Here we are in week 15 and finally the AFC North picture is becoming clear as to who is going to the playoffs and who is not. This division is such a hard one, that it always comes down to either the final week or the week prior to find out who will represent the AFC North in the playoffs. In my opinion this is one of the most competitive divisions in the NFL.
We will start out in Ohio with the division leading Cincinnati Bengals who have completely stepped up their team in the last few years. The Bengals are not the doormat of the division anymore. They are a team that cannot be taken lightly. Andy Dalton who was drafted in 2011 has progressed in all facets of his game. He is on pace with three games left to surpass his single season high passing yards of 3669. Running back Giovani Bernard has taken a lot of pressure off of his quarterback helpling in backfield with blocking and making timely runs. Bernard has rushed for 620 yards so far this season which is impressive for the second round draft pick out of UNC. Dalton has other offensive weapons in A. J. Green and Jermaine Gresham. Defensively they are a way different team than years past. They are hitters and they are relentless.
The Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens have their work cut out for themselves and need some luck to even get a wild card spot in the AFC. The Ravens are clearly not the same team that won it all last year. They have had to make adjustments in their strategies due to injury, inconsistent play and a big change with the retirement of future Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis. Division losses to their nemesis, the Pittsburgh Steelers, and also the Cincinnati Bengals and lastly the Cleveland Browns. For the Ravens games with the Steelers have extra meaning due to their intense rivalry and total dislike for each other. Quarterback Joe Flacco signed the six year 120.6 million dollar contract during the off season and his play has not reflected the salary that he is being paid. He has thrown 18 touchdowns to 17 interceptions. Running back Ray Rice play has been curtailed by injury this season. His yardage is about half of last years number and his per carry averaged dropped also. Their defense is still top notch, but they giving up a lot of points. The Ravens are going to have to play mistake free football from here out.
The Pittsburgh Steelers had a horrendous start to their season at 0-4 and have had to work very hard to get to where they are now at 5-8. They had a heart breaking last second loss to the Miami Dolphins last week. The one thing you can always say about the Steelers is that there is no quit in them at all. They play 60 minutes of football every game. Defensively which has traditionally been their bread and butter. It took the defense a while to get on track but they have come around and are making plays. The defense has only 8 interceptions all season long. Offensively the Steelers have been in just about every game. Major losses came from the Chicago Bears and the New England Patriots. I think that Todd Haley really needs to open up the playbook and broaden the plays that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger runs game in and game out. With Mike Wallace leaving and going the Miami Dolphins, Receivers Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders have had to make more plays from game to game. The Steelers drafted Le’Veon Bell out of Michigan State University to help bolster the run game along with running back Felix Jones who is a former Dallas Cowboy, Jonathan Dwyer and fullback Will Johnson all of whom bring a little to the running game of the Steelers. Big Ben is playing smarter football this season and his INT’s are down. Ben has thrown 24 touchdowns for 3724 yards. At this point it does not look like the Steelers will make the playoffs, but stranger things have have happened. In any case coach Mike Tomlin will have them ready.
The Cleveland Browns have been a better team this year, but injuries and a lack of consistent play from the quarterback position has lead to a dismal season for the Browns. The Browns need a quarterback to step in and give them chances to win. They can play with anyone but they need a quarterback first and foremost. Jason Campbell can be a very good one for the Browns if they work their offensive system around him. He has proven through his career that he is very adaptable and can learn a system quickly. Brandon Weeden can also be in the mix also, but he has to stay healthy. Add wide receiver Josh Gordon, Greg Little and Davone Bess to the puzzle and running back Willis McGahee and there you have a decent offense to put in work and get the Browns out of their proverbial dog house. Their playoff hope for this season are over, but they can use this season as a learning tool and work on the things that can get them on track for the upcoming season.
Mike Samuels is the AFC North Division Leader and can be reached at email@example.com, on twitter @steeler_mike, and Http://www.facebook.com/TheSportsDude