The rosters are set (for this week, anyway). The hungry NFL fan now sees a smorgasbord of tasty goods…or a few burgers and fries. Or maybe just a bag of peanuts. Whatever.
After the annual offseason of drafts, predictions, free agency, roster cuts, salary maneuvers and rehab assignments, the NFL commences its 2017 season this Thursday evening (8:30 pm, NBC). The AFC North has two intradivisional games Sunday at 1:00pm, and as always, expectations are high. How realistic those expectations are remains to be seen.
As most readers of this space know, overanalysis is rarely a constant at thesidelinereport.com, and the bulk of our indepth coverage can usually be found in the comments below. But, in preparation, here’s some quick predictions, observations, truisms and some overwrought thinking associated with the AFC North in bullet points. Feel free to dissect, ignore or accept as NFL canon.
Baltimore Ravens (2016 finish: 8-8. Predicted 2017 finish: 6-10)
- Starting quarterback Joe Flacco throws more INTs than TDs for the first time in his career.
- Flacco is not benched as a result.
- The Ravens’ expensive defense plays exceptionally well for the first six games, then tires considerably afterwards.
- Placekicker Justin Tucker records the most single-season FG attempts in NFL history.
- Flacco is sacked over 50 times.
- No Ravens running back rushes for more than 700 yards.
- No Ravens wide receiver catches more than 50 passes or surpasses 800 yards.
- The lone bright spot for the Ravens offense is the emergence of tight end Nick Boyle, who catches 51 passes for 801 yards.
- The Ravens’ run defense places in the top three in the NFL, thanks largely to defensive end Brandon Williams and defensive tackle Michael Pierce.
- The Ravens’ secondary, while improved from its 2016 version, fails again in the fourth quarter of at least four games, all in November and December.
Cleveland Browns (2016 finish: 1-15. Predicted 2017 finish: 4-12)
- Rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer starts and finishes every game.
- The Browns’ offensive line protects Kizer enough to have him throw for 3,500 yards and 20 TDs.
- The Browns’ defensive line produces sacks but little else, and they give up over 2,000 yards rushing.
- Browns’ running backs Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson produce 2,000 yards rushing.
- No Browns wide receiver or tight end produces more than 60 catches or 900 yards receiving, but several approach those marks, including top wideouts Kenny Britt and Corey Coleman.
- Coleman remains healthy for the entire 2017 season.
- The Browns’ pass coverage in general struggles covering tight ends and underneath routes, cycling through several linebackers throughout the season.
- Rookie defensive end Myles Garrett records at least 10 sacks.
- Rookie returner Jabrill Peppers scores at least one TD on punt and kick returns.
- The Browns will change kickers at least once during the season.
Cincinnati Bengals (2016 finish: 6-9-1. Predicted 2017 finish: 9-7)
- The Bengals’ offensive line struggles initially, but progresses in November and December.
- Quarterback Andy Dalton is injured early, and replacement A.J. McCarron struggles with little protection.
- Rookie RB Joe Mixon takes over the starting job by week five.
- Tight end Tyler Eifert misses at least five games.
- So does rookie wideout John Ross.
- Wideout Brandon LaFell eclipses 1,000 yards receiving.
- Linebacker Vontaze Burfict is suspended for more infractions than his latest debatable hit.
- Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick earns a Pro Bowl berth.
- Defensive tackle Geno Atkins does not.
- Cornerback William Jackson III validates his first round draft status by staying healthy all year.
Pittsburgh Steelers (2016 finish: 11-5. Predicted 2017 finish: 11-5)
- Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will miss at least two games to injury.
- Running back Le’Veon Bell will struggle until week four.
- The Steelers will struggle to stop the run all season, particularly up the middle.
- Wideout Antonio Brown will extend his record of most catches over a five-year span (owner of four-year mark).
- The Steelers will get very little production from the tight end position; no TE logs more than 30 receptions, which leads to…
- Wideout Martavis Bryant will catch at least 70 passes and produce 1,100 yards from them.
- Safety Sean Davis quietly produces a Pro Bowl season.
- Newly-acquired cornerback Joe Haden will be last on the depth chart by week five.
- Safety Mike Mitchell loses his starting job by week three.
- Rookie linebacker T.J. Watt earns all-rookie honors.