In the third installment of out 2013 NFL Divisional Preview Series, today we take a look at the AFC North. The teams are listed in the order of their projected finish.
Cincinnati Bengals – Back-to-back playoff appearances have hopes high in Cincy. Quarterback Andy Dalton is efficient but not flashy and on the cusp of being one of the better quarterbacks in the league. He has no shortage of weapons at his disposal, starting with All-world wideout A.J. Green. Mohammed Sanu and Marvin Jones round out what looks to be one of the more explosive trios of receivers in the league heading into the 2013 season.
In addition to his group of receivers, Dalton will have the luxury of two capable tight ends in Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert. Both are dangerous red zone threats and could emerge as the league’s best tight end duo before season’s end.
The Bengal running back situation got a lift in the offseason as well. Cincy drafted Gio Bernard out of North Carolina in an effort to improve receiving production out of the backfield. Bernard will likely share carries with the dependable BenJarvus Green-Ellis in what should be an extremely effective tandom.
Defensively, the Bengals emerged as one of the better units in 2012. They finished the season 6th overall in total defense and look to improve on that mark in 2013. Geno Atkins returns to anchor an underrated defensive line, while James Harrison joins Rey Maualuga and Vontaze Burfict to comprise a linebacking unit as good as any in the league.
Leon Hall returns as the leader of the secondary where he’ll be joined on the opposite corner by Terrance Newman, the former Cowboy.
I have the Bengals as the favorites to win the division on paper. I see them winning 11 games with 12 or 13 being a serious possibility.
Baltimore Ravens – It’s tough to stick the defending champs in the No. 2 slot in the division, but the loss of veteran leadership combined with all that Cincy has returning makes it hard to say otherwise.
Joe Flacco got his paycheck and now must prove he’s worth every penny. He’s got a nice group of burners to toss the ball to, including Torrey Smith, Jacoby Jones and Tandon Doss. He’ll miss Anquan Boldin as a safety net, no doubt, but the addition of Dallas Clark should help with that as well as the Pitta loss.
The running game will be solid as always. The emergence of Bernard Pierce will take carries away from Ray Rice; however, it will lead to a healthier unit as the season progresses. The Ravens also plan on using Rice much more in the passing game in 2013, lining him up in the slot frequently.
Defensively, the loss of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed will hurt more in the lockerroom and huddle than anywhere else. Those two all time greats were a big part of keeping this team focused during a tough 2012 season and playoff run. That said, I think the team as a whole got younger and faster. Look for Elvis Dumervil to step up as the vocal leader of the group in Lewis’ absence and rookie Matt Elam to eventually step in and be a viable replacement for Ed Reed.
I like the Ravens to 11 games in 2013, finishing second to the Bengals by the slimmest of margins and securing the No. 5 seed in the AFC Playoffs.
Pittsburgh Steelers – I was tempted to put the Browns here but couldn’t bring myself to do it. The Steelers are going through a rebuilding period, starting with the offensive line. I think the uncertainty on the line has had an effect on Ben Roethlisberger’s play and confidence in his own game. The loss of Mike Wallace doesn’t do him any favors, as he’ll now need to establish a better relationship with Emmanuel Sanders on deep routes. Antonio Brown is going to have to have a big rebound year as the second wideout in order to help the Steeler offense get anything done.
The running back situation is still a mystery. Even though they drafted Le’Veon Bell, Jonathan Dwyer looks like the best back in camp. He’ll need to be effective behind this suspect line to help Big Ben and the passing game.
Defensively, this unit finished No. 1 in the NFL in 2012. They lost James Harrison, but look for rookie Jarvis Jones to step in and add some youth to this aging bunch. The Steelers also appear to have a plan for the end of Troy Polamalu’s career. They drafted Shamarko Thomas out of Syracuse in the fourth round. Thomas is the same type of hard-hitting safety who plays tough against the run and has a knack for blitzing. Should No. 43 go down again this season, I’d expect Thomas to step in and flourish in the same role.
I think the Steelers miss the playoffs for the second consecutive year and have a slight chance of finishing fourth in the division. They’ll do well to reach the nine win mark, with seven or eight being a more realistic possibility.
Cleveland Browns – The Browns are on the upswing. The problem is that they are in one of the better divisions in the NFL. Brandon Weeden seems to be coming into his own and doing well in Norv Turner’s offensive scheme. He’ll be without his primary deep threat, Josh Gordon, to start the year, but will have an underrated tight end in Jordan Cameron to throw to. I expect Cameron, a former college basketball player and freakish athlete, to establish himself as one of the best young tight ends in the league in 2013.
On the ground, Trent Richardson is the man and all signs point to him having a big season. His health, due to his running style and the number of carries he’ll get scares me. That said, I think he’ll finish the year as a top five back.
Defensively, Cleveland has a young and talented group of guys who could surprise everyone. Paul Kruger brings a little championship pedigree from Baltimore and Joe Haden continues his climb toward the NFL’s Mount Rushmore of cornerbacks. It might be tough sledding for this bunch in 2013, but I see brighter days ahead.
I think six wins is a realistic number to expect from the Browns this season, but if they were to win as many as eight, I can’t say that I’d be shocked.
BY J.P. SCOTT ON AUGUST 21, 2013
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