The outlook for the rest of the AFC North and how it affects the Ravens
Whether because of improved play, some fortuitously timed losses by rivals, or simply an easier stretch in the schedule, the Baltimore Ravens find themselves still alive in the AFC playoff race. With just three games remaining — all against exclusively teams with losing records — the Ravens appear well on their way to stamping their ticket to the postseason.
Still, the long NFL offseason starts in less than two months, and the rest of the myriad moving parts in the AFC North could have as dramatic an impact on the Ravens future as anything within the organization.
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The outlook: Long removed from relevance, the Cleveland Browns have already made the biggest changes in preparation for next year. The team ousted executive vice president of football operations and de facto general manager Sashi Brown and replaced him with John Dorsey within a matter of hours. That move presages what could become a complete overhaul of the entire Browns organization.
Dorsey, a veteran of the highly consistent Green Bay Packers personnel department and most recently the chief architect of a perennial contending in Kansas City, takes over a front office that has achieved little on-field success but has stockpiled more premium draft picks and cap space than any other organization heading into 2018. Dorsey’s track record as a drafter stands alongside the very best in the NFL, and his cap resources allow him to install his smartly aggressive approach to team building.
Though the Browns stand just three losses shy of a winless season, they possess a decent nucleus of talent. The offensive line features all-time great blindside protector Joe Thomas, one of the league’s premier guard tandems in Joel Bitonio, and starting-caliber center JC Tretter. When healthy, the unit provides the necessary infrastructure to develop a franchise quarterback, something Cleveland aims to do this offseason.
Meanwhile, the Browns defensive front has one of the brightest young pass rushers in former No. 1 overall pick Myles Garrett and talented role players such as Jamie Collins, Emmanuel Ogbah, and Danny Shelton. The secondary remains a weakness, but one that will benefit from the expected development of the talented front-seven.
From this, Dorsey hopes to construct a title contender in a matter of years.
Impact on Ravens: While the Ravens have managed their way into the heart of the AFC playoff race this season, they appear to be in the early stages of a partial rebuild of their own. The offense remains one of the least efficient units in the league, and even a decent two-game run from Joe Flacco can’t hide their wide-reaching issues. With the Browns dealing with their own systemic offensive shortcomings, the Ravens could find themselves going head-to-head over the same free agents and draft prospects.
Still, Cleveland requires significant improvements on both sides of the ball. Until those changes come, the team doesn’t represent a meaningful challenge to Baltimore.
The outlook: Almost exactly two years ago, the Cincinnati Bengals possessed arguably the most-complete roster in the AFC. The offense, headed by then-MVP candidate Andy Dalton and All-Pro wide receiver A.J. Green, led the conference in offensive efficiency while the defense, fronted by rejuvenated defensive tackle Geno Atkins and maniac linebacker Vontaze Burfict, didn’t trail far behind. That Bengals squad appeared to have all the necessary pieces to return to the Super Bowl for the first time the 1988 season.
Then on cue, tragedy struck the Bengals. Dalton fractured his thumb and missed the rest of the season, cratering the offense and the team’s title aspirations. Cincinnati stumbled to the finish line, doubling its loss total during the final four weeks and scoring a paltry 16 points in their lone playoff matchup.
That would prove to be the Bengals’ last trip to the postseason. In the time since, the team has endured a mass exodus of key players, including major losses along the offensive line (Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler), defections in the receiving corps (Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones), and departures on defense (Reggie Nelson and Domata Peko). Without that surplus talent, Dalton withered on the vine and Green has seen his productivity drop as the result of increased coverage.
Effectively eliminated from the playoff conversation in 2017, the Bengals will soon embark on a critical offseason for the franchise. Marvin Lewis’ contract expires, suggesting management has indeed decided to move on from the longtime head coach. Dalton’s future with the team could also come into question given his disappointing performance since the start of 2016. If Cincinnati moves on from both, a full rebuild appears on the way.
Impact on Ravens: Unlike with the Browns, the Bengals engaging in a massive overhaul presents fewer disadvantages for the Ravens. Cincinnati rarely dives into free agency, reducing the chance of a head-to-head conflict over a prospective signing. Meanwhile, if the team parts ways with Dalton, it either must re-sign backup AJ McCarron (a dicey proposition given his limited exposure) or locate a new starter elsewhere. In any case, the Bengals can’t simply expect the quarterback play to improve.
Meanwhile, the defense looks in need of a recharge as well. The unit still depends on aging stalwarts like Adam Jones, Michael Johnson, and Vincent Rey. Until that side of the ball receives an injection of young talent, the Ravens should have a defensive advantage as well.
The outlook: The Pittsburgh Steelers’ reign over the AFC North continued in 2017, albeit in a less dominant fashion than in years past. The team has already clinched the division with three games left to play but has played down to opponents all season (seven wins decided by less than a touchdown). As such, the Steelers’ present and future remain highly difficult to project.
Ben Roethlisberger’s retirement plans further complicate matters. The veteran quarterback has publicly mulled hanging it up for several years now, and his inconsistent play this season could potentially push him towards that conclusion over the next few months. Few teams effectively transition well from a Hall of Fame passer, Pittsburgh could soon find out how many issues Roethlisberger papered over during his nearly 15 years as the starter.
Le’Veon Bell’s future also hangs in the balance. The all-purpose tailback has become a key cog in the Steelers offense, but he and the team couldn’t agree to terms on an extension when his rookie contract expired last offseason. With the franchise tag becoming an increasingly expensive option and Pittsburgh drafting James Conner in the third round this past April, Bell’s tenure in Pittsburgh could conceivably end shortly.
Meanwhile, Ryan Shazier’s horrific injury casts the future of the defense in doubt. Shazier doesn’t play a premier position, but he developed into the unit’s most impactful player. No player the Steelers could acquire can replicate the range of skills Shazier brought to the table.
Impact on Ravens: Things could get quite interesting if Roethlisberger does indeed call it a career after 2017. The Steelers could pursue on the free-agent options, but Drew Brees seems unlikely to leave New Orleans at this stage and Kirk Cousins could cost more than the team can afford. That would leave fourth-round pick Josh Dobbs or a yet-to-be-acquired quarterback as Big Ben’s successor. Meanwhile, Bell could also depart if the Steelers determine his price tag — which some believe could reach $15 million annually — outweighs his productivity.
Losing either Ben or Bell would significantly loosen the Steelers’ grip on the AFC North. Losing both would put the entire division up for grabs.