they have a precipitous dropoff in points scored. The playoffs may be too high a mountain for them to climb in 2015 though. There are some other teams in the AFC that seemed poised to jump over them for one of the wild card spots.

Projected Finish: 9-7

Cincinnati Bengals

For the last three seasons, the Bengals have looked like the team that is ready to solidify their position as the elite of the AFC North. With the inevitable aging of the two teams ahead of them, and the loss of hall of fame caliber players from the rosters of both the Steelers and the Ravens, combined with the savvy roster moves made by the Bengals front office (especially the Carson Palmer trade), the Bengals looked like a young, fast, very good roster of players that might run away with the division for awhile. It has not, however, really worked out that way. Of course, they have had four winning seasons in a row, making the playoffs in each of them, but they have not really put their stamp on this particular decade of the NFL the way they seemed poised to do after 2011. The reason for that, in retrospect, is probably pretty obvious. The Bengals seemed to have settled. Rather than continue to try to make moves to acquire a truly elite signal caller, they settled for a player in Andy Dalton who the 15 bottom teams in the NFL would really like to have, but who the top 15 teams in the NFL know is worse than the guy they have. In the modern NFL, the truth is that the vast majority of the time, (Seattle Seahawks notwithstanding), the sustained success of the franchise is going to largely be dependent on who the team has at quarterback. The Bengals made the decision that once they had an adequate, professional quarterback, they would devote their resources to building up a team around him and that the rest of the roster would be so good that it would be able to mask Dalton’s deficiencies.

It has worked, but only to a certain extent. It has worked all the way up to the point when the Bengals face elite competition, at which point the player who occupies the most important position on the field has to perform, which Dalton does not seem capable of doing, at least not on that stage. The Bengals have made the playoffs, as I said, each of the last four years, but their season record has never been good enough to keep them out of the wild card round, which is where their season has ended every time.

Defensively, the Bengals are deep at every level. On the line, they have the combination of Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap. At linebacker, they have Vontaze Burfict, who will probably be the best player on the field on a lot of Sundays. Their secondary is among the deepest I have ever seen on an NFL team. There are other AFC North teams who might do certain things better than the Bengals on defense – the Ravens might pass rush better, the Browns might generate more turnovers, but the Bengals do almost everything well. Unfortunately for them, this has not translated as well as they might like to points allowed, which is the one statistic that matters the most. Here, the Bengals ranked 12th in 2014, which is above average, which is not where they want to be. They want to be among the elite.

Offensively, the Bengals have some of the best players in the league. They have a top five wide receiver in AJ Green, who has some chemistry with Dalton, although it is hard to classify them as an elite combination. Even though Dalton has thrown more touchdowns to green than any other quarterback/wide receiver combination in the past few years, he has also thrown more interceptions when targeting Green than any other quarterback has thrown when targeting any single receiver during the same span. Behind Green, they have the adequate Marvin Jones and the above-average Sanu, which probably combines for the most raw talent in a wide receiving corps in the AFC North. I suspect Roethlisberger would probably trade his wide receivers for Cincinnati’s wide receivers, even if it meant having to give up Antonio Brown for AJ Green. At the tight end position, the Bengals have Tyler Eifert, who is supposed to be good, but has not done all that much in his NFL career yet. They allowed Jermaine Gresham to depart, who was the target of a lot of grumbling among Bengals’ fans for years, even though on paper he performed much like a decent NFL tight end. At running back, the Bengals will field the combination of Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard, which nearly any NFL team would be happy to have. In other words, the Bengals probably have the best total set of skill players in the division. If not, then the difference between them and the Steelers is minimal – except at one position. And it’s very likely that even though I have them winning the division this year, that position will continue to keep them from vaulting into the elite of the NFL.

At this point, I have doubts that this combination of players and coaches will ever truly make that leap. They seem to have reached a point where they are not really improving that much, just maintaining the level they already reached. I think that level will probably be enough to win the division this year, given the deficiencies of everyone else in the division, but I expect another early exit from the playoffs, especially if they win the division with a weak enough win/loss record that they have to play in the wild card round again.

Projected Finish: 10-6

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