Every year, there's one division that wreaks havoc on preseason predictions.
Early in the offseason, I wrote about the topsy-turvy appearance of the NFC South. While that division still has the potential to offer quite a battle in 2014, the New Orleans Saints have emerged as the clear-cut team to beat as offseason roster reconstructions have played out over the past few months.
The division that really has me pulling my hair out right now? The AFC North.
There are reasons for hope in every AFC North training camp. There are also causes for concern at every location. With each team, you can make an intelligent case as to why 2014 is the year for a run ... or the year the bottom falls out.
With that in mind, allow me to provide best-case/worst-case scenarios for all four AFC North teams. And what kind of columnist would I be if I didn't offer up fearless predictions, as well?
Best-case scenario: The Ravens bounce back and win the AFC North. Joe Flacco returns to form with a healthy season from Dennis Pitta and the welcome presence of Steve Smith, a savvy offseason acquisition who gives Baltimore a big boost on the field and in the locker room. Coordinator Gary Kubiak, another new face, maximizes the team's offensive arsenal as a play caller. Torrey Smith takes another step forward as a big-time receiver. Bernard Pierce, Ray Rice and the offensive line rebound from last season, when they churned out a league-low 3.1 yards per carry. Defensively, Haloti Ngata, Terrell Suggs and Co. fly around and make plays, spearheading the prideful unit's revival. Safety Matt Elam becomes great in his second year, while rookie linebacker C.J. Mosley makes an instant splash.
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Worst-case scenario: The offensive line never jells and Flacco is affected. Flacco's magical run in the 2012 postseason -- 11 touchdown passes, zero interceptions -- looks more and more like a fluke. Rice, who will miss the first two games of the season due to a domestic-violence suspension, continues the decline that began last fall. The defense never becomes dominant, leaving Ravens fans to long for the halcyon days of Ed Reed and Ray Lewis.
Prediction: Baltimore is a playoff team. Despite having just missed the postseason for the first time in his six years at the helm, John Harbaugh is an excellent coach. In fact, I see Harbaugh winning his third division championship. Flacco isn't feeling the heat like last year -- when he signed a nine-figure contract, fresh off a Super Bowl triumph -- and should enjoy a solid campaign. I believe in this organization; it's fantastic, top to bottom. This defense should not only be better than last year's unit, but better than the group from two years ago that raised the Lombardi Trophy.
Best-case scenario: Cincinnati, the most talented team in the division, truly emerges as a Super Bowl contender. The defense does it all, as Vontaze Burfict blossoms into an even bigger star and the pass rush continues to terrorize opposing quarterbacks. Offensively, A.J. Green further proves himself as a top-five receiver by routinely exhibiting his game-breaking skills. And the depth around Green -- at receiver and tight end -- overwhelms the opposition. Giovani Bernard, BenJarvus Green-Ellis and rookie Jeremy Hill form a three-headed monster in the backfield. And most crucially, Andy Dalton develops consistency, with offensive coordinator Hue Jackson aiding his growth.
Worst-case scenario: The Bengals dearly miss former coordinators Mike Zimmer and Jay Gruden. The defense in particular takes a step back sans Zimmer, who was incredible at getting the pieces to overachieve. Geno Atkins, one of the most invaluable defensive players in the league, struggles to recover from last October's season-ending knee injury. And most crucially, Dalton shows again that he's incapable of being elite and winning big games.
Prediction: Frankly, I believe just about everything mentioned above to some extent. But given Dalton and Marvin Lewis' spotty track record in big moments, I don't see Cincy taking the next step and becoming a Super Bowl team -- or even a true Super Bowl contender, for that matter. I think this team is too talented to flop, but I envision the Bengals winning nine or 10 games and finishing behind the Ravens in the division race.
Best-case scenario: The Cleveland defense becomes elite. (In a recent column, I laid out why this is about to be the case, thanks to an incredible mix of young talent and great coaching.) On the other side of the ball, new running backs Ben Tate and Terrance West pound the football. Following his Aug. 1 appeal, Josh Gordon's suspension isn't as long as many anticipate, allowing the All-Pro receiver to make an impact in the back half of the season. Johnny Manziel lights a spark under center, energizing the entire team. Head coach Mike Pettine and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan provide a level of coaching Clevelanders haven't seen in quite some time.
Worst-case scenario: Manziel can't stay focused off the field and plays poorly on it. (Yes, everybody loves Brian Hoyer. He's a fan and media darling. He bleeds Northeast Ohio. He's a reliable, smart backup. The problem with Brian Hoyer as a starter is that he's Brian Hoyer. He's a backup-caliber QB, yet at the moment, all signs point to him starting the season atop the depth chart.) Gordon is suspended for the entire season. Tate, who's had some trouble staying on the field as an NFL back, gets hurt and is a free-agent bust.
Prediction: I'm higher on the Browns than most, though I reserve the right to change my forecast after the Gordon ruling. If Gordon logs a reasonable amount of time this year, I stand by my April 1 prediction that Cleveland finishes ahead of Pittsburgh. If Gordon is banished for the entire season, Cleveland finishes last.
Best-case scenario:Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Tomlin remain a fantastic quarterback/coach combo. Le'Veon Bell shines in Year 2, becoming the dominant back Steelers fans are historically accustomed to seeing. David DeCastro and his offensive linemates come together under new O-line coach Mike Munchak (a fabulous offseason hire). Ryan Shazier lives up to the hype and sizzles in his rookie year at linebacker. Free-agent acquisition Mike Mitchell proves to be a major upgrade at safety.
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Prediction: This is subject to the Gordon ruling, but I can see Pittsburgh bottoming out this year. I just don't think they are that good. The great Roethlisberger/Tomlin duo will mask areas of deficiency half the time, allowing Pittsburgh to win seven or eight games.