Steelers still the boss of the AFC North

Steelers still the boss of the AFC North

August 01, 2017 3:01 AM
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EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third of eight NFL division previews for the 2017-18 season.

Last season, for the second time in the past nine years, the three-headed monster of Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Baltimore produced only one playoff qualifier, which was the Steelers at 11-5, three games clear of the pack.

This year, much the same result is expected with the Steelers listed as the first odds-on preseason choice to win the division since 2009. With RB Le’Veon Bell and WR Martavis Bryant not facing any suspensions this year and QB Ben Roethlisberger opting to still play, continued dominance would seem to be in order.

Baltimore, Cincinnati and especially Cleveland, meanwhile, seem to have too many holes to be a serious contender. But then again if Big Ben goes down, as he often does, and backup Landry Jones is put in charge for a spell, all bets are off.

On the surface, it doesn’t appear a wild-card team will emerge from this bunch, but with the loop playing the NFC North and AFC South, which were a combined 10 games under .500 last year, their chances get a small boost.

Anyway, here’s how the loop should shake out. The odds are courtesy of Westgate Las Vegas.

Pittsburgh (5-9 div; 12-1 SB): Until the Steelers faced New England in the AFC title game, they had the look of a champion. But when Bell, who rushed for 167 and 170 yards in two previous playoff games, walked off early with a groin injury the Patriots put Pittsburgh to sleep for the season 36-17.

Now Bell is back, as is Bryant after a year-long suspension. Joining Big Ben and sensational WR Antonio Brown (106 catches last year, 12 TDs) they create the most dynamic offense in the league. And they’ll operate behind an offensive line that reportedly hasn’t been this good in Pittsburgh for about a decade.

On defense, the Steelers get back run anchor Cameron Heyward, who played only seven games before going out with a pectoral injury. Without him, Pittsburgh twice yielded more than 220 rush yards in an outing. The weak link is an inexperienced secondary that was skewered by Tom Brady in the postseason.

Note: For the second consecutive season, the Steelers will have the fewest travel miles to road games, this year at 6,790. By contrast, the LA Rams have the most at 32,498.

Cincinnati (4-1, 60-1): The Bengals were ravaged by injuries last season, which dropped the defending division champs to 6-9-1. WR A.J. Green and RB Gio Bernard sat out the final six games and TE Tyler Eifert was out for eight. They’re back, but futures bettors aren’t impressed, as Cincinnati’s odds have gone from an opening 40-1 to 60-1.

Andy Dalton, the 11th-rated passer in 2016, returns for his seventh season but will need to be more productive after throwing a career-low 18 scoring passes. He’ll be operating behind an offensive line that was gutted with the departure of standout OLT Andrew Whitworth and top-notch guard Kevin Zeitler.

Defensively, the Bengals will be relying on Geno Atkins (nine sacks) and oft-injured/suspended LB Vontaze Burfict to create havoc for a unit that was merely ordinary last year.

Note: Cincinnati catches a scheduling break when facing Pittsburgh on the road in potentially a key game in Week 7. While the Bengals will have enjoyed a bye week, the Steelers would be coming off a game on the road against defending AFC West champion Kansas City,

Baltimore (3-1, 30-1): Two seasons ago the Ravens went 5-11, the worst mark in head coach John Harbaugh’s tenure. Much was made of the fact the team had the NFL’s most lopsided pass-to-rush play discrepancy. Last year it got only worse when Baltimore QBs, primarily Joe Flacco, attempted 712 throws (counting sacks), the most in the league, to only 367 running plays, third fewest.

This year the passing game surely will suffer with the absences of feisty WR Steve Smith (retirement) and TE Dennis Pitta (hip). They totaled 156 catches, 1,528 yards and seven scores. Terrance West is expected to lead the running game again, but averaged only 4.0 yards a carry behind a line that’s minus two starters from 2016.

LB Zach Orr, who led the club in tackles last year with 130 is gone (concussions).

Note: It will be essential for the Ravens to get off to a fast start. Their first three games are against Cincinnati, Cleveland and Jacksonville, who have a combined win expectancy of 19.5 games, the second easiest three-game start for any team in the league. Those three foes were a combined 10-37-1 last season.

Cleveland (40-1, 300-1): Coach Hue Jackson went 1-15 last season in his first year as boss, using three starting QBs. It’s the fourth straight year the Browns juggled three starting passers. The QB battle likely will have Brock Osweiler, acquired from Houston, Notre Dame’s DeShone Kiser and holdover Cody Kessler, who was 0-8 last year. But if they’re all going to get a fair shake, the lack of reps for the eventual starter could take a toll early.

Defensively, DC Gregg Williams will take over after guiding the Rams since 2014. Although LA’s unit was ranked ninth, it was 27th in TDs allowed (44). His first priority will be pass defense. Cleveland gave up 36 passing TDs last year.

Note: The Browns lost their first 14 games last year before beating San Diego at home. The last team to lose its first 14 before winning was Miami in 2007. The next season the Dolphins went 11-5 and won the AFC East.

Next week: NFC North