The culmination of another NFL season is upon us, and in the AFC North all of our favorite teams have been eliminated from Super Bowl contention. As hard as it may be for some to accept, Denver and Seattle were the best teams from each conference and both teams are deserving of their spots in the big game. Although each fanbase is left lamenting what could have been, every team, even the Browns, had players perform above what was expected of them before the season began. None of the AFC North teams performed collectively as we would have liked, but each team had significant individual performances to be proud of and look forward to building on in the coming season.
In Cincinnati, the big dilemma this past offseason was finding a #2 receiver to pair with AJ Green. Mohamed Sanu was the most likely in-house candidate coming off of a 2012 season where he caught 4 TDs over a 3 week span, including a 2 TD performance against Oakland in Week 9. Sanu suffered a foot injury in practice following that game and was forced to end his season early on Injured Reserve. Marvin Jones showed some flashes of ability late in the season but failed to put any convincing numbers on his stat sheet. The former fifth-round pick played in 11 games in his first year, finishing with 18 receptions for 201 yards, 1 touchdown, and he also had 3 rushes for 47 yards. During the offseason, fans were more likely to give Mohamed Sanu the most consideration for the #2 receiver position, or to abandon the in-house candidates all together and predict an early round wide receiver pick like Tavon Austin, Cordarrelle Patterson, Justin Hunter, and DeAndre Hopkins. But, the Bengals stood firm with their receiving group and Marvin Jones built chemistry with Andy Dalton that led to 51 receptions, 712 yards, 10 TDs, and the first receiving duo (Jones and Green) in Bengals history to have 10 or more TDs. Jones best performance was in Week 8 against the Jets, catching 8 passes for 122 yards and 4 TDs (another Bengal record). Marvin Jones’s production for the season was unforeseeable for even the most optimistic Bengals homer, and, although it will be tough to improve on his TD total, it will be interesting to see how he follows up this year’s unexpected, yet outstanding performance.
Before the season began, the biggest eyesore on the Steelers offense was the underwhelming group of running backs. Pittsburgh quickly addressed their need in the second round of the draft by selecting Le’Veon Bell to be their new frontrunner at the position. With a young running back in the mix, Pittsburgh’s offense was expected to be well-rounded and potent given that they already had Big Ben, Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, and a healthy Heath Miller. But in the second game of the preseason Le’Veon Bell injured his foot, missed the first three regular season games and forced the Steelers offense into a one-dimensional, pass-heavy disappointment to open the season. I could go on and on about how much fun the first four games were for Bengals, Browns, and Ravens fans, but that would be a disservice to one of the great, unexpected performances by wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery. In his first two seasons with Pittsburgh he averaged 16.5 catches, about 220 receiving yards, and 1 TD, and while he had some key catches throughout those seasons, he wasn’t viewed as a player that would drastically improve. Ben and Jerricho started off the season in steady form, and the receiver surpassed his previous yearly stat totals by Week 4 with a big 5 catch, 103 yard, 1 TD game against the Vikings. Cotchery and Ben played in sync throughout the remainder of season and the receiver finished with 46 catches, 602 yards, and 10 TDs. His TD total was the most of his career and his reception and yard totals were the most since his 2009 season with the New York Jets. Now, Cotchery is a free agent at 32 years old with 10 years of NFL experience on his resume. It will be interesting to see if Pittsburgh resigns him this offseason and if he will be given a chance to build on the success he had with Roethlisberger this past season.
Super Bowl winners don’t normally have many holes to fill on their roster, but the Ravens created one by making the controversial decision to overpay Flacco and trade Anquan Boldin for a 6th round pick in what is now known as the 2012 Super Bowl Consolation Prize Trade. Baltimore’s offensive plan for the 2013 season was to roll with Flacco, Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones as their #1 and #2 receivers, Dennis Pitta as the primary tight end, and the previously solid group of Rice and Pierce at running back. This probably would have been a sufficient offense to challenge for the division title again, but early injuries to Pitta and Jones significantly derailed their plans. The Ravens were ultimately unable to overcome these losses, especially the one to Pitta, but they did find an unexpected gem in the undrafted rookie receiver Marlon Brown. In training camp he outperformed other drafted receivers and veterans on the roster to make an immediate impact, catching 3 TDs in his first four games in the NFL. Flacco was quick to trust Brown as the receiver was utilized in crucial situations like the last second TD catch to win over Minnesota. Brown ended up missing two games to injury throughout the season and finished with 49 catches, 524 yards, and 7 TDs. Undrafted wide receivers aren’t expected to come in and make an immediate impact like Brown did, and it is hard to imagine how bad the offense might have been this year were it not for his production. If Marlon can improve on his performances from this season, the Ravens may have found their 1-2 receiver combo for the foreseeable future.
Last and certainly least, the Cleveland Browns had higher than normal expectations coming into this season. The defense was improved and a new offensive-minded coach was going to lead them do 7-9, or dare I say 8-8. And of course, it didn’t happen again for my AFC North brethren. Much time could be spent pointing out the disappointing aspects of the Browns season, but I care to focus on the two shining points of an offense that could redirect the downward spiral Cleveland has been stuck in. No receiver would expect to put up big numbers with a QB situation like the Browns had this year, yet Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron managed to do way more than that. While neither of them were unexpected contributors, their production totals were unexpected given the circumstances. Gordon was already expected to be a significant player after having 50 catches, 805 yards and 5 TDs in his rookie season, but to lead the league in receiving yards and break multiple receiving records for the Browns organization with 3 different QBs and no semblance of a running game is a remarkable feat. His final totals were 87 catches, 1646 yards, and 9 TDs, imagine what he’ll be able to do with some decent QB play. Jordan Cameron was easily the most improved offensive player for Cleveland. His catch total jumped by 60, receiving yards by almost 700, and he caught 6 more TDs from the previous season. The Browns now have two key offensive pieces in place. Let’s hope to see some respectable quarterback play in Cleveland in the near future so both Cameron and Gordon can reach their potential.
These are my unexpected offensive contributors in the AFC North, who are yours?