The AFC North was one of the more intriguing divisions in the NFL during the 2014 season. It was a division which sent three teams to the playoffs, played a part in the outcome of the AFC Championship Game, and was the only division which had three teams with 10 or more wins.
The Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5) barely won the division title by the skin of their teeth, they were eliminated in the Wild Card round of the playoffs for underestimating the Baltimore Ravens. Speaking of those Ravens (10-5-1), going 4-2 in their final six games got them into the playoffs at the 11th hour.
After upsetting Pittsburgh in the opening round, they ran into the multi-talented New England Patriots who sent them into hibernation after the AFC Championship Game. Then the Cincinnati Bengals (10-6) once again found themselves one and done for the fourth straight postseason.
Then we have the Cleveland Browns (7-9). After starting the season 7-4, their poor quarterback play and subpar defense caught up to them and they wound up losing their final five games to cap off another miserable season.
The Steelers are looking to make up for last year’s mistakes in 2015, the Ravens are looking for a way to come out on top of this crowded division, while the Bengals need to find a way to advance in the playoffs, and the Browns need to get to the postseason period. With those goals in mind, here are the AFC North’s biggest moves so far…..
The Steelers have already shown that they are serious about contending again in 2015 and for at least the next four seasons afterwards. The Rooney Family gave quarterback Ben Roethlisberger a five-year contract extension worth close to $100 million.
A smart investment considering the success the Steelers have had with the Miami-Ohio alum under center. Since Roethlisberger became the Steel City signal caller in 2004, the Steelers have made seven playoff appearances, won five AFC North championships, three AFC titles, and two Super Bowls.
The quarterback is the cornerstone of every team and the Steelers have theirs signed, sealed and delivered for many years to come.
The Baltimore Ravens biggest move thus far hasn’t been with a player, it’s been with a member of it’s coaching staff. When former offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak decided to take the head coaching job with Denver last month (where he was offensive coordinator from 1995-2002), the Ravens needed to fill a major void.
They filled that void with former Chicago Bears head coach Marc Trestman. Despite his struggles in his two seasons in the Windy City, Trestman has always been lauded as a “quarterback whisperer” and “great offensive mind”.
Trestman had both his struggles and his successes with the Bears, and now with the Ravens he’s probably in a position where he’s more comfortable. Trestman was an offensive assistant for the majority of his career.
He’s worked with other signal callers such as Steve Young, Jake Plummer and Rich Gannon who all had some form of postseason success under Trestman’s guidance. He coached Josh McCown to his most successful NFL season in 2013, and he tried his best to turn Jay Cutler around.
Now he has the chance to work with Joe Flacco. Despite Flacco’s success in the league (including his career-high 27 touchdown passes in 2014), he does tend to make mistakes from time to time. He also deals with bouts of inconsistency and has made costly turnovers since entering the league in 2009.
Trestman also has the chance to capitalize on an offense that scored a franchise record 409 points last year. Don’t let that number fool you though, the Ravens could use a little adjustment with scoring on a game-by-game basis.
The Ravens only scored 30 or more points four times last season. They were also held to 20 points or less on six occasions. There’s always room for improvement and Trestman could be the guy to bring that improvement.
Many feel that there are two simple solutions to getting the Bengals over the playoff hump….. Fire head coach Marvin Lewis and remove Andy Dalton as the starting quarterback. Lord knows the organization has tried everything else.
But, those two things have not –and probably won’t- happen so this is what the fans are stuck with for now. But, they did shore up their defense for the immediate future this offseason. They re-signed hard nosed linebacker Rey Maualuga, and brought in former Green Bay Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk who was surprisingly cut for salary cap reasons.
But it’s the Bengals who benefit in the long run as both men have a combined 1,404 career tackles, 23 career sacks and 14 career interceptions. Hawk and Maualuga will be solid complements to defensive linemen Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap.
The Cleveland Browns could use some prayer and a major source of divine intervention to get themselves back to respectability. The Brian Hoyer/Johnny Manziel show failed miserably last season. Hoyer started off playing well until numerous mistakes got him benched.
Manziel didn’t fare much better. He simply couldn’t adjust to the NFL game, he also spent more time partying off the field (lots of drinking involved) than he did preparing for game days. So now, Hoyer is gone (signed with Houston), Manziel is in rehab (reportedly due to alcohol addiction from his lavish nightlife) and now the Browns are grasping at straws on how to fix the franchise.
So the Browns are hoping that their two major acquisitions will start to turn things around. They signed veteran journeyman quarterback Josh McCown to hopefully be the new man under center. Despite his bad season in Tampa Bay last year, and despite his inconsistent play throughout his career, his performance with the Bears in 2013 is why the Browns believe McCown can be at least a temporary solution.
The other major signing the Browns made is former Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Dwayne Bowe. Bowe could be the spark that can finally lift this offense to the level it needs to be competitive in the National Football League.
His career numbers -532 receptions, 7,155 yards, 44 touchdown catches- speak for themselves. McCown has proven that he has good enough arm to make the big throws when it counts. Having Bowe as his number one receiver could be the start of a new beginning for Cleveland.
Will we see another cluttered AFC Northern Division in 2015? We’ll find out soon enough.