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2017 AFC North Preview: Steelers expected to reign supreme once again

Ben Roethlisberger, Andy Dalton

The AFC North is traditionally up for grabs. In the last five years, three of the four teams in the North have been crowned as division champions.

It’s been well represented in the Wild Card as well.

Overall, in the last three seasons, the North has sent six teams to the playoffs [Steelers (3), Bengals (2), Ravens]. Looking toward 2017, the division only looks to improve. Below is a preview for each team and our 2017 predictions.

4th – Cleveland Browns

If the Browns can give Hue Jackson some time to assemble the right team, they may finally find some stability after fifteen years of chaos. They had three first round picks in this past draft in April, with two used on a potential defense-altering defensive end in Myles Garrett and electric safety Jabrill Peppers.

After releasing Brock Osweiler, the Browns are showing faith in second-round pick DeShone Kizer to finally be the answer at quarterback. Despite these young potential playmakers on both sides of the ball, the Browns still have far too many question marks to be considered a threat for the playoffs.

Players to Watch: While there is minimal hope for a postseason run this year, the pieces are in place for the future. On each side of the ball, the Browns have potential game changers for years to come.

Myles Garrett is our player to watch on defense. Garrett needs no introduction after being drafted first overall in April, as he possesses all the tools to become the cornerstone of this defense for the next decade.

On offense, our player to watch is also a rookie in DeShone Kizer. Releasing Osweiler leaves minimal depth at the quarterback position, but Jackson doesn’t want depth, he wants a starter for this year and the future. Kizer has legs to extend the play but he’s also capable of being a pocket passer in this league. The addition of guard Kevin Zeitler from Cincinnati should help give him much needed time in the pocket.

Myles Garrett

Jason Miller/Getty Images

Game to watch: As mentioned, there isn’t much hope for a playoff run this year, so late season matchups with potential playoff implications are not on the distant horizon. However, in terms of anticipation, the October 29th showdown versus the Minnesota Vikings in London should be exciting for obvious reasons.

The future is, for once, bright in Cleveland; just not in 2017.

Predicted Record: 3-13

3rd – Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens simply cannot escape a training camp without injury. When healthy, the Ravens have plenty of talent to vie for the division, but that isn’t the case this year. Headlined by Joe Flacco and his back troubles, the Ravens head into the season with more question marks than answers.

Players to Watch: The ever revolving door of wide receivers continues to swing wide in Baltimore. This year, free agent acquisition Jeremy Maclin headlines what could be a much needed weapon for Flacco. With two specialized backs in Terrance West and Danny Woodhead coming out of the backfield, the Ravens could have a more balanced offense if they can resolve their tight end issues following crucial injuries.

On defense, the Ravens return dependable starters on all sides, but I’m still curious to see how Eric Weddle and his contract will hold up. At 32 years old and only in the second year of a four-year deal worth $26 million, question marks will arise if his age starts to catch up to him and he’s unable live up to the hype from his initial signing.

jeremy maclin

Reed Hoffmann/Associated Press

Game to watch: With concerns surrounding both sides of the ball, it’s difficult to project them as contenders for the division. However, I still see the Ravens as legitimate contenders for a Wild Card berth, as I do the Bengals. Thus, a Week 17 interdivisional match up against Cincinnati at home with playoff implications is the projected highlight of the season as Week 1 approaches.

Predicted Record: 7-9

2nd – Cincinnati Bengals

After five straight years of making the playoffs, the 2016 season was filled with disappointments for the Bengals, culminating in a 6-9-1 finish. I see a turnaround and a potential wild-card berth, but not a division crown in large part because of their questions on the offensive line.

It doesn’t help that their star linebacker, Vontaze Burfict, is suspended for the first three games thanks to this hit in a preseason game versus the Chiefs a few weeks ago. Andy Dalton has more weapons than he’s ever had at his disposable, but this will be his first season of his career with a shaky, at-best, offensive line after the departures of Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler.

Players to Watch: On offense, the player to watch is rookie Joe Mixon. While he carries some questionable character issues after a video surfaced of him hitting a woman at a bar while in college, he is a freak athlete. His physical abilities are elite and he could be a breakout rookie candidate thanks all of the weapons in the passing game that defenses will have to account for.

On defense, with Adam Jones suspended again, it’s time for Darqueze Dennard to break out as a starting cornerback on the outside opposite Dre Kirkpatrick. At 25 years old, Dennard is entering his prime and has a window of opportunity with Jones suspended, and with first-round pick William Jackson III biting at the heels, time is of the essence.

Bengals.com

Game to watch: The Bengals are going to be battling the Steelers for the division crown. Look for their Monday night football showdown in Pittsburgh in Week 13 to be the game of the year for the Bengals, with the division title likely at stake.

Predicted Record: 10-6

1st – Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers shored up their shortcomings in the last few weeks of the preseason by acquiring tight end Vance McDonald from San Francisco and signing veteran Pro-Bowl cornerback Joe Haden last week. Following the 2016 season that brought them to the cusp of a Super Bowl appearance, the Steelers return nine starters on defense, upgrade at cornerback with the acquisition of Haden, and they have ten returning starters on offense, with the eleventh being big-play threat Martavis Bryant, who is returning from a suspension.

Players to Watch:  The Steelers are trying to sign Stephon Tuitt before their self-imposed deadline at the start of the 2017 season. With or without the deal, Tuitt is on the brink of being labeled a superstar. After Cameron Heyward was lost for the season, Tuitt was a monster, and with the addition of T.J. Watt, a healthy Bud Dupree, and Cam Heyward, Tuitt will face fewer double teams and could be a menace in the backfield.

On offense it’s simple: what will Martavis Bryant do? Bryant is a huge question mark that could turn into an X-factor, but considering he hasn’t played in over 18 months, it’s a big if. The one piece the offense lacked last season was a vertical deep threat, and with Bryant, the Steelers have a chance to reach their coveted goal of averaging 30 points per game.

Martavis Bryant, Steelers

Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Game to watch: The Patriots always seem to be in Pittsburgh’s way. After getting embarrassed in the AFC championship game, every member on the Steelers roster is itching for redemption, and their December 17th matchup at Heinz Field will offer the perfect opportunity.

Look for a hungry Steelers team to prove that they’re a legit contender for the AFC title and a seventh Lombardi trophy.

Predicted Record: 12-4