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Late For Work 7/14: AFC North Predictions for 2017


AFC North Predictions for 2017

The race in the AFC North last year was about as close as it gets. The division came down to a Christmas Day showdown in Pittsburgh, and the Steelers won by a matter of inches thanks to Antonio Brown's outstretched arms.

Reporters who cover the AFC North for ESPN expect it to come down to late-December games again this year.

"As in most seasons, the divisional race will be tight in Weeks 14 through 17, with two teams ultimately qualifying for the playoffs," ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler wrote.

All four of ESPN's AFC North beat reporters predict the Steelers to retain their title, but all four also believe the Ravens have a good chance to return to the postseason as a wild-card team.

"Baltimore has question marks at receiver, but its defense was ranked seventh last season and has improved with free agents Tony Jefferson and Brandon Carr," Pat McManamon wrote. "Cincinnati will come close, but Pittsburgh and Baltimore will represent the AFC North in the playoffs."

Over the last decade, the AFC North has been one of the best divisions in football. The Ravens and Steelers have both won a Super Bowl and advanced to multiple AFC Championship games over that stretch, and the Bengals have made the playoffs in six of the last nine years.

Pittsburgh has one of the most explosive offenses in football with Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell, and the Bengals still have All-Pro receiver A.J. Green and Pro Bowl quarterback Andy Dalton. Those teams both bring plenty of firepower, but the Ravens plan to counteract that with one of the best defenses in the league.

"The Ravens have loaded up on defense and have enough weapons on offense to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2014," Jamison Hensley wrote.

No team has won the division in back-to-back years since the Ravens did in 2011-12, and that's an indication of how close the teams are in the AFC North. The Steelers are the popular pick for the prognosticators right now, but the reporters also think the Ravens are poised to bounce back this year.

"In the end, it's Pittsburgh in the lead and Baltimore/Cincinnati jockeying for a wild-card berth," Fowler wrote.

Breakdown of Bowser's Potential

The Ravens clearly have high hopes for outside linebacker Tyus Bowser.

They drafted him out of Houston in the second round this year with the hope that he'll develop into a premier pass rusher and defensive playmaker. He showed flashes of his ability during offseason practices, and Russell Street Report’s Kyle Casey detailed what Bowser could bring to the field in 2017. 

"Bowser comes to Baltimore as a high-potential athlete – arguably Baltimore's most athletic 2017 draft selection – who looks to turn his superior athletic profile into a consistent force on the field," Casey wrote. "At Houston, Bowser offered more as a pass rusher than in run defense, but with Baltimore, it will be paramount for him to become the complete package, long term."

Casey outlined a few areas where Bowser excels, and pointed specifically to his speed and ability to get after quarterbacks.

"The primary aspect of Bowser's game that stands out is his relentless pursuit of the quarterback, bursting off the snap and maintaining a high motor throughout each play," Casey wrote.

Bowser will immediately enter a competition for a starting job when the rookies return to Baltimore next week for training camp. He's competing with other young pass rushers like Za'Darius Smith, Matthew Judon, and Tim Williams for the spot opposite Terrell Suggs, and the Ravens want to see one of them rise to the occasion. 

Williams' London Trip Comes to a Close

Brandon Williams is headed home.

He and his new wife spent the week in London as part of an NFL promotional tour ahead of the Ravens' Week 3 game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Wembley Stadium, and he had a blast with the experience. Williams and his dance moves were a big hit among NFL fans in the United Kingdom, and his fun-loving personality shined all week.

He stole the show at several league events, and he also used his free time to take in the sights like Buckingham Palace, Parliament, Big Ben and Abbey Road. The Ravens still have more than two months before playing their first-ever game in London, and Williams is already excited about getting back.

(And by the way, stay tuned for a full video recap of Williams' trip).

Bryant Wants to Have 'Man-to-Man' Talk With Roethlisberger

A big storyline for the Steelers going into the start of training camp is the return of talented wide receiver Martavis Bryant, who was suspended the entire 2016 season after multiple violations of the league's substance abuse policy. Roethlisberger was critical of Bryant last year when the suspension was announced, and the receiver believes the two of them need to clear the air at the start of training camp.

"I feel like we need to," Bryant told ESPN’s Dan Graziano. "We should have a man-to-man. Because some of the things he put out there about me, I kind of didn't agree with how he did it. So I want to sit down and hear his own opinion, man-to-man, about why he did that."

Bryant has been conditionally reinstated by the NFL and he's in line to return to the field for the 2017 season.

"We haven't had that sit-down talk yet," Bryant said. "Hopefully we'll have it before the season starts. If not, that's fine. I'm still going to go out and perform and do what I have to do to be the best teammate I can be."

Quick Hits

Tried the snorkeling thing...I think I still prefer scuba

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