With the AFC East behind us, we’re heading North. Let’s go!
Cincinnati +200 – For a team that won the division and hosted a playoff game last year, there is a lot of doubt around these Bengals and much of that is about QB Andy Dalton. Fresh from signing a new contract, Dalton’s 0-3 record in the playoffs is a glaring stat. Enter new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson who I believe will make Dalton better.
The defense is good as Geno Atkins returns from his ACL tear, but they aren’t ‘great.’ Rookie DB Darqueze Dennard will help in coverage but the Bengals must adjust to a new defensive coordinator as Mike Zimmer now runs things in Minnesota. The schedule starts out well for the most part but Cincy plays five of their eight games on the road and that includes a three-game stretch on the road to end November.
Season Projection: 10-6
Pittsburgh +200 – The Steelers enter 2014 off of back-to-back 8-8 seasons. The youth movement is clearly on in the Steel City as the receiving corps is younger than ever as is the defense in quite some time. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is the key to this team’s chances. If he repeats the 16 games he played in last season then the Steelers have a great shot at the division.
Defensively, the Steelers are far from being the Steel Curtain of yore. So far through the preseason, they’ve given up more rushing yards than anyone. Rookies Ryan Shazier and Stephon Tuitt will help but they also have to get pressure as well as the secondary is average at best. The Steelers’ schedule features four road games in five weeks between September 11th and October 12th. They finish the season with the final two at home though.
Season Projection: 9-7
Baltimore +275 – The Ravens didn’t make the playoffs following their Super Bowl victory the year before and in comes Gary Kubiak to run the offense. He will look to establish the run in order to create play-action opportunities for Joe Flacco. Ray Rice had a very down year last season and needs to rebound in order to help the offense.
Defensively, the Ravens are far from what they were several years ago and they have aged especially with Terrel Suggs and Haloti Ngata. There has been an infusion of youth in some spots but will that youth perform? Baltimore opens with two home games against Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. A few weeks later, they start a stretch of four road games in five weeks and in that run are return trips to both Cincy and Pittsburgh.
Season Projection: 9-7
Cleveland +500 – Cleveland has settled on a quarterback and it isn’t Johnny Football. Head Coach Mike Pettine has decided to go with Brian Hoyer to start the season and it’s probably the safest way to go. The Browns play Pittsburgh, New Orleans and Baltimore in the first three weeks and then have a bye. If the Browns are 2-1 or 3-0 then I believe Hoyer keeps the job. 1-2 or 0-3 could usher in the Manziel era.
The defense is solid and probably underrated because of all the attention paid to the offense but they’re pretty good. They’ll be charged with keeping games close in order to help the offense and they’ll do that by creating pressure. I mentioned the opening three games but the end of the schedule isn’t great either with Indianapolis and Cincinnati at home and then finish with Carolina and Baltimore on the road.
Season Projection: 6-10
Overall: I can see scenarios where Cincy, Pittsburgh and Baltimore can all win the division but I think the Bengals are the surest bet.