It’s fair to say the AFC North was the NFL’s best division in 2014. The North was the only division to send three of its four teams to the playoffs, which was just the sixth time that’s occurred under the current divisional format, which started in 2002. It went 26-13-1 in games outside the division, a .663 mark that was not just the best in the league, but the third-best from any season over that 13-year span.1
The AFC North went 12-3-1 against the NFC South, whose three wins came by a combined 10 points. The NFC South went just 10-29-1 outside the division, a .263 winning percentage that stands as the second-worst since 2002.
AFC North teams accomplished all of this despite beating each other up. The division is hardly known as one for the weak of heart, and with Cleveland competitive for most of the campaign, we actually saw a four-way playoff hunt for a good chunk of the season. It ended in a familiar way, as a 63-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown sealed up the division for the Steelers against the Bengals in the regular season’s final game.
And it was the division’s third-place team that made it furthest into January. While the Bengals delivered another anonymous performance in a wild-card loss to the Colts, the Ravens managed to head into Pittsburgh and beat up a Le’Veon Bell–less Steelers team, prevailing 30-17. A week later, they went into New England and gave the eventual Super Bowl champion Patriots a huge scare, going up 28-14 before some substitution shenanigans and a late Joe Flacco interception yielded a 35-31 defeat.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the Ravens followed that success with a division title in 2015. While Baltimore’s 10-6 record in 2014 was good for only third in the ultracompetitive North, the underlying numbers suggest the Ravens may have been the best team in the division. While the Steelers and Bengals were both legitimately good teams and deserved their trips to the playoffs, there were aspects of their performances that suggest they won’t be able to keep up with Baltimore this season.
One win separated the three teams atop the North last season. It would hardly be crazy to suggest we didn’t learn enough about the Steelers, Bengals, and Ravens from a 16-game sample to definitively say one team was better than the other two, especially given how they played against one another. The Bengals swept the Ravens, but the Steelers swept the Bengals, while the Ravens and Steelers split their two regular-season matchups before the Ravens came away with the duke in January.
If we get to their point differentials, though, things change a bit. We know point differential is a better indicator of future win-loss record than prior win-loss record is, and that’s where the case for the Ravens begins:
The Pythagorean expectation suggests the Ravens were notably better than both the Steelers and Bengals on a play-by-play basis last season, outplaying the Steelers by more than one win and the Bengals by more than two full wins. Some of that owes to the 48-17 trouncing the Ravens put on the lowly Bucs, but we know that blowing out bad teams tends to be a better positive indicator than it might seem, and the Ravens had a number of comfortable wins over tough competition. They beat the Steelers by 20 points in Week 2, the Panthers by 28 points in Week 4, and the Dolphins by 15 in Week 14.
Historically, teams that outperform their Pythagorean expectation decline the following year, while teams that underperform take a leap forward. Since 1989, this is how roughly similar teams to our three AFC North brethren performed the following year:
Typically, when we think of a team that outperforms its point differential, we think of one with an impressive record in games decided by one score or less. That isn’t really the case with the Steelers, who went 4-3 in seven-point games, albeit with a pair of eight-point wins that leave them awful close to setting off warning bells.2
Although a team can obviously score eight points on a single series nowadays, I’ve kept my definition of one-score games at seven points or fewer, since that allows me to make comparisons with teams that played in an era without two-point conversions.
The Bengals have no such qualms about trying to stay quiet; their 2014 performance is setting off all the alarms. The only team to outperform their point differential by a larger amount last year was the Cardinals, who may have some sort of mystic Bruce Arians thing going on where he controls the tides with his Kangol. That’s not usually been the case with the Bengals in recent years, who were within a half-win of their point differential in 2011, 2012, and 2013. The last time there was a gross difference between the two is when a 4-12 Bengals team underperformed their 6.1-win point differential in 2010, and Cincinnati responded to that by following what the numbers suggested and taking a leap forward to 9-7 in 2011.
The Bengals weren’t a bad team in 2014, but it’s fair to say they weren’t quite as good as their 10-5-1 mark suggests. Take out that big Baltimore win over the Bucs and the Ravens still outscored the rest of their schedule by 76 points; do the same thing with Cincinnati’s 33-7 win over the arguably worse Titans and the Bengals were outscored by the remainder of their schedule. When Cincy lost, it got trounced; it lost four games by 21 points or more, tied with Oakland, Tennessee, and Washington for most in the NFL.
Where Cincinnati instead got by, as you might suspect, is in close games. The Bengals went 3-0-1 in one-score games, and the only reason they failed to make it 4-0 was because kicker Mike Nugent missed a chip shot at the end of overtime against Carolina. They beat the Buccaneers by one point in a game where a 12-men-on-the-field penalty against Tampa Bay wiped away a pass that would have set up a game-winning field goal attempt. They stopped the Ravens from 16 yards out with a minute to go in Week 1, and then got a fourth-and-1 touchdown plunge from Andy Dalton to beat Baltimore by three in the dying moments of Week 8. These were narrow, narrow victories.
And oh, is the future cruel for teams that go undefeated in one-score games. The last team to go undefeated in games decided by seven points or fewer was the 2012 Texans. They went 5-0 in the close ones in 2012, won their first two games in 2013 by a combined nine points, and then … lost their nine subsequent one-score games, getting Gary Kubiak fired in the process.
It would be unfair to expect the Bengals to go through that sort of disastrous gambler’s fallacy, but they won’t be able to keep up their undefeated run in 2015, either. Since 1989, 16 such teams combined to go a whopping 75-0 in one-score games during their miraculous year; the following season, they were a combined 54-69 (.439) in the same contests. That includes a lot of teams that looked downright dominant and subsequently suffered a bad case of the bends on their way back to reality:
It’s also hard to make a case that the Bengals will be significantly better personnel-wise in 2015. While they were probably right to go with the best-available-player philosophy and draft tackles Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher with their first two selections, they were already set at the position, where Andrew Whitworth has perennially been among the league’s best offensive linemen and Andre Smith had performed well before a disastrous and abbreviated3 2014. Ogbuehi and Fisher should play meaningful roles in the future, but they’re unlikely to be key contributors as rookies.
Courtesy of a torn triceps.
The Bengals also didn’t do a great job of addressing their biggest problem, a moribund pass rush that recorded fewer sacks (20) than Justin Houston (22) last season. They re-signed former star end Michael Johnson after he washed out in Tampa Bay, but Johnson is more of a run defender on the outside than a pure pass-rusher. He’ll free up Wallace Gilberry to move back into a more situational role, but that’s hardly a foolproof plan, and Johnson’s already out for most of training camp with a sprained MCL.
There are other concerns about Cincinnati’s defense. Its breakout player from the 2012-13 campaigns was undrafted free agent Vontaze Burfict, who rounded into form as one of the league’s rangiest outside linebackers. While Burfict did enough to earn a much-deserved contract extension, his immediate future is in jeopardy after a knee ailment held him to five games and forced the former ASU star to have microfracture surgery in January. Burfict may not be ready for Week 1, and it would be remarkable if he were able to play a regular rotation of snaps this season. The Bengals also have to hope star defensive tackle Geno Atkins rounds back into form; after suffering a torn ACL in 2013, Atkins wasn’t anywhere near the same last season.
If healthy, the Bengals defense has the talent to stand out as one of football’s best. Health, however, doesn’t appear to be on their side.
One group that did have health on its side after years of injury woes was the Steelers offense. Snakebitten by injuries among their offensive linemen and with star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger routinely missing a game or two each season, it would have been crazy to ever expect the Steelers offense to remain healthy for an entire season.
And yet in 2014, that’s basically what happened. The 11 starters Pittsburgh expected to use heading into the season made it through 169 of 176 possible contests, with three players missing a combined total of seven games. Right tackle Marcus Gilbert missed four games with a concussion and an ankle ailment, left guard Ramon Foster was out for two with an ankle injury, and second tight end/frequent starter Matt Spaeth missed one game with a hyperextended elbow.
In 2013, Maurkice Pouncey missed 15-plus starts on his own after suffering a brutal knee injury in the first quarter of Week 1. By my count, even with a rare healthy season from Roethlisberger, that Steelers offense had their starters miss 28 games. In 2012, it was even worse; 10 of the 11 expected starters on offense missed at least one game, with fullback Will Johnson the only one to stay healthy for 16 games. Those starters combined to miss 47 contests. We would have expected the Steelers to eventually get healthier, but not to become one of the least injury-struck offenses in football overnight.
Obviously, every offense is going to play better when the guys they’re expecting to start stay healthy. It’s even more important for the Steelers, though, because salary-cap concerns and an attempt to rebuild their defense through the draft have left them perilously thin on offense. The offensive line has just one Steelers draftee in reserve, busted second-round pick Mike Adams. Roethlisberger is backed up by Bruce Gradkowski and 2013 fourth-rounder Landry Jones, neither of whom could do a Roethlisberger impersonation if you spotted them the hunting cap.
And realistically, the Pittsburgh offense is built upon two guys whose skills simply can’t be replaced. There’s nobody the Steelers could have in tow who would be able to fill in for Brown or Bell, each of whom could have arguably been the best player at their position in 2014. It would be nice if the Steelers had more to work with alongside those two studs.
After Brown, the depth chart gives way to precious little else: second-year speed threat Martavis Bryant, disappointing third-year wideout Markus Wheaton, and rookie third-rounder Sammie Coates would make up one of the more underwhelming receiving corps in football alongside ancient tight end Heath Miller, years removed from his best.
While Brown’s only extended absence in 2014 amounted to a couple of series against the Ravens in Week 2, we saw just how difficult life could be for the Steelers if they had to go without their star running back. Bell went down with a knee injury during the Week 17 decider against the Bengals, and while Mike Tomlin suggested the injury was “not anything major,” it kept Bell out for the playoff loss against the Ravens.
It speaks to how thin the Steelers were that they started the playoff game with Ben Tate — who had already been cut by two teams and who hadn’t touched the ball for the Steelers during the regular season — as their tailback. Despite the presence of their excellent, young offensive line, Pittsburgh’s running game immediately ground to a halt without Bell, as their running backs combined to carry the ball 16 times for just 46 yards. They also lost Bell’s prolific ability as a receiver, with the three-headed rotation of Tate, Dri Archer, and Josh Harris catching seven passes for just 30 yards.
Likely as a response to what happened in that playoff loss, the Steelers made a rare foray into free agency to sign a backup tailback this offseason. I just wouldn’t be confident that the back in question, DeAngelo Williams, can stay very healthy himself, given his litany of past injuries. Williams’s performance also drastically declined last season, as he fell below 4.0 yards per carry for the first time in his career, settling in at 3.5 yards per pop on his 62 attempts. The Steelers struck out in adding a big back last year when they signed LeGarrette Blount and failed to integrate him into their offense; they’ll have to find a way to use Williams while toeing the line of keeping the much-needed Bell in the lineup.
The Ravens, meanwhile, should be a healthier team in 2015, particularly at one key spot. They were riddled with injuries at cornerback last year, losing emerging star Jimmy Smith to a Lisfranc injury in November, while fellow starter Lardarius Webb missed time with a back problem that seemed to bother him throughout the season. That would have been bad enough, but the Ravens managed to cycle through fill-ins like Asa Jackson, Danny Gorrer, and Tramain Jacobs before being stuck starting practice squad journeyman Rashaan Melvin at the end of the season. Melvin was torched by the Patriots in the postseason loss to the extent that the Ravens might very well have won with Smith in the lineup.
If you’re a Steelers fan, you can hang your hat on the idea that the Ravens lost a pair of talented young players in free agency, with Pernell McPhee and Torrey Smith departing for the Bears and 49ers, respectively, while Haloti Ngata was traded to Detroit in a salary-cap maneuver. The Ravens went after replacements in the 2014 and 2015 drafts by adding Timmy Jernigan, Breshad Perriman, and Carl Davis, but they will struggle to match up with those departed stars.
The problem is that the Steelers have their own holes and cap concerns. Pittsburgh had the league’s 30th-ranked defense last year, and it’s tough to see how it got better this offseason. Even if you consider the departures of Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor addition by subtraction, the Steelers really weren’t able to do much to replace them. The addition of Brandon Boykin from the Eagles was one of the few additions they made on defense this summer.
Otherwise, with longtime coordinator Dick LeBeau excommunicated to Tennessee, the Steelers will have to hope that a lot of question marks turn into answers. Cortez Allen will need to prove he’s the cornerback the Steelers extended last September, not the one who got benched in October. Jarvis Jones will need to stay healthy and look like the guy who tore up the SEC, especially after Jason Worilds decided to retire. Ryan Shazier, who was injured and unable to win his job back from Sean Spence when he returned, will need to do his own C.J. Mosley impression to keep up with the Ravens. And that’s before getting to players like Mike Mitchell and William Gay, known mediocrities who will be expected to play key roles in a transitioning Steelers defense.
That’s where the problem lies for Pittsburgh. For the few stars the Steelers have, the Ravens simply had more draft picks and managed their cap far better in recent years than their archrival. If everything goes right and all of their superstars stay healthy and productive, the Steelers will again be tough to beat. More plausibly, Pittsburgh should struggle more with offensive injuries while Cincinnati should come back to earth in close games. And that should make Baltimore the favorites to win the league’s toughest division in 2015.