2013/14 NFL Preview: AFC North

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With the National Football League teams completing their OTA’s and preparing for the start of training camps in just about a month (the Dallas Cowboys start on July 21 and the Detroit Lions on July 23), it is time to start taking a look at the upcoming NFL season.

In this segment, we’ll take a look at the AFC’S North Division. Arguably one of the most competitive divisions in the NFL, the home of the current Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens has faced an offseason of turmoil as many teams saw defections that will have an effect on their 2013/14 seasons. The competitiveness of the division remains, however, and it should be a close battle through the entire season as the four squads battle for the division championship.

Baltimore Ravens

After winning the Super Bowl, many teams will see some players head off to “greener pastures” (meaning more money) in an attempt to strike while the iron is hot. It is arguable that the Ravens saw a turnover like no other team, however. With the retirement of soon-to-be Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis and the free agent departures of safety Ed Reed and linebackers Paul Kruger and Dannelle Ellerbe, the Ravens defense will have a completely different look this year.

The offense wasn’t spared from the exit door in Baltimore, either. Wide receiver Anquan Boldin was traded to the team that the Ravens defeated for the Super Bowl title (the San Francisco 49ers) and the anchor of the offensive line, Matt Birk, retired from the game. What they have left on the offensive side of the ball isn’t bad, though, as quarterback Joe Flacco and running back Ray Rice return to provide some stability.

The biggest question for the Ravens will be are they hungry enough to defend the title? Head coach John Harbaugh is a master at motivating his troops, but it will be put to the test in the 2013 season. With this said, the Ravens should muster enough pride to move to the division championship and, potentially, a first round bye.

Prediction:  First (Record:  11-5)

Pittsburgh Steelers

A similar thing that happened to the Ravens in the offseason also happened to the Steelers, although it was on the offensive side of the ball. Gone from last year’s team is wide receiver Mike Wallace, who moved on to the Miami Dolphins in free agency, while other offensive standouts such as tackle Willie Colon and Rashard Mendenhall joined him in moving on. On defense, longtime Steeler linebacker James Harrison also took the free agency route, moving to the division rival Cleveland Browns.

The strength of the offense is still carried by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, but his durability has come under questions over the past few years. Roethlisberger hasn’t played a full 16-game schedule since 2008 (missing three games last year due to an ankle injury) and, if the Steelers are to continue to do well, he will have to be in the lineup to lead the Steeler offense to glory. The defense should still do well, providing opponents with a formidable unit that doesn’t back down from a challenge.

Head coach Mike Tomlin will be faced with getting enough points out of his offense to allow the D to work its magic. If all goes as planned, he should be able to do this and lead the Steelers to a wild-card berth in the playoffs.

Prediction:  Second (Record: 10-6)

Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals pretty much stood pat with the team that went to the 2012 AFC playoffs, which could lead to a potential plateau for the team. They signed their potential free agents (players such as Adam “Pacman” Jones and linebacker Rey Maualaga) to contracts and only made one acquisition in free agency in backup quarterback John Skelton.

Moving into his third season in the league, quarterback Andy Dalton has to take that next step for the Bengals to be successful in 2013. Although he has led the team to the playoffs in both 2011 and 2012, Dalton and the Bengals have bowed out in the first round each time. If the Bengals are to be a force in the league, Dalton has to be able to show the leadership to get over that proverbial hump.

Unfortunately, the Bengals aren’t the woebegone team that they were in the past, so their opponents will be ready for them. Head coach Marvin Lewis (who has weathered some storms himself in keeping his job in Cincinnati) might be able to coax out a playoff appearance from the team, but it will be a difficult task.

Prediction:  Third (Record:  9-7)

Cleveland Browns

The Browns, following a disastrous 5-11 2012 season, have changed everything but the uniforms for the upcoming season. An ownership change and shifts in the front office and coaching staff will leave Browns fans wondering who is on the field at some points. Although they are looking to reverse what has been a losing trend since Cleveland 2.0 became a team (remember, the Baltimore Ravens used to be the Cleveland Browns), they aren’t going to make an impact this year.

The defense for the Browns will be much stronger in 2013 as they signed both James Harrison and Paul Kruger away from their division rival Steelers. Although the defense will be better, the offense will have a new cast of characters after do-everything running back Josh Cribbs and former starter Colt McCoy have departed. This leaves new head coach Rob Chudzinski looking for a way to get some points on the board.

Chudzinski inherits quarterback Brandon Weeden for his starter, but there are rumblings in Cleveland that he isn’t pleased with how Weeden runs the offense. Weeden will have to show that he is “The Man” to lead Cleveland out of the wilderness, otherwise he may also find himself on the way out the door in the city on the banks of Lake Erie.

Prediction:  Fourth (Record:  6-10)

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