Predicted Finish:

Baltimore Ravens (11-5) (2nd seed; Super Bowl loser)

Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6) (5th seed; AFC Championship Game)

Cincinnati Bengals (7-9)

Cleveland Browns (6-10)

Remember the good ol’ days when the AFC North struck fear into the entire NFL? When even Peyton Manning and Tom Brady were unsure of their ability to take on the Baltimore Ravens or Pittsburgh Steelers defenses and emerge victorious?

Well I’m predicting at least a temporary return to the dominance of the North. In other words, the road to the AFC Championship goes through Winterfell this season.

The Baltimore Ravens and Joe Flacco came tantalizingly close to going the distance last season, and don’t make the mistake of thinking that the departure of Torrey Smith is an automatic step backwards for Baltimore’s offense. Justin Forsett has another year of experience to build on, and the Ravens added some rookie talent that is very likely to contribute sooner rather than later. The outlook on the defensive side of the ball is a little less clear, but the Ravens long standing history of weathering key personnel losses with no corresponding drop off in performance is equalled only by elite organizations like New England.

Speaking of the Patriots, who do you think they least want to see in the playoffs? You got that right!

If there’s an obstacle the Ravens may have trouble overcoming, it’s the resurgent Steelers, whose offense has evolved into a multi-faceted and very hard to handle unit. Right now, the biggest concern the Steelers have on offense is health, where injuries may wind up sidetracking Pittsburgh a little more than they can make up for. On the defensive side of the ball, there are a number of question marks, but I’m trying to remember the last time Pittsburgh put an overtly bad defense on the field. I can’t. They may not be dominating, but then again they may. What they will be, either way, is capable. That will be enough to send tremors through the AFC playoff field.

My prediction of the Bengals multi-year playoff run coming to an end is less about the Bengals getting worse and more about the Bengals primary opposition getting better. Cincinnati will have to play catch up this offseason as their two main rivals pass them this year.

Woe is Cleveland, or then again perhaps not. The Browns have a schedule that starts out easy to let them find their footing, and while the end of the season is bloody murder, Cleveland will probably come out of this season looking better than most people thought they were going to. Josh McCown makes sense for the Browns this year, although they should endeavor to find a way to work in Johnny Manziel once he’s healthy to get him some reps and get themselves some useful film on the guy to see if he’s a lost cause or not. Defensively Cleveland still has quite a bit of talent, and this is a team that sooner or later is going to take a very big step forward instead of their usual baby one.

Come playoff time, I have the North really dominating the scene, as the Steelers will knock off two of the AFC’s favorites (Indianapolis and New England) en route to a AFC Championship game appearance that they’ll lose to rival Baltimore. I have the Ravens going to the Super Bowl but falling short. There’s one NFC team I have rated above all the rest.

Games to Watch:

Week 3 – Oakland @ Cleveland: As I said, the Browns’ early schedule is cake, and if they can’t manage to come out of their opening handful of games 3-0 then they don’t belong on the field with half the teams they’ll play afterwards. Even with both of these teams on a downturn, this remains an NFL rivalry that gets your juices going. Smash mouth all the way.

Week 5 – Pittsburgh @ San Diego: If the Steelers are going to be the kind of marauders I’m predicting this season, they’ll need to pick off talented but incomplete teams like the Chargers when they run into them.

Week 13 – Indianapolis @ Pittsburgh: The Colts are the golden boys of the AFC this year, expected to take that next step. If the Steelers smack them down, it sends a message.

Week 17 – Cincinnati @ Baltimore: Do the Bengals have more juice than I’m giving them credit for? The schedule makers think so – they’ve made this showdown the highlight game at the end of the season.