Ranking the teams in the AFC North: Cleveland Browns Roundtable

There’s no doubt the AFC North is under construction this season. It stands to reason that this could be one of the bigger years of upheaval in the division considering the Ravens Super Bowl victory and subsequent player departures. So, how does the WFNY crew think the division shakes out this year?


(Also see our previous roundtable: Browns Game 3 plans should remain unchanged: Cleveland Browns Injury Roundtable)

Craig: This morning we saw a headline with an ESPN writer predicting a regression by the Steelers, even from the 8-8 they experienced a year ago. I’ve noticed a hesitancy up to now for many who follow the NFL to predict a fall-off for the Ravens, but isn’t that almost a certainty at this point? I think the Bengals are clearly top of the AFC North power rankings this pre-season. How would you guys rank the AFC North at this point?

Scott: I’ve been calling for the Steelers’ regression for two or three seasons now—it just never seems to happen. The Ravens, on paper, should regress, but always seem to find the next big player to toss into the mix. Reloading, if you will. The Bengals will live and die by Andy Dalton. Huge weapons, a solid defense, but it’s a quarterback league.

I think the Bengals *should* win it, but it will be very close. Cincy 11-5, Baltimore 10-6, Pittsburgh 8-8, Cleveland 7-9.

Kirk: I think the division could be remarkably close this year. I think ten games could win this division this year. It won’t be the Browns, but I do think one of the other three, probably aided by injuries and less depth than in the past, finishes behind the Browns.

If I had to guess now, I’d say Baltimore still finds a way to win the division at 10-6, Cincy goes 9-7, the Browns go 8-8, and Pittsburgh goes 7-9. The margin is closing.

Ryan: I’m not buying into the Ravens falling off so fast after their Super Bowl victory and still have them as the favorites in the North. The defense reloaded with the additions of guys like Elvis Dumerville and Michael Huff and is now younger and faster than they were a year ago. They without a doubt have the division’s best coach as well as the division’s best quarterback and running back to go along with a strong offensive line. Sure, Flacco has lost playmakers, but I expect Rice to flourish under Jim Caldwell and the Ravens’ success to continue.

The Bengals have looked impressive in the preseason, at least according to HBO’s Hardknocks. Marvin Lewis’ boys boast the division’s best defense led by coordinator Mike Zimmer and his stud defensive tackle Geno Atkins. As good as their defense should be, the team’s success will hinge on Andy Dalton. I think Flacco is leaps and bounds ahead of Dalton which is why the Ravens win the division.

The Browns and Steelers will battle it out for third and be dreaming of an outside shot at the second wild card. I look for the gap from first to fourth to be much smaller than in years past.

Kirk: The remarkable thing after all of these years wetting the bed thinking about the Baltimore and Pittsburgh defenses that Cincinnati’s D seems the most formidable, just solid all around. Clark and Keisel are getting up there, and Polamalu can’t stay healthy for the Steelers. Taking away Lewis and Reed, diminishing skills or not, will have a palpable effect on the Baltimore unit, as will the loss of Ellerbe and Kruger.

Andrew: I think regression means different things to different franchises. If we’re saying Baltimore has regressed from being Super Bowl Champions, then yes, I think they’ve regressed. I would be stunned if they repeat. But I do not think they’ve regressed as Division Champions. I think the Ravens still have the talent, the coaching, and most of all the experience to win the AFC North.

If I’m ranking the division right now, I’m going Ravens, Bengals, Steelers, Browns in that order.

I just think Baltimore is kind of in the place Pittsburgh was for years and where New England is right now. When you reach that tipping point of success, you’re going to have to lose players almost every year. But their success as a franchise along with their front office and coaching leadership allows them to plug in new faces and never miss a beat. I just don’t buy into the demise of the Ravens.

Scott: I just feel that, as Browns fans who have watched the rest of the division succeed for so long, we try to talk ourselves into why *this* will be the year the mighty fall, using various forms of confirmation bias in the interim. I’m not getting my hopes up. It could happen. It *should* happen, if there is any ounce of justice in this sports world of ours. That said, the best way for the top to turn over for the Browns to beat them all twice a year. Once that happens, the math will ultimately shake out in Cleveland’s favor.

Craig: I don’t disagree with that, Scott, but I think this year is different. I think for once the Browns might just be doing their part to compete. They’ve got a number of young guys who could be coming into their own. They’ve built respectably on both sides of the line of scrimmage. They’ve hired coaches who have track records in the jobs they’re in to go along with a guy – Chud – who seems very comfortable with stepping up from the offensive coordinator’s role.

All that being said about the Browns, I still don’t totally believe in Flacco as a consistent top of the league NFL starter. I would still take Ben Roethlisberger over him. I think any QB is going to be extraordinarily hampered in the year after losing Anquan Boldin and Pitta.

I’m taking the Bengals, Steelers, Ravens and then Browns to start the year. Yes, the Ravens might be better than that, but I think that’s the appropriate place to handicap them. For the first time in a long time, they’ve got to prove they can do it by answering questions usually reserved for other franchises.

Scott: “I’m telling you: It’s different now.” – Mike Holmgren, December 14, 2011


I hate letting someone else get the last word, but Scott not only embarrassed me a bit, but made me laugh. So there you have it. That’s how we see it. Tell us in the comments what you think. Go ahead and rank the AFC North from first to worst and tell us why you choose those rankings.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    I’m riding with Scott until my eyes tell me differently.

    Craig “I think this year is different” could be a sister site what do you think?

  • Delusional sub-site? lol

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    I’m still bitter that your boy the Rock didn’t take home the latest GV Artwork shirt. Total shamockery! I know it’s the milkman Dery blocking me from prize.

  • mgbode

    this topic makes me queezy.

    basically, we have to hope the division shakes out like 1989 (everyone around .500 and we get the lucky bounce) and not like 1990 (where everyone ELSE is around .500).

    anything different and we won’t likely be near the top.

  • Garry_Owen

    I was thinking this exact thing. Best case scenario for the Browns is that every team finishes 3-3 in the division (i.e., exactly 3-3, with each team winning and losing a game against every other team – which I think could honestly happen). If so, it won’t come down to division rivalries, and everything is up for grabs. In such an instance (assuming the Browns actually are as good as they look – and that “good” can be a broad spectrum), the whole AFC North could end up with the 4 teams in any order. This is my dream.

  • mgbode

    it’s a good dream. it’s a bit out there and pollyanna may have a copyright on the dream through the glad game provision, but it’s a good dream nonetheless.

  • Ezzie Goldish

    Steelers 7-9 thanks to a cream-puff schedule rivaling the Browns.
    Bengals a disappointing 9-7 thanks to a horrible first-half schedule (all their hard games are at home, all their easy teams away) and a resurgent second half.
    Ravens 9-7 along similar lines.
    Browns 10-6. WOO!

  • Garry_Owen

    Pollyanna? I don’t know. I think that looks more like: Browns 13-3, AFC Champs! (But Super Bowl losers, because Pollyanna can only go so far in Cleveland).

    Honestly, of all of the years in recent memory, a straight .500 division is more likely now than ever. The stars are out there! They may not be aligned, but at least they’re out there!

  • Vindictive_Pat

    To say that the Steelers are always good so they’ll be good again this year seems like the same logic as saying the Browns are always bad so they’ll be bad this year. Seems too lazy to me. The talent is getting old and injuries are proving to be a problem every year, particularly for Polamalu and the offensive line. If you can’t pick the Steelers to have a losing record this season, I’m not sure when you can and you might just need to say that the Steelers will never have a losing record ever again.

  • Ezzie Goldish

    Lest y’all think I’m crazy, compare their schedules:

    BAL – @Den, Buf, Mia, Chi, Det. vs. GB, MIN, NYJ, NE, HOU.
    CIN – @SD, Buf, Mia, Chi, Det. vs. GB, MIN, NYJ, NE, IND.
    PIT – @Oak, Nyj, Ne, Gb, Min. vs. CHI, DET, BUF, MIA, TEN.
    CLE – @KC, Nyj, Ne, Gb, Min. vs. CHI, DET, BUF, MIA, JAC.

    I mean you’ve got to believe the Browns and Steelers are wining 6+ outside of the division, while Ravens and Bengals could be 5-5 pretty easily.

  • The_Real_Shamrock


  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Browns will be lucky to win 6 period let alone 6 outside of the division. C’mon man!

  • Garry_Owen

    My PTSD combined with my post-concussion syndrome makes for some startling life events – but there’s never a dull moment (except in the low points)!

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    No this is more the hope of a Browns fan. I’ve heard this sort of thing eluded to the past three or four years whether it’s Pittsburgh or Baltimore. Forget the age there is a reason these teams do as well as they do year in and year out it’s the consistency and depth of the entire organization.

  • Ezzie Goldish

    Depends how good you think the Browns are vs. the rest of the AFC. Look at last year’s points differentials, then think of the offseason each team has had.

    I think they’re clearly better than Jac, Ten, NYJ, KC, Oak, and SD. Buf, Mia, and Indy are in their range. Hou, Den, NE are clearly ahead.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    That would definitely not be a good combination certainly not one to joke about at the least.

    In all seriousness the next best thing to the smell of napalm in the morning is the doey eyed optimism of Cleveland sports fan on the eve of an upcoming season!

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Browns are improved but sorry I just don’t see them being a six win team outside of the division. I hear what you are saying just don’t see it happening.

  • Garry_Owen

    I can only joke about it because I won’t remember the joke tomorrow (except in my nightmares). Seriously, though, joking keeps it in perspective.
    Moreover, the “thousand yard stare” helps to temper the “doe-eyed optimism.”

  • Ezzie Goldish

    That’s fine, I’m just saying it’s reasonably plausible (if you believe the Browns are not just improved but better than those teams). It helps that so many AFC teams really seem to be weak this year, and that the Browns have a great schedule. They could win 10 this year without being a very good team – just a “better than those” type. Think of MIN/IND last year, both of whom will regress slightly this year.

  • Harv 21

    The funny thing about these analyses is that they ignore the Browns impact on the other teams. For good historical reason. But imagine for a moment a divisional world where:

    -In the line battles we win or draw. We don’t go into fourth quarters forced to throw or playing intimidated from a game-long beating. It’s the third quarter and we’ve put up 24 points. It’s our d-line teeing off, it’s the other QB who has that uncertain look, and their receivers hearing footsteps and dropping balls.

    -The other teams in the division change their draft priorities and final roster cut decisions in order to counter something we do effectively, like really, really mess up their pass protection or have quick slants to Gordon or Norwood on bllitzes go 50 yards.

    – The Browns do things they know the opponents cannot counter if the Browns execute as they can. A bread and butter play with a bread and butter counter if the opponent overcommits.

    We used to live in that world. I’ll only believe Cincy is for real when they advance in the playoffs. But even if the Ravens and Steelers are down for a season or two their high quality FOs will lift them soon enough. We have to reach that level regardless of their cyclical, temporary drop off. This year (as in the past 5 years at least) we can cold cock both for a win because to a man they don’t take the Browns seriously. So this year can produce false positives for us in the form of divisional wins schemed up by excellent assistant coaches. But I want to see the Browns reach a level of quality where players actually believe they’ll beat those teams.

  • Vindictive_Pat

    Great organizations can have down years. You may have heard this about the steelers the past few years but there was no good reason to believe it. They had too many great players in their prime. That’s not the case now.

  • mgbode

    mostly noting the events that need to happen there. not only do alot of things need to go right to get the Browns to a shade above .500 but alot of things need to go wrong for all of the other divisional opponents to fall at or below .500 at the same time.

    finding that shimmer of light in the thunderstorms of reality. hopefully, this time, we don’t find out it’s a lightning bolt headed for us.

  • mgbode

    They definitely have question marks this year.

    defense questions

    NT – giving the keys to a seemingly under-sized McClendon?

    OLB – will Worilds or J.Jones step up?

    CB – Ike Taylor played okay last year, but they really have no depth here.

    It’s just that the rest of their LBers, their DEs, and their S make up a ton for those. Hopefully, we are saying the same about the Browns this time next year (or not worried about holes 🙂 ).


    offense questions

    OL – can they stay healthy? they have had a tough time with health on the OL the past couple of years. Will Adams and/or Gilbert be good enough at OT?

    RB – Can Bell be the RB they need?

    WR – can Brown & Sanders do enough without Wallace keeping the safeties honest deep? Can Wheaton add another over-the-middle guy to their stable?

    TE – what happens if Heath Miller’s injuries are serious?

    Lots more questions here, but Ben has had the ability to overcome questions in the past. If that OL gets him injured though, then all bets are off for how far this team can fall.

  • Ezzie Goldish

    Between the way the Browns played all those teams last year, and the fact that the Browns this year believe they are much improved over last year, I think the Browns players already believe this. Even if they lose as expected in Week 2, if that game is close the thought will be simply “we almost beat the defending champs in their house – we’ll get ’em next time”.

    Week 4 vs. Cincy will be a real test of whether that’s true.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    I got just 4 words for ya if you think the Browns will win 10 games this upcoming year: PUFF PUFF PASS PASS!

  • Garry_Owen

    Sure, but 1/3 of what needs to go wrong for the other teams, at least in the division, has to do with what the Browns do. It may only be shimmer of light, but I think the Browns – particularly due to new coordinators – are at least 1/3 more dangerous than they were last year. Granted, even the Indians don’t have anyone that can hit on a 1/3 basis . . .

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Oh I don’t think they’ve slipped that much to be honest i think Bell out of MSU will be a monster for them. The Bus Part deux. I like their WRs. The defense is the questionable unit but lets see what happens.

  • mgbode

    unless you consider OBP!

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    As I said in my response to Pat the defensive unit has the biggest ?s IMO I think the offense will be just fine. Big Ben will be aided by a much improved running game and I really like Brown and Sanders. Miller’s health could be key.

  • Jaker

    I really just want to split with each of our divisional opponents. 5-24 vs PIT since 99? 0-10 vs Joe Flacco? These trends need to stop!

    If we split with each team, we have a shot at 8-8. Home vs Bills, Dolphins, Jags, Lions and at the Jets can all be victories if we are healthy. Add in three divisional victories, and you have the best season since 2007

  • Jaker

    Every team going 3-3 isn’t a dream. We went 2-4, BAL went 4-2 and the other two went 3-3. Meaning if we had beaten the Ravens once(we came very close both times) then it would have happened last year…

    Not much of a dream after all

  • where’s the rankings? you making me work for it? howzabout a summary table?

  • mgbode

    we came close the 1st time around, but it’s not just going 3-3, but then those teams also going 5-5 or 6-4 outside the division as well. alot of things going on there.

    but hey, it could happen. I hope it does.

  • Henry Brown

    Call it the curse of Bruce Arians. Well not so much a curse, more like you fired Bruce Arians to hire who???

  • Vindictive_Pat

    I think that’s where we differ I am not a believer in Bell. First off he has a sub-par offensive line that will not stay healthy. Also I watched a couple of Bell’s games last season and even though he was putting up good stats I kept saying to myself “this guy looks like he’s running in mud and spinning his wheels. He’s not going to have time in the NFL to get away with slow acceleration.” Bell reminds me too much of TJ Duckett.

  • Ben Frambaugh

    I mean, “I think this year is different” is almost the anti-thesis to some site called “Waiting For Next Year”.

    Maybe once the Browns turn the corner, we can change the name of this site

  • Ben Frambaugh

    While I think that we’ll see some big improvements from our team this year…and we’ll likely see further regression from the other teams in the AFCN, I don’t know that it’s enough to have closed the gap completely. I think that going 3-3 in the division would be about the best we can reasonably expect (and that might not even be all that reasonable considering our history.)

    So long as we don’t go throug yet another regime change in 1-3 years, I’m OK with this. I am, however, sick and tired of the constant regime/scheme changes we have gone through since 99.

  • steve-o

    Bal 10-6, Cin 9-7, Pit 8-8, Cle 7-9
    I’ll believe Baltimore has a let-down season only when I see it.
    Cin has a killer schedule and they have to work for that the final wildcard spot.
    Our last game on the road against Pit will decide the bottom of the division, and we lose on a last second, chip shot, FG attempt in the snow when the snap sails over the kickers head.

  • markn95

    Rating a team by its QB has become the ultimate proxy in the NFL these days. Every year it seems like the league can’t get any more pass-friendly…but somehow it does. So, in picking divisions, I always like to rank QB’s first and then the teams. Here’s my crack at the AFC North:

    1. Roethlisberger
    2. Flacco
    3. Dalton
    4. Weeden

    That, above, is why I’m skeptical about the Ravens/Steelers regression we hope for every year but don’t get (although PIT is regressing viz-a-viz the league if not vs. the Browns).

    Now, for some cavaets–Roethlisberger is getting up there in age and mileage and lost Wallace. If he regresses for either reason (or gets hurt like he did last year), then this could be the year the Browns finally finish ahead of PIT in the standings. Flacco, on the other hand, is seemingly entering his prime. His playoff run could propel him into the Brady/Manning/Brees/Rodgers tier of QB’s…or, he could pull an Eli Manning and continue to be ordinary in Weeks 1 through 17. Also, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say the Ravens will miss Boldin and Pitta on offense far more than they will Lewis and Reed on defense. He still has weapons in Ray Rice and Torrey Smith but the drop-off after those two is steep.

    All of this makes it much easier for Dalton and Weeden to narrow the gap between AFC North QB’s. Dalton in particular is coming into that all-important 3rd year (as is his top weapon A.J. Green). Like most everyone else, I have my doubts about the guy’s “ceiling” but like Flacco, he’s led his team to the playoffs in his first 2 seasons. It certainly is possible he takes the big leap. If he does, then this division will belong to the Bengals, no questions asked.

    And then there’s Weeden. He will be playing under the guidance of Norv Turner, easily the franchise’s best OC since Lindy Infante (the only guy remotely close in this category, ironically, is Chud). His weapons compare favorably to those of the other QB’s in the division. Outside of A.J. Green, I’d put Gordon/Little/Bess/Benjamin up against any other WR tandem in the division. And given the injuries to Pitta and Heath Miller, Jordan Cameron actually looks good. Granted, he’s no match for Cincy’s 2-headed monster of Eifert/Grisham but I think BAL or PIT would take him at this point over what they have. And finally, there’s no telling what a healthy Trent Richardson can do to opposing defenses.

    All that said, I still have to see Weeden improve before

  • mgbode

    and Bell already has had issues staying healthy and is hurt again after last night.

  • Leo

    Even with Shurmur coaching the Browns even last year the division games were close and we went 2-4…the last game against the steelers was crap since we started a 3rd string qb who isnt even in the league anymore. I honestly think the browns can split with each team (which would be 3-3). its hard to win at balt and pit and browns seem to struggle at cincy as well.

    as for what team finishes where i think this is bengals year to take the div. crown…this is the best their team has been in awhile and may be their only chance. i don’t think the browns will get any worse from here (though thats possibility). the ravens have younger guys and will get back to the top and steelers have some down years but always come back to the top.

    this is actually solid year for browns to make some noise within the division and be a surprise. remember last yr @ cincy was 1 possession game, both ravens game were 1 possession and last game @ pitt was surprisingly close until late in 2nd half.

    balt pitt and cincy are beatable teams, with more talent than in years past i look for the browns to make some noise and improve.

  • cozz

    Browns #1. all you losers are afraid to say it. We have the best front 7, the best corner back, the 2nd best running back, a stout Offensive line, talented receivers, a super athletic tight end.. And Weeden can hang. Browns 11-5, im telling you this will happen

  • cozz

    wondering if anyone on here is an actual browns fan.. shameful