Previews & Predictions for the 2016 NFL Season: AFC & NFC North

Th 2016 NFL season is almost here and that means that Sundays will once again be a great day. Instead of just dreading having to return to work on Monday, at least football will grab the attention of many. In this blog, I will look at the teams of the AFC and NFC North and give my predictions on their seasons.

AFC North

The Pittsburgh Steelers are still the top team in this tough division. Last year, the Steelers finished the season with a 10-6 record and lost in the divisional round of the playoffs to eventual Super Bowl champs Denver. They had a great season despite various injuries and I expect them to do the same this year even with suspensions to Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant, who is suspended the entire season. Mike Tomlin, who is in his 10th year as the Steelers head coach, will find a way to have his team at the top of the division again. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and wide receiver Antonio Brown will lead a pass-heavy offense right back to the postseason. But to outright win the division and hope for a bye in the postseason will rely on Markus Wheaton and Sammie Coates stepping up to be the number two and three receivers.

The Bengals are the team that can always make the playoffs, but can’t do anything once the postseason starts. QB Andy Dalton has yet to prove he can get the job done when it matters the most and until he does I can’t predict them to surpass the Steelers. Long time coach Marvin Lewis seems to be on the hot seat every year, but manages to always return. But time has to be running out for him and Dalton to get the Bengals past one playoff game. The defense will be what we always expect from Cincinnati again this year and if Jeremy Hill and AJ Green can stay healthy, the offense could be one of the best in the league. I expect them to make another playoff appearance, but I have to see them win a postseason game to make a bolder prediction.

The Baltimore Ravens had one of their worst seasons ever in 2015 finishing 5-11. Coach John Harbaugh has to change that now if he wants to get his team to the postseason. The Ravens are a good defensive team, but a lack of offense last year hampered their season. While QB Joe Flacco is still one of the best in the league, their running backs and wide receivers slumped last year. An injury to veteran Steve Smith was devistating, but the other receivers didn’t step up when they had the chance. And after parting ways with Ray Rice, their running game has taken a big hit. They drafted Kenneth Dixon this year and are hoping that he can breathe new life into a less than average running attack.

Lastly, in the AFC North, is the Cleveland Browns. Let’s face it, Cleveland had their moment with the Cavs and the Indians are hot in baseball right now, but the Browns will be the same Browns of late. New coach Hue Jackson inherits a team that went 3-13 last year and won’t do much better this season. The only bright spots for the Browns are TE Gary Barnidge and RB Duke Johnson. Some potential positives will be the newly reinstated WR Josh Gordon and QB Robert Griffin III, who is hoping to bounce back and rejuvenate his career. If he fails and Gordon can’t stay out of trouble, the Browns will remain a huge dumpster fire. If they manage to piece together a decent season, they could change their destiny in years to come. But 2016 will still be a rebuilding year filled with unanswered questions in Cleveland.
NFC North

With QB Aaron Rodgers, the Packers are easily my favorite to win the NFC North. While the Vikings are starting to challenge the Packers, I still have to go with Green Bay due to their star quarterback and how he manages to get the job done, even with average players around him. Last year, RB Eddie Lacy struggled mightily and WR Jordy Nelson was out all season with an injury and the Packers still had a great season. With Nelson back and coach Mike McCarthy not afraid to bench Lacy if necessary, Green Bay is poised to win the division again and contend for a spot in the Super Bowl.

Minnesota emerged last season as a playoff team and the second best team in their division. Led by QB Teddy Bridgewater, RB Adrian Peterson, a group of talented receivers, and a stout defense, the Vikings are set to go on another playoff run. And with a year of experience under their belt, Minnesota is hoping to go deeper into the postseason. I believe coach Mike Zimmer and the rest of his team will challenge Green Bay for the division championship but it will rely heavily on if their defense can withstand the Packers offense. If Everson Griffen, Anthony Barr, Harrison Smith, and the rest of the Minnesota defense can stop Rodgers and the Packers, they might just win the top spot. But I still expect a playoff return and an improved Vikings team.

Does anyone really know what the Chicago Bears are doing this year? They finished 6-10 in 2015 in John Fox’s first season with the team and they couldn’t be more irrelevant. This year, they are still riding on the hopes of QB Jay Cutler and WR Alshon Jeffery, who have both been good if healthy and not turning the ball over. But with RB and longtime Bear Matt Forte gone, they are placing their hopes for a good running game on Jeremy Langford. He did impress in limited action last year, but has yet to face an entire season as the main guy. They are also hoping on receiver Kevin White to be a complement to Jeffery when has yet to play in a regular season NFL game. And as far as their defense, let’s just say the Monsters of the Midway gimmick is long, long gone! I expect another less than average season from the Bears as they fade into obscurity.

The 2016 season for the Detroit Lions can be summed up easily in four words: No more Calvin Johnson. The great pro bowl wide receiver retired in the offseason and the Lions are left with a huge gapping hole. While they still have a great QB in Matt Stafford, who will be have to throw the ball to? Their offense is in disarray and the defense is not any better. Coach Jim Caldwell will have his hands full trying to not have this team fall apart. The Lions finished the 2015 season with a 7-9 record and that was with Johnson. Without their star receiver, it has to get worse and I believe the Lions can start planning on their number one pick in 2017 right now.

Daryl Karpinski, Jr.