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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Taylor Blitz Times NFL Defensive Player of the Year: Richard Sherman

Someone somewhere coined the axiom  “Big time players make big plays in big games.” No defensive play this year was bigger than the pass defensed by Richard Sherman that turned into the game ending interception to win the NFC Championship. It would have been easy to catch Sherman flat footed having played a majority of the game being avoided.

TBT Defensive Player of the Year: Richard Sherman

TBT Defensive Player of the Year: Richard Sherman

If you make the biggest play in the history of your team to send them to the Super Bowl, you have done something. How many times do we see a player dominate in the regular season only to disappear in the playoffs??  Yet Sherman was front and center as one of the lead players on the #1 defense in football.

One pass defense could have altered the legacies of both teams.

One pass defense could have altered the legacies of both teams.

In the most pivotal game of the season, Sherman provided the key play. Not the NFC Championship, but week 4 when the consensus was Seattle couldn’t win on the road. It was the 4th quarter when the Seahawks were losing in Houston 20-13. At the time the Texans were thought of as a Super Bowl team and on their way to a win. With just 2:51 left Sherman jumped a Matt Schaub pass and returned it 58 yards for the tying touchdown. Seattle eventually won 23-20 in overtime. The resultant confidence led the Seahawks to a 6-2 road record and NFC best 13-3 record. While the Texans didn’t win another game the rest of the season. Talk about a turning point.

The confidence building moment against Houston.

The big interception against Houston.

In 2013, Sherman talked the talk while leading the NFL with 8 interceptions, returning them for 158 yards and that significant touchdown. He also was 7th on the team in tackles with 48, defensed 17 passes and recovered 2 fumbles. The Seahawks assign him to their opponents best receiver and he answered the bell every week.

In the pivotal moment of the NFC Championship we saw a transcendent play. For an instant Colin Kaepernick thought he had Crabtree breaking free and let fly. From a fundamental standpoint he stayed inside Michael Crabtree, using the sideline as his friend, then reacted to make the play of the season.

Honorable Mention: 

Navorro Bowman pictured in last year's Super Bowl.

Navorro Bowman pictured in last year’s Super Bowl.

Navorro Bowman ILB – San Francisco 49ers: We were just a couple plays away from back to back Taylor Blitz Times Defensive Player Awards for Navorro Bowman. If Richard Sherman doesn’t turn in that play to win the NFC Championhip how does he not win it again?? As we made it to the second half of the season, many pundits were pitching the case for Luke Kuechly. However truth be told he didn’t turn anywhere near the season Bowman did out in San Francisco.

  • Bowman -180 total tackles, 5 sacks, 6 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries, 9 passes defensed, 2 interceptions and 1 returned for a touchdown
  • Kuechly -166 total tackles, 2 sacks, 4 interceptions ,  8 passes defensed, yet 0 forced fumbles or fumble recoveries

On top of that, was there a bigger defensive play than the interception return for a touchdown to put San Francisco into the playoffs?? Monday night against the Falcons his 89 yard pick six takes place with 1:31 to go when the 49ers needed a play. This play and his final play are the essence of the man. He stops Kearse in the 4th quarter of the NFC Championship at the two yard line. The tackle wasn’t enough, he forces and recovers a fumble although he injures himself in the process. It’s that spirit that makes him the best linebacker in the NFL. One we wish a speedy recovery from the knee injury suffered against Seattle.

Burfict has been the playmaker on Cincinnati's  top ranked defense.

Burfict has been the playmaker on Cincinnati’s top ranked defense.

Vontaze Burfict ILB – Cincinnati Bengals: Another blood thirsty linebacker who turned in one stellar season was this former Arizona St. Sun Devil. He recorded an astounding 50 more tackles than his breakout rookie season with 177 total tackles. Add to that his 3 sacks, 8 passes defensed, an interception, 1 forced fumble to accompany 2 fumble recoveries with one returned for a touchdown.

He was the trigger man on the NFL’s third best defense and has a great future ahead of him. We just need to see if he’ll be featured in the new defensive coodinator’s scheme now that Mike Zimmer is the head man in Minnesota.

These were the defenders that made the season for Taylor Blitz Times.

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AFC Wild Card: San Diego Chargers v Cincinnati Bengals

Welcome to day two of the National Football League playoffs for 2013. One of the items being thrown around by television pundits is “No one wants to play the San Diego Chargers.” It’s true that the Chargers have won 5 of their last 6, but so have the Cincinnati Bengals. In the 6 Cincy has won, one of those was a 17-10 victory over these exact same Chargers on their home turf just a month ago. The media is at it again…

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.

What about the fact the Bengals were not only 8-0 at home but tied the National Football League record for scoring 40 points in four of those games?? Last performed by the 2000 St Louis Rams of The Greatest Show on Turf vintage. They averaged 34.4 points per game at home and are being treated like an after thought by the media. Everyone is pointing to Andy Dalton throwing 4 interceptions in the finale against Baltimore. Yet they still scored their average with a 34-17 rout ending the reign of the champion Ravens.

Now the Chargers show up on wild card weekend with the NFL’s 23rd ranked defense that has given up 30 on the road to Philly, 30 to Washington, 38 to Kansas City, and even 27 to the lowly Raiders. Do you realize the Chargers have only forced 6 turnovers in 8 road games this year?? Now they’re going out in the cold and will do it in the playoffs?? Isn’t this the team that barely beat the Chiefs playing with a second string group 27-24 in overtime just to get into the playoffs?? What juggernaut “no one wants to play team” are they talking about??

The National Football League's #3 defensefeatures Vontaze Burfict. Who is seriously considered  for TBT Defensive Player of the Year.

The National Football League’s #3 defensefeatures Vontaze Burfict. Who is seriously considered for TBT Defensive Player of the Year.

The Bengals will win this game 37-24 on the strength of a couple things. The first is they field the only top ten defense from the AFC that is in the 2013 playoffs. They rank 3rd… Another is the Bengals know the Chargers very well. Not only did they beat them in San Diego 17-10 this year, they beat them 20-13 last year on the road again. Now they get them at home where the Bengals really put up points?? That doesn’t bode well for today. Who and what were the teams ranked Cincy draped 40 on at home this year?? Try 49 on the 11th ranked New York Jets, 41 on the 9th ranked Cleveland Browns, 42 on the 20th ranked Indianapolis Colts, and 42 on the 31st ranked Minnesota Vikings. Last but not least these were totaled from week 8 on so this is very relevant.

Don’t listen to ESPN try to sell you a bag of goods on San Diego and not bring up the strength of the Bengals. They are peaking at the right time and are right where we predicted they would be: https://taylorblitztimes.com/2013/04/16/2013-cincinnati-bengals-team-preview-slowly-building-a-winner/

Andy Dalton and A.J. Green have only known playoffs in their 3 seasons in The Queen City. Today should show the growth of the team with a win.

Andy Dalton and A.J. Green have only known playoffs in their 3 seasons in The Queen City. Today should show the growth of the team with a win.

The Chargers really would pull off a tremendous upset if they were to win today. The Chancellor of Football doesn’t see that at all, not in spirit, way the teams are playing, nor in stats. But that’s why they play the games as Chris Berman always reiterates. However the Bengals should win easily 37-24. We predicted they would be in New York for the Super Bowl. Step one is today…

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2013 Cincinnati Bengals Team Preview – Slowly Building A Winner

Pau Brown Stadium

Pau Brown Stadium

Over the last two years the Cincinnati Bengals have charged into the NFL playoffs. It’s the first time they have gone in back to back years since 1982, the year after their appearance in Super Bowl XVI. In these recent years, they fell to the Houston Texans in the wildcard round of the playoffs. In 2011 they fell 31-10, however last year they lost a tightly contested contest 19-13. This year many pundits are calling the Houston Texans a Super Bowl favorite. If the Bengals have made strides to catch the Texans what does that make them??

If they were to meet the Texans for a third straight time in the playoffs, you do realize the odds are on the Bengals side…correct?? Over the course of NFL history, there are few teams that have won 3 in a row against an opponent in a five year period in the playoffs. Since 1950, only 4 times out of 11 had a team won all three times. Remember how the Indianapolis Colts vanquished playoff nemesis New England on their way to the Super Bowl XLI title?? How about when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers turned the tables on Philadelphia in the 2002 NFC Championship on their way to the Super Bowl XXXVIII title?? What are we getting at here?? Keep reading

Third year pro has led the Bengals to the playoffs in back to back years.

Third year pro has led the Bengals to the playoffs in back to back years.

Quarterback: Well coming off a sophomore slump is Andy Dal…wait…what sophomore slump?? Dalton is entering his third year where he improved on his rookie numbers in completion percentage (62.3% v. 58.1%), yards (3,669 v. 3,398) and touchdowns (28 v. 20). Now don’t forget he made the Pro Bowl as a rookie in 2011. Now that the Bengals have opened up the playbook further for a growing quarterback, he did suffer a few more interceptions (16 v. 13) and sacks (46 v. 24) than the year before. However the arc is going up on this kid at the exact same time the division is losing Raven Safety Ed Reed, and he’ll face 32 year old Safeties in Troy Palamalu along with a 34 year old Ryan Clark when he faces the Steelers. If their healthy.

He has gained NFL playoff experience over these last two years and you have to ask yourself; Is this the year he can break through and win a playoff game?? He has to continue his maturation for this to happen. Last year he didn’t look good in the wild card loss to the Texans. He was 14 of 30 for only 127 yards and 1 interception. He was a little unnerved by the crowd noise in Houston. He was apprehensive in that game and had to live with that the whole off-season.

He hasn’t missed a game in his brief career. At 6-2 215lbs, he is a big strong quarterback. He isn’t a threat to run like some of his contemporaries who have dazzled in The Pistol, however he did run for 4TDs last year. He isn’t afflicted by the Bengals losing ways of the past and has helped the team improve from 9-7 in 2011 to 10-6 in 2012. Only an injury seems to be all that could derail further development. Dalton is no fluke and gives the Bengals a fighting chance and ranks as a playoff caliber quarterback.

Offensive Backfield: This is where the Bengals should use a draft pick in a couple of weeks. Last year the Bengals let go of Cedric Benson and former Patriot BenJarvus Green-Ellis ran for 1,097 yards and 6TDs. He is a steady but not spectacular player. Yet just like Benson, they keep grabbing running backs off the scrap heap. To take the next step they need to put a play maker at this position instead of a stop-gap performer. With all the SEC picks in the last few years, would they take Eddie Lacy out of Alabama?

http://www.nfl.com/videos/auto/0ap2000000122777/RB-Green-Ellis-29-yd-run

The time is now to plug in a viable rookie running back with Green-Ellis still in the fold. He’s only 27 and has a few years left in him. Bengals brass has also re-signed Cedric Peerman who had a better average than Green-Ellis (4.7 yard avg v. 3.9 yard avg) but there had to be a reason why they named Green-Ellis a starter over him. It couldn’t have been pass protection with the team giving up so many sacks. Cincinnati needs a runner not a ball carrier to push the envelope. The league average for yardage per rush is always around 4.0 and that’s all they can get with these players. With that in mind the Bengals can only be average at the position. Maybe Green-Ellis in his second year with the team can be that guy. We’ll wait and see.

AJ Green is the best young receiver in the AFC, period.

AJ Green is the best young receiver in the AFC, period.

Receivers: The other component to the equation why the Bengals are rising to prominence has been the play of AJ Green and TE Jermaine  Gresham. Both are coming off back to back Pro Bowl seasons even though they are so young. In only his second season, Green caught 97 passes for 1,350 yards and 11 touchdowns. Do you realize he caught 32 more passes than his rookie year? He improved in all statistical categories. The Bengals have to develop or draft a complement to him so teams, like the Texans in last year’s playoffs, can’t roll coverage to his side.

Green has been able to blossom due to safeties having to pay attention to Gresham in the middle. At 6’5 261lbs, he is too much man for most safeties and linebackers struggle with his speed. He’s the AFC version of Vernon Davis just not as fast. Last year he had 64 receptions for 737 yards and 5 TDs. Career highs in catches and yardage. If the Bengals weren’t in so many spread formations, he would be a 1,000 yard performer. Do you realize he’s only going into his 4th season?? These two alone make the receiving corps. playoff caliber. Develop or draft another receiver and they will be Super Bowl quality.

Offensive Line: This is another area where the Bengals should look on draft day to improve team fortunes. Last year the Bengals rushed for 1,745 yards and 11 TDs. Very middle of the pack numbers in terms of production. Keep in mind they allowed 46 sacks which ranked 26th in the league. Now is not the time for RT Andre Smith to play hardball in contract negotiations. If they lose him they may have to draft a tackle in the first round. When rushing to the strong side last year, the Bengals were thrown for losses 10 times. While in obvious power situations (3rd /4th and 2 or goal line) they converted on 76% of their attempts. All factors indicate he will re-sign.

Left Tackle Andrew Whitworth just came off his first Pro Bowl and is going into his 8th season. Where he didn’t have to face a James Harrison in Pittsburgh last year, he’ll face division new comer Elvis Dumervil in Baltimore.  Elvis did beat him for a sack in last year’s 31-23 loss to the Broncos. This will be his nemesis when they face the Ravens. However up the middle is where the running game is most solid and should improve with Guards Kevin Zeitler and Clint Boling who will be 23 and 24 respectively. This group needs to improve in their pass protection and right now they are just average.

Geno Atkins leads the Bengals beastly pass rush.

Geno Atkins leads the Bengals beastly pass rush.

Defensive Line: One of the best defenses in the NFL is strongest right on the defensive front with DT/NT Geno Atkins and DE Michael Johnson. Atkins is only going into his fourth year and has been to the Pro Bowl two straight years. Last year he was 5th on the team in tackles with 54, had 12 1/2 sacks, and four forced fumbles while being voted All Pro. Johnson was right behind him with 52 tackles, 11 1/2 sacks as the team was 2nd in sacks with 52. Wallace Gilberry and Carlos Dunlap gave them 4 linemen with at least 6 sacks. This is a Super Bowl caliber group.

Linebackers: The surprising play of free agent rookie Vontaze Burfict gave the team a faster look on defense than in years prior. In only 14 starts, he led the team with 127 total tackles and had 1 sack. Rey Maualuga was right behind him with 122 stops and another sack. They just need to force more turnovers by interception or fumbles to be a great group.  If they can get a third blood thirsty linebacker behind that pass rush..watch out! Still a playoff caliber group with Manny Lawson still on board. Former Steeler James Harrison is close to a deal also. To add to the pass rush they already have??

Secondary: Did you know the Bengals were ranked 7th in the NFL against the pass and was 4th in passing touchdowns allowed  with 16?? They were right there with Atlanta (14), Seattle (15), and Baltimore (15) respectively. You’ll note that one won the Super Bowl and the other two battled to make the NFC Championship Game. However this group hasn’t lost anyone like the Ravens losing Ed Reed or the Falcons losing CB Brent Grimes to the Dolphins.

Defensive Co-Ordinator Mike Zimmer gets the most out of a hodge podge veteran laden group that doesn’t give up the big play. Leon Hall (37 tackles / 2 ints) is solid on one corner where they may need to look for Terrence Newman’s ( 73 tackles / 2 ints) replacement on the other side. He’s still playing well but will be 35 when the season starts. Adam “PacMan” Jones is there to lend support as is Nate Clements formerly of the Bills and Niners. Clements made the switch to safety for 9 games last season yet may have to mold a young safety if the Bengals can draft one. Another season like last year and Reggie Nelson will be in the Pro Bowl. He was 3rd on the team in tackles with 83, defensed 9 passes, and had 3 picks. This group is Super Bowl caliber based on their collective production.

Vontaze Burfict is another reason the Bengals are going to make a move in 2013.

Vontaze Burfict is another reason the Bengals are going to make a move in 2013.

Overview: This is as solid a team that the AFC has to offer. Their greatest asset this year is the continuity in coaches and player personnel. Then you look at the relative youth of all the key positions with Dalton, AJ Green, Vontaze Burfict, and Geno Atkins. Now The Chancellor has had his eye on this defense for some time now. https://taylorblitztimes.com/2011/11/01/week-8-afc-north-protecting-the-nfl-republic/ This team has an arc that is still going up. They were 7th in defense in 2011 and improved to 6th last year. This is no fluke.

If you look at their division record, in 2011 it was 2-4 which improved to 3-3 in 2012. They finished 10-6 which was the identical record of the Super Bowl Champion Ravens. Yet look at all the upheaval of personnel in both Baltimore and Pittsburgh this offseason. Now think of the hole Elvis Dumervil left in the Broncos defense. Who has a better defense than this football team??  The Bengals can finally concentrate on luxuries in the draft without any obvious weaknesses. Having adjusted to playing near the league’s elite, this young team will crash the playoffs and might make it to Super Bowl XLVIII. Don’t forget the first cold weather Super Bowl had the Bengals in the 16th edition. They will at least make it to the AFC Championship Game. You heard it here first.

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Taylor Blitz Times new logo!!

Taylor Blitz Times new logo!!