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AFC North Preview

by Photo of Ross Bernhardt

It’s a two-team race for the division, and how bad will the Bengals be this year?

AFC North Preview

The AFC North has been dominated by three teams since it was formally named the AFC North in 2002.  The Pittsburgh Steelers have won five division titles while the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals have won two division crowns apiece.  With everything going on in Cincinnati right now, it might be safe to say the division will go to either the Steelers or the Ravens.  The Browns are an interesting team, but they aren't ready to compete yet.

The common theme among all of these teams is strong running games.  Every team in the division featured a running back that rushed for over 1,100 yards last season.  All four running backs (Rashard Mendenhall, Ray Rice, Peyton Hillis, and Cedric Benson) return to try and light it up again.  The production of Hillis and Benson is far more important for the Browns and Bengals, respectively, when it comes to winning games.  Rice and Mendenhall are just as important to their offenses, but they don't need to be relied on as heavily as the other two.  Either way, rushing will likely be at a premium again this year in the AFC North.

Here's how we think the AFC North is going to play out this year.

1. Baltimore Ravens

Last Season: 12-4 (Wild Card, Lost fo Pittsburgh in Divisional Round)

Key Additions: RB Ricky Williams, WR Lee Evans, FB Vonta Leach, K Billy Cundiff

Key Losses: TE Todd Heap, RB Willis McGahee, RB/FB Le'Ron McClain, K Matt Stover

The Skinny: The Ravens have been very successful under head coach Jim Harbaugh over the last three seasons.  Harbaugh guided the team to the AFC Championship game in his first season and they have been to the Divisional Round the last two seasons.  They have also done this with a young quarterback at the helm: Joe Flacco.  Flacco has improved each year in the league, and he will have to continue to improve to guide the Ravens past the Steelers in the division.

Acquiring veteran receiver Lee Evans to pair with Anquan Boldin will certainly help Flacco, but losing tight end Todd Heap and not having a proven replacement will hurt the passing game, but the running game might improve  Signing fullback Vonta Leach might ease the pain of that loss.  He helped lead the way for Arian Foster's breakout year last season, and he will help open up big holes for Ray Rice and newly signed Ricky Williams, especially in the red zone. 

If the Ravens are going to make a run at it, they need to do it soon.  The defense, led by stalwarts Ray Lews and Ed Reed, isn't getting any younger.  While the defense is still incredibly effective, no one knows how long Lewis and Reed can keep this up.  They have the pieces to make a big run.  Flacco has to show maturity and improvement for this team to be successful, and I think he can do that.

Player to Watch LB Sergio Kindle.  The Ravens took Kindle, a big, bruising linebacker out of Texas, with their first round selection last season.  Unfortunately, he never played a snap after fracturing his skull falling down the stairs.  Kindle has made a full recovery and made his Ravens debut in their first preseason game against the Eagles.  Things went well for him according to the Baltimore Sun.

If Kindle can produce like the Ravens thought he would coming out of Texas, the front seven becomes that much tougher.  A productive Kindle paired up with Lewis and Terrell Suggs would be treacherous for opposing teams.  Expectations shouldn't be too high for Kindle, but he could make an impact if he keeps progressing.

Over/Under Regular Season Wins: 12.  It helps when you play the Bengals and Browns twice, but the Ravens also play teams like the Cardinals, Jaguars and Titans.  They will get tested by teams like the Jets, Colts and Texans, but I think their combination of offensive and defensive firepower will be more than enough to get the Ravens to the top of the division this season.

2. Pittsburgh Steelers

Last Season: 12-4 (1st in AFC North, Lost to Green Bay in Super Bowl)

Key Additions: WR Jerricho Cotchery, DB Kevin Dockery

Key Losses: OL Flozell Adams, OL Max Starks, WR Antwaan Randle El

The Skinny: The Pittsburgh Steelers might be in for a hangover after last year's Super Bowl performance.  When you look at the roster, you wouldn't think that to be the case. Ben Roethlisberger, now married, will have a full season to work with.  Rashard Mendenhall is coming off a breakout season.  Hines Ward and Mike Wallace anchor a receiving corps that will only get deeper with Jerricho Cotchery thrown into the mix and young guys Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders getting shots.  The defense, which boasted the top defensive front and second-best passing defense according to ColdHardFootballFacts.com , is still intact.  So what gives?

The Steelers have missed the Playoffs in the following season the last two times they have gone to the Super Bowl.  

Now, I think that the Steelers will break that trend for sure.  They are too talented on both sides of the ball to miss the playoffs completely, especially if the younger players progress like they should.  What might hurt the Steelers down the line is their offensive line, which was middle-of-the-road last year and has looked suspect so far in the preseason.  I may be underestimating the impact a full season with Roethlisberger will do for their offense, especially with the numbers he put up when he came back from suspension, but I just think that this will be the year of the Ravens.

Player to Watch: LB Lawrence Timmons.  Pittsburgh's vaunted defense has plenty of big names.  Troy Polamalu roams the secondary.  Lamarr Woodley gets plenty of hype at the linebacker position as do his Pro Bowl teammates James Harrison and James Farrior.  But maybe the best player on Pittsburgh's defense is another one of their linebackers: Lawrence Timmons.

Timmons exploded last season for a team-leading 135 combined tackles (96 solo), a huge increase from the 78 he recorded two years prior, his first as a full-time starter.  He also contributed two interceptions, forced two fumbles, and got to the QB for three sacks.  His teammates are raving about him becoming even more productive next year.  If that happens and the rest of the defense stays as productive, the Steelers will be in no danger of losing their number-one ranking on defense.

Over/Under Regular Season Wins: 11.5.  Like Baltimore, Pittsburgh is blessed with a relatively easy schedule.  Outside of matchups with New England, Indianapolis, Kansas City and Houston, the Steelers don't face much competition.  They also get to play the Browns twice over the last four weeks of the season.  The games against Baltimore will decide who wins this division, and Pittsburgh very well could remain division champs.  There's just something about superstition I just don't like to mess with.

3. Cleveland Browns

Last Season: 5-11 (Missed Playoffs)

Key Additions: RB Brandon Jackson, DB Usama Young.

Key Losses: FB Lawrence Vickers, CB Eric Wright, RB Mike Bell, WR Chansi Stuckey, QB Jake Delhomme

The Skinny: The Browns surprised a lot of teams last year with their competitiveness.  Seven of their 11 losses were one-possession games and the Browns even demolished perennial powers New Orleans and New England on back-to-back weeks.  Rookie quarterback Colt McCoy was given an opportunity to play early on and didn't disappoint.  In his eight starts, showed that he could use his arm and his feet at the NFL level and both of the wins he recorded were against the Patriots and Saints.  Current Madden cover boy Peyton Hillis came out of nowhere to rush for over 1,100 yards and 11 touchdowns.

What did Cleveland's surprise season do?  It got head coach Eric Mangini fired.  Now the Browns must try to build off of last season under a first-year coach, Pat Shurmur.  I don't think that Cleveland did enough in the offseason to help McCoy and Hillis.  It remains to be seen if the loss of FB Lawrence Vickers, Hillis' lead blocker, will have a negligible effect on the bruising back.  They also lost athletic CB Eric Wright to the Lions.

If you take much stock from preseason games (which I don't), you would think highly of the Browns after what McCoy did against the Packers.  But McCoy struggled greatly last season against the top two teams in the division, throwing a combined six interceptions and just one touchdown against the Steelers and Ravens last year.  This will be a season for McCoy to take his lumps, get more experience, and get ready for next year.

Player to Watch: RB Montario Hardesty.  There was a lot of buzz last year before the season about a Browns running back, and his name wasn't Peyton Hillis.  People were talking about the potential impact of rookie University of Tennessee rookie Montario Hardesty would make after his brilliant senior season.  He never got the chance when he tore his ACL during the first game of the preseason.

Now, Hardesty is looking to come back and provide some backup for Peyton Hillis, who carried the ball 270 times last year (202 more than his previous high).  With their other Hillis insurance option Brandon Jackson moved to the IR after an ACL tear, Hardesty's role becomes much more significant.  He could provide a huge boost to the offense if he can spell Hillis and still produce.

Over/Under Regular Season Wins: 6.  The Browns have a backloaded schedule (they play the Steelers and Ravens four times in the last five weeks) but there are several winnable games early on in the season.  Cleveland could make some noise if McCoy continues to lead the team as well as he did last season.

4. Cincinnati Bengals

Last Season: 4-12 (Missed Playoffs)

Key Additions: WR A.J. Green (Draft), QB Andy Dalton (Draft), CB Nate Clements, LB Manny Lawson, TE Bo Scaife, QB Bruce Gradkowski, WR Brandon Tate

Key Losses: WR Chad Ochocinco, LB Dhani Jones, DE Antwan Odom, DT Tank Johnson

The Skinny: What a turbulent offseason it has been for the Cincinnati Bengals thus far.  From the refusal to trade franchise quarterback Carson Palmer and his refusal to report to the team, to the trade of popular wideout Chad Ochocinco, to the offseason ACL injury to Terrell Owens, not much is happening in Cincinnati to inspire confidence.  Already, writers are saying that the Bengals will be returning to the days of the "Bungles".  With the future in the hands of a rookie quarterback for the immediate future, it sure looks like that might be the case.

The Bengals lost their leading tackler in Dhani Jones, their leading receiver Owens to injury for the time being, and their second-leading receiver in Ochocinco to a trade.  Adam "Pac-Man" Jones is starting the season on the PUP list.  The lone bright spot, running back Cedric Benson, will likely face stacked lines of scrimmages as teams load up to stop the rusher and dare the rookie Andy Dalton to throw.  Things could get very ugly this season for the inexperienced group.

If Dalton has to play right away, he might get the tar beaten out of him.  Here's video proof of what could happen:

Player to Watch: QB Andy Dalton.  The Bengals used their second round pick to draft the senior out of TCU, but they probably didn't plan on using him this early.  He was productive in college, but he wasn't facing the Steelers or Ravens in the Mountain West conference.  Dalton will be under a heavy spotlight in Cincy, especially if the Bengals struggle.  That looks like a strong possibility.

Over/Under Regular Season Wins: 2.5.  The Bengals may very well be the worst team in football this year.  They play teams like Buffalo, Arizona, and Denver, and Dalton could come along.  But expectations for this team right now are grim. 

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