1. The Cincinnati Bengals are the true definition of “quarterback purgatory.” With Andy Dalton at quarterback, the Bengals are good enough to make the postseason and not good enough to do anything else. Dalton’s career record in the playoffs is 0-4. In those losses, he’s throw just one touchdown pass and six interceptions. But as every Bills fan can attest, making the playoffs is an accomplishment in the NFL, so it’s not like the Bengals can simply blow everything up and start over at quarterback. That means Dalton is back to take another crack at getting one of the NFL’s more talented rosters deeper into January.
2. Marvin Lewis could be on the hot seat. If Dalton can’t do it, Lewis’ run in Cincinnati could be over. The NFL’s second-longest tenured coach, Lewis is 0-6 in the playoffs. The Bengals went through little roster turnover in the offseason, with just two of 22 starters from a year ago leaving via free agency. The team has several key players entering the final year of their contracts, however, giving 2015 a definite make-or-break feel. Expect the division to come down to the wire – in the past three seasons there have been three different winners (Baltimore in 2012, the Bengals in ’13 and Pittsburgh last year, when all three teams made the playoffs).
3. The Ravens had several key contributors leave as free agents. Baltimore will have to replace defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, wide receivers Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones and tight end Owen Daniels. General Manager Ozzie Newsome, however, is one of the shrewdest talent evaluators in the game. Baltimore has made the playoffs six times in seven years under coach John Harbaugh. Whether the Ravens can continue that run may come down to how well the offense, led by quarterback Joe Flacco, adapts to new offensive coordinator Marc Trestman’s system.
4. Maurkice Pouncey’s broken ankle will be a tough injury for Pittsburgh to deal with. These aren’t your father’s Steelers. Pittsburgh last year won because it had a Big Three of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le’Veon Bell, who can compete with most in the league. They are free to make big plays because of the blocking up front, so losing Pouncey at center is a big blow. Defensively, the Steelers got younger with the retirements of defensive end Brett Keisel, safety Troy Polamalu and cornerback Ike Taylor.
5. Cleveland made a good addition along the defensive line. Washington defensive tackle Danny Shelton joined the Browns in the draft. He’s a great fit for a team that ranked last in the league against the run. The Browns under Mike Pettine should have a solid defense, but their quarterback situation – 36-year-old Josh McCown is slated to start – is one of the worst in the NFL and will likely hold them back in what looks to be a competitive division.