The NFL season, if you can believe this, begins in about four weeks. We are 20 days away from official kickoff, with the Kansas City Chiefs traveling to take on the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. Thus, every Tuesday and Friday until kickoff, I'll be previewing the whole NFL, division-by-division. Obviously, much will change between now and the first week of the season, so just assume that I've taken all those future events under consideration in each of these previews. Let's go with that.
I've drawn on all sorts of resources in these previews, but like anyone who writes about football and wants to get it right, I've weighed heavily on Football Outsiders and their Football Outsiders Annual, which you should purchase if you really want to know what's going on.
4. Cleveland Browns (Projected Record: 5-11)
To be as clear as possible here: There is no reason to be excited by, or even all that interested in, the Browns this season. The roster has been gutted over the past two seasons, and all the draft picks that the Browns braintrust has compiled are still working their way through this depth chart. Brock Osweiler is gonna be the quarterback. The team has no depth. This division is tough as usual. The Browns will stink. You know this, I know this. Same old Browns, right?
Well, maybe not. The Browns have gone the full Cubs/Astros/76ers over the last two years, and while they haven't seen much improvement on the field yet, it's undeniable that progress is being made. The Browns are starting to filter in some actual talent into their depth chart, and there's more coming: They have 12 draft picks next year, including two in the first round and three in the second. And they are not, like, say, the Rams (another team trying to build its way back up from the bottom), and tied to a terrible quarterback they wasted a top draft pick on. The Browns are bringing in talent and they are remaining flexible. They are doing this all exactly right.
I cannot blame any Browns fans for having zero patience with that paragraph, or anyone else chuckling at it: Here they go again, the Browns explaining away another bad season. But the only way you were going to truly fix the Browns was to completely start over, from the bottom up. Paul DePodesta and his staff are doing exactly that. They're gonna be a little better each year, and then one year, like the Cubs and the Astros and the 76ers and all the smart teams who have tried this strategy, it's all going to click. Until then, more patience is required. But not for that much longer.
3. Baltimore Ravens (Projected Record: 8-8)
It feels like the floor is about to fall out from under the Ravens, doesn't it? Whether or not they should have signed Colin Kaepernick -- and they absolutely should have signed Colin Kaepernick -- the massive public debate, the organization seeming to argue with itself, right out in front of everyone, had the feel of a franchise that's starting to teeter. This has been one of the best organizations in the NFL for a decade now. But no one goes longer than that who isn't the Patriots.
The Ravens are definitely not the Patriots. Joe Flacco is what he always was: A perfectly fine quarterback but nothing special, a guy who got one postseason and hasn't been the same since. (It's a tradeoff he'd surely make: They can't ever take that title away from him. He earned it.) Except now he's older, and his receivers are old, and man, this whole team looks old.
This is the difference between the Ravens and the Patriots, who, along with the Steelers and maybe the Broncos, are the teams that have been atop this conference for a decade now. The Ravens have sustained their success but are getting awfully long in the tooth; the Patriots are constantly replenishing. There's a possibility everything goes wrong this year for the Ravens, and they decide to hit the reboot button in the offseason. (Maybe John Harbaugh leaves and coaches against his brother in college!) The 8-8 record is a hedge … but all told, we think they're more likely to lose 11 than win 11.
2. Cincinnati Bengals (Projected Record: 9-7)
This actually feels like a conservative prediction, considering how much the Bengals struggled last year. Another losing season would probably -- have to, right? Right? -- sink Marvin Lewis once and for all. And there are issues with the offensive line, issues that weren't resolved in the offseason the way many Bengals fans were hoping they would be.
But this team could still score tons of points, particularly if Andy Dalton and A.J. Green stay healthy. Green, in particular, seems primed for the explosive statistical year we've all been waiting for. The Bengals seems more confident in their offensive line than everyone else is, and if they're right, Dalton will have the time -- and he's a quarterback who needs time -- to spread the ball around to his many weapons. The Bengals do have the look of a post-hype sleeper, a team with talent that most people have soured on after their big step back last year. But it is possible last year was the outlier.
The Bengals look for all the world like a league-average team, on both offense and defense. You can go a long way with a league average team, particularly one that has as much experience with winning (in the regular season at least) as the Bengals do. The NFL is in constant flux. Everyone's always changing something around. But the Bengals stay the course. It might put a ceiling on their achievement. But it might also give them a floor.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers. (Projected Record: 11-5)
The Steelers are this year's unquestioned "can somebody, anybody do something about the Patriots?" nominee, and why wouldn't they be? Le'Veon Bell is healthy and not suspended, from Week 1 on. Ben Roethlisberger may have more weapons than he's ever had in his career. The defense was good last year, and, at last, has enough young players that it might be even better this year. The Steelers are undeniably on an upward swing.
But will it be enough? And by "enough," we mean, of course, "will they be able to beat the Patriots?" They're almost unquestionably the top challenger to the Patriots, and they've got a much easier schedule than New England (or almost anyone else) does. If they can take care of the teams in their division -- if they can go 5-1, or even 4-2, against them -- they can pile on the wins elsewhere. They even get the Patriots at home, in Week 15, in case home-field advantage in the playoffs happens to be on the line.
As always with the Steelers, the fate of the franchise moving forward rests on the whims of Roethlisberger, who once again flirted with retirement this offseason. (That's one thing we haven't seen yet in this age of football players walking away from the game in fear of long-term effects of head injuries: A star quarterback leave something still on the table.) It's clear he wants one more title; he has two, and one more would tie him with Troy Aikman and put him in the top five all time. He may never have a better chance than now. Even with the Patriots still out there.
Friday: The NFC South
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