First, let me preface this article by saying, the AFC North is the BEST division in the NFL, it is a competitive, hard-hitting, captivating division, that always delivers the expected excitement each and every year.
Now we have gotten that fact of reality out of the way, I am going to make a case for each of the four AFC North teams to win the division this year.
Four weeks of NFL play has given me enough of an insight to describe what teams have done well, and what they need to accomplish in order to win the AFC North division in 2015. To kick this off I am going to start with the division leader, the Cincinnati Bengals
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The Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals lead the AFC North with an impeccable 4-0 record through the first four weeks of play, they have looked very impressive as a team though mainly on offense, as they rank second in total offensive yards in the league behind only the vaunted New England Patriots. The reason for this offensive success? Andy Dalton.
The 27-year old quarterback has entered his fifth NFL season in tremendous fashion, he has thrown for nine touchdowns, rushed for one touchdown, ranks third in passing yardage, second in passer rating, and is completing passes at the highest rate of his career at 67.2%. Pretty impressive statistics, he (in my opinion) is the team's MVP so far.
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AJ Green is having as good a season as ever as he ranks fourth in total receiving yards and is tied third in receiving touchdowns with three. Green and Dalton have established a great rapport with one another, this was showcased well in their early divisional matchup vs Baltimore when the pair torched the Ravens for 227-yards and a pair of touchdowns.
The Bengals defense used to be the headliner of this team, now it is more offensive-centric, that being said this Bengals defense is no slouch. While they rank nineteenth overall, they are a much more physical unit than last year.
Geno Atkins, the star defensive tackle, looks like a man reborn after last year's down season, he has regained his once great explosiveness off the line in both run stuffing and pass rushing and is set for a great year ahead.
The Bengals secondary is still held together with the plethora of first round talent including Adam Jones, Dre Kirkpatrick, and Reggie Nelson. This is a defensive unit that is better than it's nineteenth ranking and will show that as the season progresses.
How Do They Win The North?
The message coming from long-time coach Marvin Lewis is, "you have accomplished nothing yet" and this message has never been truer, 4-0 at this stage is nothing for a Bengals squad that has consistently disappointed come postseason. If the Bengals are to win the AFC North this year, this is how they must do so.
- Andy Dalton can't turn the ball over: The quarterback is playing at the highest level of his career so far and this has translated to wins, remaining at this high level will ensure the Bengals have the best of chances to win the division.
- The Bengals must handle the pressure: The Bengals last year were horrendous at handling pressure, whether that is down to coaching or the players themselves, I don't know, but it seemed to me that whenever the hot light of a primetime game was shined on the city of Cincinnati, the Bengals crumbled. With a 4-0 record so far and some interesting matchups approaching, the Bengals are going to have to remain cool under the heat, or risk losing the division title.
- Play to your potential: People seem to forget that the Bengals really do boast one of the most talented rosters in the league, they are swarming with first round talent, especially on defense. This kind of potential and skill has not always boded well for the Bengals who don't always play up to their talent level whenever an equally talented team rolls into town. To win the division, they must remain hungry and play to their potential.
Accomplishing those three keys above, and building on the strengths I highlighted earlier should result in the Bengals winning the AFC North. Will it be easy? No way, it never is in the AFC North.
Watch out for my next article when I will discuss how the Pittsburgh Steelers repeat as AFC North champions.