Red has a distinct fondness for this division. Not because it is easy to pick (even though it only has 3 teams – take that Browns fans). But because it is challenging. Every season one team really outperforms expectations and mystifies the pundits – Red included. So here goes nothing.
Stealers. Many long years ago, Red went to see a late-season game between the Oilers and Stealers in the last days of the Astrodome. He chatted up a few Stealers fans before the game – one of whom told him that it was cheaper for him and his son to fly to Houston, spend the night at a reasonable hotel and buy tickets for the game than it would be to get two ticket to a Stealers home game. With fans like that name Red one good reason why the AFC Championship game should not be a rematch of last year when the Patriots steamrolled the Stealers 36-17 in a game that wasn’t even that close. Of course, losing Le’Veon Bell early on and having some dude named Chris Hogan be the hero with 2 TDs and 180 yards doesn’t help your cause. So why pick the Stealers? It’s a good question. Will this be the year that Bell actually suits up for 16 games? He is playing on the franchise tag, so he has a lot to prove for a big payday. Can Big Ben hold his battered, bruised and frequently broken body together for one more season of greatness? Can a Stealers defense that was nothing short of awful against the Pats snap back? Will the Stealers avoid last season’s horrific start? Will dead Dan Rooney (ensconced in the luxurious NFL wing of St. Peter’s Estates) be taunting the emaciated ghost of Al Davis as he walks the netherworld searching for another Superb Owl ring for all eternity? Lots of questions? Red has no real answers, except that with a relatively easy first 5 games, the Stealers should not have to count on a 7 game winning streak to secure a playoff spot like they dead in 2016. And to give you one good reason the Stealers might not be in the AFC Championship game. They’re called the Oakland Raiders (somewhere Al Davis lets loose a creaky “Just Win Baby”). Pittsburgh goes 10-6 and win the North nonetheless.
Ravens. Flacco Joe’s deal with Satan must have timed out. After all, the first 5 seasons of FJ’s NFL career are basically unmatched by any other quarterback. Flacco Joe led his team to 5 straight playoff appearances culminating in the Ravens second NFL title in 2012. He was the first rookie quarterback to win 2 playoff games. He had the most wins by a quarterback in his first 6 and 7 seasons. He was the first NFL quarterback to win a playoff game in each of his first 5 seasons. But since 2012, there has been one playoff win (albeit against a good Stealers team in 2014) and lots of disappointment on the Chesapeake. So it was good while it lasted for FJ, but Red thinks he needs a change of scenery. Perhaps the Argonauts are in the market for a tall, strong-armed, washed-up quarterback. Ravens do have some positives. The combination of Maclin and Perriman at wideout will keep defenses wondering. Meanwhile, the Ravens defense is a palimpsest of the former playbook and they are searching for a running game. Ravens will have to score lots of points to win this season. They do have longfoot Justin Tucker and his ability to hit from range will keep them in a few games – just not enough games. Baltimore is 8-8 and sitting at home in January.
Bengals. Last year Red wrote, “So it’s pretty much make or break time for this current iteration of the Bengals.” Well, “break” it was as the season was pretty damn miserable for the Bengals. They finally figured out that Jeremy Hill sucks and that Gio Bernard is a “specialty back” and that. yep losing Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu does make a difference. So they are going young on offense this year with wideouts John Ross and Josh Malone. And to meet their NFL minimum requirement of at least one girl-beater per team, they drafted Joe Mixon from OU. The big problem for the Bengals is up front. They lost all-world left tackle Andrew Whitworth to the Rams and are expecting unproven backups to take up the slack. As for Red’s favorite distant relation “Red Rifle” Dalton – it looks more and more like one of those wasted careers as far as playoff success goes. He can cry on LaDanian Tomlinson’s HOF shoulder about that one. The good news for Bengals fans (and Red) is that this won’t be the year when the Bengals ignominiously lose their 9th playoff game in a row – because they won’t have a chance. Cincinnati goes 7-9.
Browns. Does Red really have to say anything here? He thought not, but here goes anyway. Red gives the Browns credit for trying to build a team in the old-fashioned way with major upgrades to both lines with additions of JC Tretter and Kevin Zeitler on O line and first round pick Myles Garret and rookie Larry Ogunjobi on the D line. Browns might actually win a division game with Bengals and Ravens trending down. Jets, Jaguars, Chargers and Bears are other chances to win. Browns improve, Brock Osweiler doesn’t completely suck, but no one notices. Cleveland swaggers to 4-12.