2016 AFC North Previews & Predictions

Burfict returns however S Reggie Nelson has moved on.

Burfict returns however S Reggie Nelson has moved on.

The last time we looked in on the AFC North, the Pittsburgh Steelers were embroiled in an epic playoff battle with the Cincinnati Bengals when the unexpected happened… Vontaze Burfict sealed what looked like the first playoff win of the Marvin Lewis era. Then a Jeremy Hill fumble while trying to run out the clock opened the door, and a few senseless defensive penalties allowed the Steelers to steal an 18-16 win.

These two antagonists renew acquaintances in week 2 in Pittsburgh and a few questions arise. Will the Steelers be able to move the ball on the ground with LeVeon Bell serving a 3 game suspension?? Can QB Andy Dalton get that signature win vs. a top AFC contender??  Have the Bengals learned from last year’s meltdown in January??

2016 AFC North Predctions

steelerimage1. Pittsburgh Steelers 11-5 **

2. Cincinnati Bengals 11-5 *

3. Baltimore Ravens 6-10

4. Cleveland Browns 4-12

Cincinnati has a tough beginning to their season with 4 of 6 on the road which includes trips to Pittsburgh in week 2, and to New England in week 6. How New England fares during Brady’s 4 game suspension dictates how desperate the Patriots could be for a win. Typically these are the games Andy Dalton always seems to lose. Will 2016 be different?

bell2Speaking of suspensions, the Steelers will be without LeVeon Bell for the first 3 weeks of the season. The only AFC team they play in that stretch will be against the Bengals. So they have time to catch Cincinnati with a slow start. They’ll have to run the ball with DeAngelo Williams and rely on Ben Roethlisberger (319 of 469 for 3,938 yds 21 TDs/ 16 ints) and Antonio Brown.

Last year Brown came in 2nd to Cam Newton for the Taylor Blitz Times MVP for 2016. With 136 receptions for 1,834 yds and 10 TDs, he was within reach of both NFL records for receptions and yards. He’s quick in and out of his cuts and has the speed to get deep. Barring injury he’ll have a similar season with the added attention in Bell’s early season absence

With age catching up to Adrian Peterson, Bell is arguably the best back in the NFL when he’s healthy and will be rounding into shape as the Steelers make their playoff push.

The Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns will definitely be on the outside looking in. The Ravens will have Terrell Suggs and Steve Smith to lead them into battle on both sides of the ball. However the Ravens struggle to run the football and Joe Flacco will be coming off of major knee surgery himself. Before his injury he was playing like the east coast version of Alex Smith and checking the ball down too much. Now with him possibly being gun-shy expect more of the same.

One intriguing story to watch is the resurrection of Robert Griffin III and Terrelle Pryor in Cleveland. Head coach Hue Jackson has mentored a series of NFL quarterbacks to successful seasons. This could be a perfect storm of coaches and players all having something to prove and the ability to get it done. If Josh Gordon stays with the team, this could be fun to watch. It will come to fruition in 2017 not this year. However they will be a competitive team to watch offensively.

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2015 Lessons Through Week 3: AFC North

Every NFL season takes on its own unique shape. With so many moving parts between player movement, player maturation & coaching changes, the landscape doesn’t change every year..it changes every week. By the time we sprinkle injuries in this cauldron it’s nearly impossible to forecast. This is what makes NFL football great.

Bell and Williams will power the Steelers in 2015.

Bell and Williams will power the Steelers in 2015.

Take the Pittsburgh Steelers for instance. Coming into the season they had to figure how to get through the first few games while LeVeon Bell served a 2 game suspension. With a defense being rebuilt they would have to lean on one of the NFL’s best offenses for success in 2015. Insurance policies were signed in former Carolina RB DeAngelo Williams and former Falcon / Eagle QB in Michael Vick. Williams paid off handsomely with 206 yards rushing and 3 TDs, which is good enough for 6th in the league going into week 4. Now they have a 1-2 punch that is second to none with Bell’s return.

Yet Bell’s first game back against the Rams in week 3 saw Ben Roethlisberger go down with a knee sprain. Vick is the next man up and has to produce in the 4 weeks Big Ben is expected to be gone. Vick can’t just hold the fort down in Ben’s absence. The Steelers, with all their offensive weaponry, rank 5th offensively and 14th defensively. If this insurance policy doesn’t pay off and the Steelers find themselves punting more and come back to the pack, they will  expose their defense. Tomlin’s defense needs to grow up in a hurry. Michael Vick your mission, should you choose to accept it…

Time to play Manziel.

Time to play Manziel.

In Cleveland its as if Head Coach Mike Pettine is trying hard to look for work next year. The upside to Josh McCown is he is a journeyman quarterback that will minimize mistakes. The downside is he is not a playmaker that can win you games. Just as he did with his game ending interception to Charles Woodson in their 27-20 loss to Oakland last week.

However a closer look at the numbers and Johnny Manziel has a 99.7 passer rating to MCown’s 83.2. Did you know through 3 games of this season Manziel has 3 touchdown passes of 50 yards where the rest of the NFL has 6?? That is called playmaking and is the difference between the Browns being 1-2 v. 0-3. To bookend Manziel’s week 2 heroics you have the Woodson interception and before that, the fumble at the goal line when McCown got himself knocked out against the Jets. Come on son…

It’s time to play Manziel and see what you have. If the Browns can’t turn it around they could be looking for a new Head Coach and quarterback next season. Like it or not Mike Pettine, your job’s future lies in the success of this 2015 campaign. Especially in a down year for the division, better to tie it to a playmaker like Manziel than a losing game manager like McCown.

bengals tComing in with the NFL’s 2nd best offense and 12th ranked defense is the 3-0 Cincinnati Bengals. The conversation for the Bengals is the same as the last few years. They beat the teams they should beat and come up empty against the best the AFC has to offer. The combined record of the Raiders, Chargers, and Ravens was 3-6 before Thursday Night’s game. We’ll talk about this team in 3 weeks when they host Seattle then go on the road to Buffalo. They come through that 2-0 we have something to talk about.

The Baltimore Ravens won last night to earn their first win of the season. However it isn’t a season saving victory as many of the t.v. pundits would have you believe. The Pittsburgh Steelers lost that game last night due to terrible kicking with Josh Scobee and even worse play calling late in the 4th quarter. Justin Forsett broke out with 150 yards rushing but the Steelers have given up 373 yards on the ground in the last 3 weeks. This team has middle of the road rankings offensively and defensively and new playmakers have to emerge on the defensive side of the ball.

Thanks goodness they get to play against Cleveland next week, especially if Pettine stays the course to get fired starting McCown. After that they go on the road to San Francisco and Arizona. The 49ers aren’t as strong as they once were for certain.  However neither were the Oakland Raiders and Denver Broncos as the Ravens started 0-2 on the road traveling west. These next few weeks will definitely tell the tale.

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Divisional Preview: Baltimore Ravens @ New England Patriots

Now its time for the big boys to swing into action. For most Patriot backers, they believe that Rob Gronkowski is going to be the difference. He wasn’t there as the Ravens had playoff success in Gillette Stadium.

Terrell-Suggs-Baltimore-Ravens-Football-2011-NFLIf you think back to Lee Evans dropping that last second touchdown in the 2011 the AFC Championship, this team would be on a winning streak in Foxboro. Baltimore can pressure with Elvis Dumervil along with Terrell Suggs. This will allow Darryl Smith and CJ Moseley to concentrate on clogging Brady and Gronk’s passing lanes. With Haloti Ngata back from suspension, he’s rested and should stop the run.

New England fields a better defense and Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner can take away the Ravens receivers as well. The truth is Steve Smith will sneak open a couple times as will Torrey Smith. It will be a tight contest and the winner will be the Baltimore Ravens 26-21.

2013 AFC North Predictions

Admittedly we are a tad late on our NFL divisional predictions. On the eve of the biggest AFC North game for the Cincinnati Bengals for quite sometime, we have to go on record for how we think the AFC North will go. If you have followed our previews up to this time, Taylor Blitz was the first of the national pundits that had the Cincinnati Bengals going to the AFC Championship Game in a few months. https://taylorblitztimes.com/2013/04/16/2013-cincinnati-bengals-team-preview-slowly-building-a-winner/ That article was produced on April 16th, so we are talking before the unfortunate events with the Patriots and Aaron Hernandez. Before the suspension of Von Miller out in Denver. Right now the Cincinnati Bengals have a tremendous amount going for them, including returning the NFL’s 6th ranked defense.

The Cincinnati Bengals should be the best of the AFC North in 2013.

The Cincinnati Bengals should be the best of the AFC North in 2013.

2013 AFC North Predictions

1. Cincinnati Bengals 11-5 ##

2. Pittsburgh Steelers 9-7

3. Baltimore Ravens 7-9

4. Cleveland Browns 6-10

The only team to make it to the playoffs from this division this year are the Bengals. What we do know is Cleveland has improved on offense, if we’re talking about the preseason. They struggled against a rebuilding Ravens team that gave up an NFL record 7 touchdown passes to Peyton Manning in week 1. The Browns actually had scouts at the Texas A&M / Alabama game to scout Johnny Manziel who threw 5 touchdowns and scored 42 against the number one team in the nation.  Current QB Brandon Weeden has 14 more games to prove he is the future or his job is gone next off-season.

The Steelers are in the middle of a rebuilding year and need to indoctrinate several young players in the Pittsburgh mold.  Understand this record was before they lost signal callers Maurkice Pouncey, Center, and inside linebacker Larry Foote to season ending injuries. They may fall further than 9-7 but the rest of the division might be too weak to take advantage.

Which brings us to tonight. Former NFL commissioner Bert Bell coined the phrase “On any given Sunday” back in the 1950’s. Meaning that at any time a lessor team can take down one of the NFL heavies.  It’s amazing how that has been through the years. Yet one of the items we say around here is every champion has building blocks to their championship mettle. One mission for the Cincinnati Bengals tonight is to prove to the Steelers, NFL fans, teams and most importantly to themselves that they are the team that rules the AFC North. Nevermind their loss in week 1 it starts tonight.  That psychological building block to this team’s psyche begins in a few hours.  Their mission, should they choose to accept it….

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2013 AFC North Predictions

Now the season is off to a rollicking start, it’s time to finish up on our predictions for the course of the 2013 NFL season. One division that is going to see turnover at the top is the AFC North. It was long thought the Baltimore Ravens wouldn’t be the defense we had come to know with Ray Lewis, but to allow 7 touchdowns to Peyton Mannning?? Uh oh… might take some time for that defense to jell this season if they do at all. So who will win the AFC North and interrupt the hold at the top dominated by Pittsburgh and Baltimore the last 13 years??

The Cincinnati Bengals should be the best of the AFC North in 2013.

The Cincinnati Bengals should be the best of the AFC North in 2013.

2013 AFC North Predictions

1. Cincinnati Bengals 12-4 ##

2. Pittsburgh Steelers 9-7

3. Cleveland Browns 7-9

4. Baltimore Ravens 6-10

The last two years have been a dress rehearsal for the Bengals in the NFL playoffs. This year they will do some serious damage as a division winner. They return the 6th best defense in the NFL before you factor in the addition of James Harrison. They were second in the NFL with 52 sacks, 4th in touchdown passes allowed with 16 and added players to bolster both those numbers. Andy Dalton, in year 3, knows his team and this division and will know his way around the NFL playoffs as well.

The Steelers are in a short rebuilding phase and will have a few growing pains. However when you return with the #1 defense in pro football, you will be in a lot of games. The only issue is they don’t force turnovers like they used to. We also have to see how Mike Wallace’s absence holds back the passing game. With that defense and LeVeon Bell they will sneak close to the playoffs but will have to wait until 2014 to showcase what they can do.

The Browns are a much improved team but still can’t compete at the top of this division. Trent Richardson will dominate this year where last year he showed some flashes. They really looked good in the preseason but we have to see how they respond when real bullets start flying.

As for the Baltimore Ravens….sigh. We attended their funeral last Thursday when Peyton Manning baptized them with 7 touchdown passes. They were just caught in a vice when the offense went flat early in the third quarter. Yet the lack of leadership showed up when they couldn’t stem the tide. A season of growing pains awaits the Super Bowl champs.

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Baltimore Ravens Super Bowl XLVII Ring: Rich City of Tradition

The bauble earned for the Baltimore Ravens winning Super Bowl XLVII.

The bauble earned for the Baltimore Ravens winning Super Bowl XLVII.

So to conclude a reunion week of the team that vanquished the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl last February, the Baltimore Ravens were on tour again. First a trip to the White House where they met with President Obama where they presented him with a ceremonial jersey. Then to have the week culminate in the presentation of their Super Bowl rings in a gala on Friday night.  Ray Lewis and most of the players who have moved on from the organization, were back to bask in the evening commemorating their achievement sitting atop the NFL for 2012.

The first view leaked on the day by CBS Sports didn’t do the ring justice. This professional shot from the Ravens organization shows off the quality of the ring and downplays it’s size. The oval design of the top distinguishes it from the rectangular face of the first championship ring. This ring needed to say more where the typical design of a first ring is normally the team logo and a series of diamonds. With the oval face we see the off centered dual Super Bowl trophies layered beneath the logo amid a bed of diamonds.

The best aspect of the ring is it was made in white gold which gives it a clean and sleek look. Much like the Super Bowl trophy itself, it has a steely look to it. One that reflects the clinical moves that an organization makes with awarding a Ray Rice with a $35 million contract before the season, yet make Joe Flacco sweat it out in a contract year. Another that comes to mind is the steely resolve Flacco exhibited in his road performances in Denver and New England. Where he took the measure of the two best quarterbacks whose status kept his in question when you think of the AFC’s elite quarterbacks.

The ring will forever reflect the steely grit a team showcased once their leader in Ray Lewis announced he would retire after the 2012 postseason. Finally, it reflects the steely nerves a tired Raven defense had to display in the greatest goal line stand in Super Bowl history. Greater than the 49er stand in Super Bowl XVI?? Absolutely!! This one won the Super Bowl with seconds left where the one the 49ers put on was in the third quarter.

By doing so the Baltimore Ravens brought the city its fifth NFL championship. Just as Johnny Unitas used to attend Ravens games, those old titles belong to this city, not with the original franchise that sits in Indianapolis.

1958 NFL Championship ring

1958 NFL Championship ring

The championship team that put the city of Baltimore on the map forever was the one that won this ring right here. Arguably the most influential NFL Championship ever played was the 1958 epic where the Colts beat the New York Giants in overtime 23-17. In fact it’s moniker has been “The Greatest Game Ever Played”. Although there had been winning drives in championship games before, Johnny Unitas came of age as a quarterback during his. With the Colts down 17-14, where they hadn’t scored since the second quarter, Unitas took to the air. Through his will and determination he directed Baltimore on a long drive to tie the score on a Steve Myra kick. Forcing the first “sudden death” overtime in NFL playoff history.

You have to remember we were just two years removed from the New York Giants having won the 1956 championship with the league’s best defense 47-7 over the Chicago Bears. This was to be their era and the New York media was there en masse to cover their second championship triumph in 3 years. Yet as Unitas to Raymond Berry began to dominate the overtime period, media attention switched to; “Who is this skinny quarterback riddling the NFL’s best defense?” Unitas was inventing the “two minute quarterback” with his every move from quick passes, to his deft play calling. He had total command of the game and performed with glacial calm.

Unitas famous drive showcased his flair for the dramatic as well as his play calling taking advantage of what the Giants defense would think he would do. Once inside the 10 yard line where the Colts could kick the winning field goal, Unitas threw an out to TE Jim Mutscheller to get down to the 1. The Giants were out of position as they were geared to stop the run. Just as the Giants braced themselves for the customary fullback leading the halfback into the line, Unitas called the opposite. Alan Ameche crashed into the endzone behind a Lenny Moore block through a gaping hole.

The game was over with the city of Balitmore champions of the football world and Johnny Unitas was on the map forever. On the heels of the excitement of this game, Lamar Hunt formed the principles of what would become the American Football League. Football became the new American obsession after this game and began to rival baseball as the #1 sport.

Watch that was awarded to the 1958 NFL Champion Colts. Unsure if this went to the coaches and owners or the complete story.

Watch that was awarded to the 1959 NFL Champion Colts. Unsure if this went to the coaches and owners or the complete story.

In a rematch that concluded the NFL’s “Golden Age” of the fabulous 1950s, the New York Giants again faced the Colts for the league championship. This time the Colts would be at home. A city that famous Baltimore writer John Steadman once said “Baltimore was known for being the train stop between Washington DC and New York.” Tapping into the city’s inferiority complex. The Colts and principally Johnny Unitas gave the city a legitimacy on a nationwide scale that it hadn’t experienced before. Yet here they were again facing the evil empire that was New York’s Football Giants coming to take back the crown.

However in a dominating performance, Unitas and the Colts throttled the Giants 31-16 thanks to a 24 point 4th quarter. They were down 9-7 when the highest scoring team in football scored with a Johnny Unitas 4 yard scamper around end. Then Unitas found Jerry Richardson for a 12 yard touchdown to push the lead to 21-9. Then Johnny Sample, yes the same one that played with the Jets and intercepted Unitas twice in Super Bowl III, returned a Charlie Conerly pass  42 yards to push the Colts to an insurmountable 28-9 lead with half a quarter to go.

Richardson would go on to own the Carolina Panthers many years later.

Gino Marchetti and Eugene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb and the Colt defense came up with timely plays to hold the Giants to 3 first half field goals by Pat Summerall.  In Tom Landry’s last game as the defensive coach (defensive coordinator) of the Giants, the Colts were held to only 280 yards of total offense to the Giants 323.

The NFL Championship ring of the 1959 Baltimore Colts.

The NFL Championship ring of the 1959 Baltimore Colts.

The Colts winning back to back championships made them a dynasty and one of the greatest champions in NFL history. Not bad for a team that had come into the league from a defunct All American Football Conference with the San Francisco 49ers and Cleveland Browns in 1950. In 10 years, these 3 teams from the inferior league won half the decades NFL championships. Winning the first in 1950, the last in 1959, and the Browns playing for 3 more championships. Yet it was the team from Baltimore that ushered football into the modern age as the 1960s dawned.

The ring commissioned for winning Super Bowl V.

The ring commissioned for winning Super Bowl V.

The last Colts team that won Super Bowl V for Baltimore was one that suffered from the fallout from having lost Super Bowl III. The turbulent 1960s were over and the merger between the NFL and AFL happened with a championship between the two leagues starting after the 1966 season.  The Super Bowl III loss to the New York Jets legitimized the AFL and the merger but the Colts suffered from the fallout that lasted the rest of their lives VIDEO.

The Colts were led by an aged Johnny Unitas who was getting by on guile. He now had All Pro Tight End and fellow Hall of Famer John Mackey on offense along with Roy Jefferson and Eddie Hinton at the wide outs. Gone were Raymond Berry, Tom Matte and familiar names with the Colts. They were transitioning from the team that won for most of the decade of the 1960s but couldn’t overcome the Green Bay Packers in the Western Conference. Now they found themselves in the first year of interleague play under the AFC along with former AFL teams and the Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers who were paid $3 million to move from the NFL to the AFC. Each conference now had 13 teams.

After posting an 11-2-1 record, they bested the Oakland Raiders in the first ever AFC Championship Game 27-17 to make their way to play for the Vince Lombardi Trophy in the Orange Bowl. Rookie Jim O’Brien kicked a last second field goal to win Super Bowl V 16-13 over the Dallas Cowboys. Unitas who would be gone from the Colts in less than two years was knocked from the game in the second quarter. The Colts put themselves in position for the winning field goal when Mike Curtis intercepted a Craig Morton pass with seconds left to put the ball on the Dallas 28 with seconds left.

This ring was the first for the city of Baltimore with it’s new team, the Ravens. Art Modell had moved the former Cleveland Browns (ironically) to town in 1996. Free agency had dawned after the 1993 season and teams were struggling to put offenses together. Yet the trend became one where a suffocating defense through free agency could be built, and the Ravens built one of history’s finest. After drafting Ray Lewis, Jamie Sharper, Duane Starks, and Chris McAlister, they filled in the blanks with free agents Tony Siragusa, Robert Bailey, Corey Harris, and future Hall of Famer Rod Woodson to form a defense the league hadn’t seen since the 1991 Philadelphia Eagles.

The first ring won by the Baltimore Ravens after Super Bowl XXXV.

The first ring won by the Baltimore Ravens after Super Bowl XXXV.

The Ravens first ever foray into the NFL playoffs came after a regular season where they had given up a league record 165 points for the season. The old record had been 187 points allowed by the 1986 Chicago Bears.  Although the Ravens defense was ranked #2 on the year, they yielded the fewest points, highlighted by four shutouts. They had become the first team since the ’85 Bears to record back to back shutouts during any NFL season. How dominating were they?? If you include the 3 points allowed to Denver in the wildcard 21-3 win, the 10 points given up to defending AFC Champion Tennessee Titans in a 24-10 win, and the 6 points given up in the AFC Championship win over Oakland 16-6, in 19 games they still gave up less points than the Bears old 16 game record. (184-187 points) Yikes!!

Couple that with the fact the Giants only touchdown in Super Bowl XXXV had been a kick return by Ron Dixon, they would have ended the game with a fifth shutout which would have been a Super Bowl first. Ray Lewis was the 2000 NFL Defensive Player of the Year and MVP of the Super Bowl as well. Trent Dilfer, Jamal Lewis, and free agent acquisition Hall of Fame Tight End Shannon Sharpe powered an efficient offense. This was one of the greatest defensive champions of all time.

There you have it… Baltimore’s rich NFL tradition punctuated by championships from different eras. Ironically there is a lot more to the Cleveland Baltimore rivalry than meets the eye. They have been joined from the hip since their 1950 NFL inception and the present day franchise started in Cleveland. Yet here they sit as champions of the football world for another year. How will they fare in 2013?? Go read our previews.

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