2020 AFC North preview

If the AFC East is going to look like The Great Depression of the 1930’s the AFC is going to be the 1967 Summer of Love. There’s going to be 3 of the youngest, most exciting QB’s in the league and grizzly old Ben Roethlisberger just waiting to go full “Obi Wan” and teach Burrow, Jackson and Mayfield the way of the Force.

Lamar Jackson lead the Ravens to a 14-2 record in the regular season last year which put them ahead at the top of the division and a full 6 games ahead of the second placed Steelers. They have added J.K Dobbins, 2 Wide Receivers and 2 Offensive linemen in the Draft and a whole load of talent on the Defensive side of the ball too and according to CBS the Ravens have the easiest schedule based on last seasons results. However they did not face a Steelers team featuring Roethlisberger last season and the Browns were an absolute disaster with Freddie Kitchens at the helm so that’s four tougher games and the teams who they seemed to struggle with were the one’s featuring mobile QB’s and this year they should face Joe Burrow twice and they could see Daniel Jones, Pat Mahomes and Deshaun Watson during the regular season too so they may not stroll to the division title this time round but they should still win it. I’m expecting them to end the season with an 11-5 record.

The Steelers have added the imposing Chase Claypool as a receiving option for Big Ben and the highly touted Running Back Anthony McFarland jr. (although they currently have 6 RB’s on their roster) but the key to their Offence, as it has been for the last 16 years, is Roethlisberger, when he’s injured they’re a shadow of their former selves, they ended up 8-8 and all of their 8 wins came after they traded for Minkah Fitzpatrick who alongside rookies Alex Highsmith and Antoine Brooks could form the core of a seriously fast and exciting Defence next season which will be vital in a division where high powered Offence should be all the rage. The Steelers could be the early pace setters in the division as they start the season against the Giants and Broncos who could take a while to settle in their seasons and they should have a pretty successful December with games against the Redskins, Bills, Bengals and Browns and I expect them to finish the season with at least 2 more wins than they scraped together last season, a 10-6 record will see them finish second in the AFC East and probably get them a Wildcard berth.

The Browns and Baker Mayfield have a new Head Coach to frustrate this upcoming season but Kevin Stefanski is more than likely to frustrate Baker in equal measure as a Head Coach who will want to run the ball more than he throws it I’m expecting to see Mayfield and his high maintenance receiving corps of Beckham, Landry and Higgins having some rather fraught conversations on the sidelines this season. Even if Stefanski moves away from his preference of running the ball first with those three and Austin Hooper and David Njoku and Damion Ratley amongst 7 other WR’s currently on the roster Mayfield’s head might explode as he tries to share the ball around and keep everyone happy. Defensively the Browns added three players in the Draft including two from the Champion LSU team and a further 6 players in Free Agency so how well that unit gels will be interesting to watch. The Defence wasn’t a huge issue last year as even though they conceded around 25 points a game it was largely due to the fact the Offence couldn’t string together long series of plays so the Defence was almost exclusively on the field in some of those games. Last season the Browns finished 6-10 in a season which lurched from one disaster to another even more controversial disaster and strangely I’m expecting them to finish with exactly the same record this year just with less controversial incidents as Kevin Stefanski has to exert more command over the locker room than his predecessor did.

The Bengals have a shiny new Quarterback to throw passes to their equally shiny new receiver but I’m not convinced that Joe Burrow and Tee Higgins will be able to completely turn around a team who ended last season with 2 wins in a short period of time that will include no OTA’s or mini camps and will probably include a truncated preseason schedule. Defensively last season they conceded an average of 26 points per game so not to different to the Browns and I wouldn’t be entirely shocked if they finish the 2020 season with the same record as their neighbours in Cleveland, the end of their season could be absolutely brutal as I can’t see them winning any of their last 4 games on their way to a 6-10 record.

AFC Championship Game Pittsburgh Steelers @ New England Patriots

If the NFC Championship game is clear of drama then its AFC counterpart has enough hoopla surrounding it to keep most soap operas in storyline’s for about a year!  Pittsburgh and Boston fan are 2 of the most fervent fan bases in sports, so when their respective football teams meet in such an important game then a little tension is to be expected and the line between friendly rivalry and bad sportsmanship can become a little blurred.  To attest to that fact a 25 year old Bostonian was arrested at about 3 am on Sunday for setting off the fire alarm in the Steelers hotel, correspondingly Gillette Stadium was evacuated when the fire alarm went off there at about 7 hours later (so it’s going well so far).  Even before the latest shenanigans there was plenty of drama swirling around this game, 15 Steelers have been suffering from stomach flu leading up to the game, the Patriots have injury concerns over 3 of their 6 active Wide Receivers and Martellus Bennett will reportedly play with bone fragments in his heel!  And all that without even mentioning Roger Goodell’s absence from New England following the “Deflate-gate” brouhaha (if he feels the NFL was correct then why should he avoid any potential ill feeling, even if he’s likely to suffer a hostile reception from some locals?) or the reports that surfaced in December that Pittsburgh may have used deflated ball’s too, the NFL vehemently refuted the claims.  And then there’s Antonio Brown’s own personal social media snafu last week (he broadcast Head Coach Mike Tomlin post game speech from the changing room where he railed against the Patriots and how they have benefitted from extra rest due to the way the schedule has fallen, although the Patriots were the number 1 seed in the AFC) live on Facebook which wasn’t met with universal approval from his teammates.

So on to the actual football that may be played (if the fire alarm ever stops going off) and remembering that both of these teams combined are responsible for winning 20% of all the Super Bowls ever played this game could be one for the ages.  Both teams scrapped to wins last week with the Patriots coming up against a Jadaveon Clowney inspired Texans Defence and the Steelers having to battle some arctic conditions in Kansas City along with a worrying inability to get the ball into the end zone despite 7 trips to the redzone.  For the Steelers the return of smash-mouth football seems to be the key to their success, for all the talk of Antonio Brown being one of the top 2 receivers in the NFL Running Back La’Veon Bell has been responsible for 1,431 yards and 8 Steelers touchdowns in their 9 game unbeaten run compared to Brown’s 685 and 7 touchdowns.  The Patriots Defence however has been particularly stingy against the run, they only allowed 6 rushing touchdowns during the regular season (the fewest in the league) and on average they only conceded 3.9 yards per carry while they forced 11 fumbles (the second most in the league).  So the Steelers may lean more on Brown in this game than Bell and with his controversy in the locker room last week he certainly has appoint to prove, he was fined $10,000 by the team but if Tomlin is feeling particularly disciplinarian (and like a decent gambler) then he may well chose to hold Brown out of the early exchanges.  This could have a twofold effect, Brown is looking at signing a big contract in the near future and if the Steelers can perform in his absence then his next big pay day may come outside Pittsburgh and if the Steelers Offence can occupy the Patriots Defence adequately in the first 30 minutes of the game then a fresh Brown may well provide the finishing touches and close the game out for the away team.

The Patriots early struggles against the Texans will have disappointed Bellichick and the coaches but I think they will have been quietly satisfied that they showed the character to come through against one of the toughest Defences in the NFL, they turned over the ball 3 times and I’m sure the players have been hearing about that all week long.  It’s always important to learn from mistakes so if the Patriots had sailed through last week’s game without making any it would have been harder to coach them this week, Brady threw as many interceptions last week as he did in the preceding 12 games of the season so he won’t have been a happy bunny and will be desperate to show exactly how good he can be this weekend against an opponent he’s seem plenty of during his career.  In 6 games against Mike Tomlin’s Steelers Brady has lost just once and he’s thrown 19 touchdowns without throwing a single interception!  This is why I feel the Patriots are going to yet another Super Bowl, along with the absolute distain they feel towards Goodell after the 4 game ban Brady was subjected for his part in the “Deflate-gate” furore (although it was such a protracted legal process that nobody really remembers if Brady was proven to have done anything wrong at the beginning of it).  The Steelers Defensive line and Linebackers may well have a reasonable amount of success against a Patriots Offensive line who couldn’t handle Merciless and Clowney for large parts last week but former Steeler LeGarrette Blount will be pretty desperate to run all over them and take some of the steam out of any Defender unfortunate enough to get in his way (he weighs in just 18 stone and he can really move if he’s 100% healthy).

The bookmakers have got the Patriots as favourites and while the fitness of the Steelers flu sufferers and the Patriots Receivers will ultimately determine how comfortable the victory is I wouldn’t be surprised to see a faultless Brady showing and frankly I’m imagining the Patriots will be terrified to turn over the ball after last week’s profligacy!

Miami Dolphins @ Pittsburgh Steelers

The Dolphins join the Raiders in the ranks of teams who have lost their starting Quarterback to injury in December but unlike Derek Carr in Oakland Ryan Tannehill may not miss the playoffs (it has recently been reported that Tannehill will play no part on Sunday, but an underdog team trying to get the jump on their opponent is not unheard of in the postseason), he has been able to practice but with the assistance of a knee brace.  Should Tannehill be able to take the field from the start on Sunday night then Miami’s chance will greatly improve, not because his replacement Matt Moore is a bad player but because Tannehill is more au fait with the players around him and lead them to 7 wins (that included a 6 game winning streak with a home win against Pittsburgh).  When the teams met in week 6 Tannehill did throw for 252 yards with a 75% completion rate as the Dolphins won but the real damage was done by Jay Ajayi who ran for 204 yards and scored 2 touchdowns.  In the game at the Hard Rock Stadium Ben Roethlisberger controversially suffered a knee injury when Ndamukong Suh’s foot made contact with Roethlisberger.  Suh was engaged in a David DeCastro block when the incident occurred and controversy surrounded whether or not the Suh acted deliberately or if the contact was incidental (the league did not punish Suh, so the official view was that he did not deliberately kick out), either way Suh will probably come in for some close attention at Heinz Field and it would be very surprising if he’s not double teamed on every down.

During the regular season both teams recorded fairly similar numbers on the Defensive side of the ball, with the Steelers allowing an average of 342.6 pass yards per game compared to the Dolphins average of 382.6 pass yards.  The Steelers have been better at stopping the run than the Dolphins this season though, but they have given up on average 100 yards per game, whereas the Dolphins have surrendered a rather whopping average of 140.4 yards!

The weather forecast for Pittsburgh on Sunday afternoon is a seasonably cold -6 degrees (Celsius) so Quarterback’s will have to battle numb fingers when throwing the ball.  Catching the ball will not be an easy task either so Wide Receivers, Defensive Back’s and anyone involved in Special Teams play are going to have to be on top form.  Running the ball will be the order of the day and in La’Veon Bell and Jay Ajayi both teams posses their own elite Back’s, Bell has the 5th highest number of rushing yards in the league this season 1,268 and with 4 more yards Ajayi has the 4th best total. They have both averaged 4.9 yards per carry, Ajayi has run in 8 touchdowns and Bell has recorded 7 of his own, Ajayi has fumbled 4 times, Bell 3 and both have had rushes of 20 plays yards this season, 10 for Ajayi but just 4 for Bell.  Really the only difference between the pair is that Bell was suspended at the start of the season and so his average number of yards per game is 105.7 compared to Ajayi’s 84.8, although Ajayi has recorded more than 200 yards in 3 games this season, a feat only matched by Tiki Barber in 2005, Earl Campbell and he who shouldn’t be mentioned (O.J. Simpson).

Fumbles could be the difference maker in the game, the Steelers have recovered 10 fumbles this season, one more than the Dolphins but they have only surrendered 3 of their own all season which leads the league, the Dolphins on the other hand have given up 8.  Slightly bizarrely they have both given up 15 interceptions, but Miami have made 16 compared to the Steelers 13, although it should be pointed out that the Steelers Defence have grown together throughout the season as they suffered a number of injuries which have seen them use many different personnel combinations.  Earlier in the season the defensive secondary and linebacker corps were particularly affected, now they have to deal with the loss of players on the defensive line and a few linebackers, so James Harrison may well feature more prominently in this game than most other 38 defenders in the league would.

The conditions will make it difficult for either team to fire up their high octane Offences and while neither team may not score as many touchdowns as they’d like it wouldn’t be a surprise if the tough Running Backs on display excel in adversity.  Special Teams will probably be vital because punting and place kicking in the sub-zero temperatures will incredibly difficult so coverage and returning kicks (even attempted Field Goals or Extra Points) will be invaluable.  Home advantage will be crucial in determining the result of this fixture and ultimately the temperature difference between the City of bridges and the tropical climbs of Miami, it’ll be around 18 degrees in Miami when the game kicks off will be too much for the Dolphins to overcome.  Adam Gase has had a very impressive first season in charge though leading a team with just 6 wins last year to 10 wins this season, if they have better fortune with injuries next season they may be improve even more.

AFC Divisional game #2 – Pittsburgh Steelers @ Denver Broncos

DSC_0198Pressure does funny things to people; Carson Palmer for instance threw 2 Interceptions yesterday, something which it took him 3 whole games to do during the regular season as the Packer defensive line bought their pass rush to the desert. The Denver Broncos always bring the pass rush and their 52 sacks (roughly 4 a game) was the most in the NFL during the regular season. Usually the way to combat an aggressive pass rush would be to run the ball as much as possible to try to fatigue the opposing defensive front but with Pittsburgh’s “hit and get hit” confrontational style of football taking its toll on their Offensive personnel for what seems to be the umpteenth time in as many season’s they’ll struggle to run the legs off a Broncos Offensive line that includes 4 players with 5 or more sacks in the regular season. The Steelers Offence has done a decent job of protecting their Quarterback’s (they’ve had 3 different one’s during the course of the regular season) and the 33 sacks they allowed was the 6th fewest number in the league during the regular season. However last week against the Bengals they allowed 4 sacks for a combined loss of 38 yards and one of which caused Ben Roethlisberger to sprain his right shoulder and that will likely be the key to this game.

 
The Steelers have been missing players at different stages of the season but this week they will be without Pro Bowl Running Back Le’Veon Bell, Pro Bowl Centre Maurkice Pouncey (who hasn’t played since August), Pro Bowl Wide Receiver Antonio Brown and the replacement for Le’Veon Bell, another Pro Bowler, DeAngelo Williams. With those 4 players available and Roethlisberger 100% fit the Steelers would be more than a match for the Broncos team in their own backyard but with almost half their starting Offence missing it’ll be impossible to beat the team who finished 2nd in the AFC. Back in week 15 The Steelers did turnover the Broncos in Denver but that was largely on the back of 189 receiving yards and 2 the touchdown passes that Brown hauled in.

 
While there’s a real chance that this won’t be a nail biter like the Wild Card game the Steelers were involved in last week it should still be fun to watch if only because the Steelers Defence can be extremely dynamic and with Peyton Manning starting at Quarterback for the first time since week 10 where he went 5/20 the Broncos Offence may not dominate. If Manning is able to run a Gary Kubiak Offence that seems more functional than attractive and fairly conservative then players like Emmanuel Sanders (who rattled up 181 receiving yards last time they met) and Demaryius Thomas could be very productive, if Manning’s struggles continue however then the Steelers defence might keep them in the game for the first 3 quarters but with 15 players on IR and a weekly injury report including a further 11 players the altitude will fatigue them late on and the Denver Defence won’t afford them any sort of lead to defend late on. If the Steelers are able to use Ben Roethlisberger to his full ability then they may score enough points to worry the Broncos because Markus Wheaton and Darrius Heyward-Bey have the searing pace to stretch the field and Martavis Bryant has the physical attributes to out-jump any defender in the back of the endzone.

AFC Wildcard game 1 – Baltimore Ravens @ Pittsburgh Steelers

The Pittsburgh Steelers made it 21 divisional titles (granted that division’s title has changed from the AFC Central to the AFC North over the years, but still) on Sunday Night Football when they beat the Bengals last weekend. The last 2 times the Steelers won their division they appeared in the Super Bowl so they’re no stranger to long playoff runs.
If they are to go deep into the postseason this year they will need defensive stalwarts Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor be healthy and back to their vintage best, which they haven’t really been all season, they could also do with Pro Bowl Running back LaVeon Bell to be 100% fit, which after Reggie Nelson’s crunching hit to his right knee is looking increasingly unlikely. Bell’s knee injury is such a worry for the Steelers that they’ve been trying out Ben Tate this week, the Steelers would be Tate’s 3rd different team this season, but needs must and all that. If they do sign another running back I would imagine it’d be to compliment the 2 talented rookies they have rather than replace LaVeon Bell as the main back, with a short turn around between their Sunday Night Football game last week and their Saturday night playoff game it’d be tricky for Tate to learn the entire playbook. Bell’s loss will mean the Steelers will have to adapt their offense quite a lot this week as Bell is 2nd only to Pro Bowl Wide Receiver Antonio Brown in receiving yards, Brown lead the NFL in yards and with his 854 Bell was 40th in the league. Short passes will be the key for the Steelers offence against a Ravens defence that has recorded 49 sacks this season, Tight End Heath Miller who is master at finding the spot in a zone defence stands to be a key target for Ben Roethlisberger and I’d expect a few screen passes to youngsters Martavius Bryant and Dri Archer who have some serious speed. The 6 foot 4 inch Bryant ran a 4.41 second 40 yard dash at the NFL Combine and Archer ran the fastest time at the combine (4.26 seconds) which is no surprise for someone who clocked a 10.49 100 metre time as a High School student.
The Ravens are not without their own considerable injury problems with a massive 18 players on the Injured Reserve list and 4 more players struggling to practice this week just reaching the postseason is a gargantuan feat in itself. After the controversial exit of their former Running back Ray Rice (not controversial because it wasn’t warranted, but controversial because the NFL’s indefinite ban was overturned in court) early in the season and star Defensive Tackle Haloti Ngata being banned for 4 games for failing a drug test, the Ravens could be forgiven for struggling through 2014 and starting a fresh next season. It’s a mark of their resilience not just as a team but as an organisation that they’ve made a potentially traumatic time into a relatively successful season. On the field the Ravens have averaged an impressive 664.9 yards per game and have averaged 25.6 points per game, with the Steelers averaging 411.1 yards and 27.3 points per game this doesn’t appear to be one of the titanic battles of field position that the AFC North traditionally served up. In fact when these teams met at Heinz Field in early November there was a total of 66 points, 43 for the Steelers and just 23 for the Ravens and LaVeon didn’t have his best game that night either, he managed just 58 total yards from scrimmage and wasn’t even the Steelers best rusher. Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown did tear the Ravens secondary to pieces though with Roethlisberger throwing for 340 yards and a whopping 6 touchdowns and Antonio Brown being on the receiving end of 11 passes for 144 yards and a touchdown.
I think the Steelers should win this game too because they have only lost 2 home games all season and they were both against NFC South teams. It should be closer than their previous meeting but 2 inconsistent defensive backfield’s on show there could be almost as many points as the Pittsburgh faithful saw in week 9. The one thing you know about any Steelers matchup with the Ravens is there will be no shortage of physicality and even with the improvement the Steelers offensive line has made over the course of this season the loss of LaVeon Bell’s blitz recognition and pass blocking will mean Ben Roethlisberger will be under constant pressure when he drops back to pass.