Before I continue on with part three of four in this Out Of Bounds NFL preview, I just have to say I’m stoked the season is going to begin in just two short weeks. If you’ve been following along, you’ll know the West and South have already been completely broken down. I’ve provided you with stats, analysis, and even some fantasy weapons (including QB Andrew Luck, who’s been shining thus far) and busts (like RB Ryan Mathews, who broke his clavicle the day after I told you to stay away from him). This week, we head north, where there are plenty of stacked teams that’ll be competing for division titles.
Starting with the AFC North, the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers each finished up at 12-4 last year. While the Steelers were upended in the opening round after getting trounced by Tim Tebow’s Broncos in overtime, the Ravens fell just shy of advancing to the Super Bowl, losing to the Patriots 23-20 in the AFC Championship game. The Cincinnati Bengals surprised us all when they advanced to the playoffs, and the Cleveland Browns looked as awful as ever.
Both the Ravens and Steelers are certainly getting older, but they should be able to continue their dominance yet again. Now 27, QB Joe Flacco is going to be under a lot of pressure to win and show more consistency. He completed a career-low 57.6 percent of his passes last year, though he did take the Ravens deep into the playoffs. The window for Baltimore to win a championship with defensive standouts Ray Lewis and Ed Reed is dwindling and the season will fall on Flacco’s shoulders. He has one of the best running backs in the game in Ray Rice, but his receiving core isn’t the greatest. It’s time for him to finally make the players around him better.
Pittsburgh might be without RB Rashard Mendenhall for the first six weeks of the season, WR Mike Wallace is holding out for a new contract, and QB Ben Roethlisberger has “a little torn rotator cuff.” With several key players dealing with numerous issues, the Steelers have a serious uphill battle to climb. That said, I think they should be able to overcome this hurdle, especially with that damn good defense of theirs. I don’t think they’ll win 12 games again, but 10 can certainly happen.
After drafting QB Andy Dalton and WR A.J. Green in 2011, the Bengals were the surprise team of the league, as they were able to advance to the playoffs with two young studs. This year, they brought in RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who will certainly help move the chains, but their defense still has to improve for the team to get to the next level. Another nine-win season seems likely for Cincinnati, while the Cleveland Browns will struggle with their 28-year-old rookie QB.
Once again, the Green Bay Packers enter the NFC North as not only the best team in the division, but possibly the best team in the conference. Led by Aaron Rodgers, who has blossomed into, in my opinion, the league’s number one QB, the Packers are loaded with weapons and if they get a solid running game going, watch out. They didn’t make too many changes in the offseason with the exception of adding C Jeff Saturday, but when you go 15-1, you clearly don’t need to change much of anything. With the superior talent and stout defense, in addition to their high-powered offense, it’s no wonder they’re the favorites to win the Super Bowl.
The Detroit Lions received breakout seasons from QB Matt Stafford and WR Calvin Johnson en route to a 10-6 record last year. They took a giant step forward with Stafford’s 5,000-yard, 41-TD season, but their defense, which has been a massive work in progress, ranked 23rd in PPG allowed. Coach Jim Schwartz did a nice job guiding the Lions to the playoffs but he needs to keep his players in check. Detroit’s had several guys arrested for drug or alcohol-related charges since the season ended, including DT Nick Fairley, a first-round pick in 2011, who’s been popped twice already in 2012. Schwartz can’t let his team do whatever they feel like and continue to get in trouble with the law because they really do have a solid team that can go far.
While it seems like everyone is high on the Chicago Bears this year, this guy’s certainly not. It’s preposterous that at 16/1, the Bears have lower odds to win the Super Bowl than teams like the Ravens, Saints, Giants and Falcons. QB Jay Cutler, a dude I’ve been bashing for years, is perhaps the most overrated player in the league. Boasting a career QB rating of 84.5, Cutler was 11-35 at Vanderbilt before amassing his current 41-37 record in the NFL. Sure, now he’s reunited with WR Brandon Marshall in Chicago, but Cutler will never hoist the Lombardi Trophy. Ever. Throw in the fact that their star LB, Brian Urlacher, has been hampered with a nagging knee injury, and I honestly don’t know why people like the Bears this year. I’d put money on the god-awful Vikings—a team that will win maybe four games—to win the Super Bowl before I threw it down on a team that Cutler is “leading.”
Some fantasy players I like in the North include QB Joe Flacco, RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis, RB Cedric Benson, TE Jermaine Gresham, and TE Brandon Pettigrew. I’d steer clear of QB Matthew Stafford (an injury risk with a high price tag), QB Jay Cutler (for the many reasons listed above), WR Mike Wallace, and everyone on the Browns (including RB Trent Richardson). firstname.lastname@example.org
(Photo by Tom Cruze)