The Baltimore Ravens earned their title like few others, because more so than anything else, they made it out of their own neighborhood to do it. The AFC North is annually brutal; look no further than the annual baseball score match ups that take place out of the run-ins between the four clubs. And going into 2013, they surely look to be the best of AFC divisions, if not all of football.

The dynamics of the division are diverse. There are the old warhorses in Pittsburgh, who continue to push ahead with a tough defense and even tougher quarterback. There are the up and comers in Cincinnati, with one of the best young pass and catch combos in the game. In Cleveland there are the perennial rebuilders, which are getting close to the breakthrough that Cincy enjoyed a few years back. And then there are the Super Bowl champions in Baltimore, who are reshaping their image, while still looking stay among the league’s elite.

With so many competitors, the outcome of the division could be as random as it is any, but one thing for certain is that whoever takes, will have earned it.

ALL-DIVISION TEAM

QB: Ben Roethlisberger, RB: Ray Rice, Trent Richardson, WR: AJ Green, Torry Smith, Antonio Brown, TE: Jermaine Gresham, OT: Joe Thomas, Andrew Whitworth, OG: Marshal Yanda, David DeCastro C: Maurkice Pouncey

DE: Elvis Dumervil, Brett Keisel, DT/NT: Haloti Ngata, Geno Atkins, OLB: Terrell Suggs, James Harrison, MLB: D’Qwell Jackson, Lawrence Timmons, CB: Joe Haden, Lardarius Webb, FS: Ryan Clark, SS: Troy Polamalu

 

Flacco delivered the hardware to Baltimore, and they returned the favor by delivering him a check worth $120 million. Now he'll be charged with taking the absolute lead for the team for the first time.

Flacco delivered the hardware to Baltimore, and they returned the favor by delivering him a check worth $120 million. Now he’ll be charged with taking the absolute lead for the team for the first time.

BALTIMORE RAVENS (10-6 in 2012, Super Bowl Champions)

The Good: While he has just been seen as just another brick in the foundation for the majority of his career, Joe Flacco is perhaps the most important Raven now. In wake of the retirement of Ray Lewis and the departure of Ed Reed, the team’s emphasis will shift to how far the offense can carry them. Flacco is steady under pressure and has become more than just a game manager; he’s capable of creating wins himself. In a season that there has plenty of change and a chance for a Super Bowl hangover, he is the perfect QB for what the team needs now.

The Bad: A lot of leadership and key experience was lost not only in Lewis and Reed, but as a while they lost eight starters overall. That is a lot to adjust from for any team, and it could take some time for new players to gel, as well as for the players stepping up into new positions to find their way. In a division that could be as tight as the North, even a few lost games during development could be detrimental in the big picture.

X-Factor—Ray Rice: It seems odd to think that more could be asked of one of the league’s busiest all-around talents, but this season could see a bigger impact from Rice than ever before. The loss of Dennis Pitta and Boldin will force more of the short yardage gains to come his way, and with an increased emphasis on pounding the ball with Bernard Pierce, will free him to get into space more than ever, which is never a bad thing.

Schedule: @DEN (L), CLE (W), HOU (W), @BUF (W), @MIA (W), GB (W), @PIT (L), @CLE (L), CIN (W), @CHI (W), NYJ (W), PIT (W), MIN (W), @DET (W), NE (W), @CIN (L) 11-5

Prediction: It will be a different type of Ravens team than we’ve ever seen, but that is not a bad thing. They have drafted and maneuvered better than any team in the NFL over the past few seasons, so it should be able to bound back from personnel losses with the easier stride than most teams. Nobody saw them coming a year ago, and while the light will be in their faces from day one this year, they will be able to live up to the expectations, even if they are slightly less than you would think for a defending champion. 11-5

 

Atkins broke out with a 12 sack season a year ago, and is now the centerpiece of a rapidly growing defense that is primed to be a force.

Atkins broke out with a 12 sack season a year ago, and is now the centerpiece of a rapidly growing defense that is primed to be a force.

CINCINNATI BENGALS (10-6 in 2012)

The Good: AJ Green and Andy Dalton get the headlines, but the true strength of Marvin Lewis’ squad is (unsurprisingly) its quick striking defense. With the addition of James Harrison, it boasts one of the best linebacker groups in the game. Upfront, Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson combined for 30 sacks a year ago. This is a unit that could be on the verge of making the jump to one of the NFL’s elite groups.

The Bad: Will they bring it all together to get over the hump of youth this time around? While the franchise has turned the corner the past two years with back-to-back playoff appearances, once they have gotten there, they have had their season end in the Wild Card round at the hands of the Texans both years. The mark of if a young team is progressing is learning how to progress over its hump, and they have a clear challenge in that area.

X-Factor—Giovanni Bernard: For as steady as Ben-Jarvis Green Ellis was in his first year in stripes, he truly lives up to his “Law Firm” moniker: straight ahead, to the point, no frills production. In an effort to bring a more diverse and explosive element to the team, the club took Bernard with its second round pick. The former Tar Heel could be an image changer as a pass catcher and open field threat from the backfield.

Schedule: @CHI (W), PIT (W), GB (L), @CLE (W), NE (W), @BUF (L), @DET (W), NYJ (W), @MIA (L), @BAL (L), CLE (W), @SD (W), IND (L), @PIT (L), MIN (W), BAL (W)

Prediction: There are a lot things in the Bengals favor for them to win their first division title since 2009. There’s turnover in the division, they have steadily improved over the past two years and have an impressive stock of complimentary young talent. In the end, another postseason appearance is in the cards, but the grit to pull the division away from Baltimore still seems a year away. First, the Bengals will have to attempt to exorcise their Wild Card round ghost again. 10-6

 

With Thomas watching his back and a new scheme to work in his favor, there could be more to smile about in year two for Brandon Weeden.

With Thomas watching his back and a new scheme to work in his favor, there could be more to smile about in year two for Brandon Weeden.

CLEVELAND BROWNS (5-11 in 2012)

The Good: It’s been a vanilla process, but the Browns are forming a solid core on both sides of the ball. Joe Thomas is the best tackle in the business. Brandon Weeden is a secure pocket presence, and both Trent Richardson and Josh Gordon bring a long absent element of excitement to the approach. Defensively, Joe Haden is one of the best cover men in the business and Barkevious Mingo and D’Qwell Jackson should play off each other’s strengths well at linebacker.

The Bad: Do they have the depth to contend in such a rough division? They are a few injuries away from rejoining the ranks of the most deprived teams in the league. The limitations at wide receiver are still clear, and a large part of the team’s potential rests on Richardson holding his health together and carrying the offense, something he has continued to grapple with throughout the preseason.

X-Factor—Jordan Cameron: Maybe the biggest acquisition for the Browns is the new approach that offensive coordinator Norv Turner will be able to institute. He has continually been able to bring out the best of potential in athletic, but raw tight ends, and that’s exactly what he has in Cameron. The 6’5 target averaged 18 yards per catch in the preseason, after reeling in nearly 10 yards per grab a year ago.

Schedule: MIA (W), @BAL (L), @MIN (L), CIN (W), BUF (W), DET (L), @GB (L), @KC (W), BAL (W), @CIN (L), PIT (W), JAX (W), @NE (L), CHI (L), @NYJ (L), @PIT (L)

Prediction: It’s a tough spot to be in trying to develop in the AFC North. But after a long ride on the bottom rung of the talent pool, the Browns are putting things together and have the right coaching to guide what’s in place. While a move out of the cellar isn’t likely, they could prove to be a big time spoiler in the no weeks off grind of the Black and Blue division. 7-9

 

Antonio Brown will have his busiest fall to date, and will be charged with much of the responsibility for carrying the Steeler offense.

Antonio Brown, who has averaged 13 yards a grab in his career, will have his busiest fall to date. He will be charged with much of the responsibility for carrying an evolving Steeler attack.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS (8-8 in 2012)

The Good: Comparatively speaking, Ben Roethlisberger is as healthy as he’s been in some time. Despite losing a major target for the second consecutive year in Mike Wallace and losing long-time safety valve Heath Miller for the first half of this season at least, having Ben at his best gives them a chance to win every week. Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders could both have breakout years under his watch.

The Bad: It seems odd to wonder if the Steelers are deep enough at the grit positions to make a real run, but the lack of identity in the backfield and along the offensive line are concerning, especially is a division with such aggressive defenses. Isaac Redman, Le’vion Bell and Felix Jones are not a particularly exciting row of options to balance the defense on, and the offensive line has struggled to give Roethlisberger to the time to comfortably deliver for years.

X-Factor—David DeCastro: He was heralded as the best colliegiate guard to enter the league in years…and then he never quite made it. The Steelers didn’t get a single down from him a year ago after he tore his ACL in training camp. If he can return to the natural form he showed as a bulldozer at Stanford in 2011, the running game has a much better shot at thriving, regardless of who’s running the ball.

Schedule: TEN (W), @CIN (L), @CHI (W), @MIN (L), @NYJ (W), BAL (W), @OAK (W), @NE (L), BUF (W), DET (W), @CLE (L), @BAL (L), MIA (W), CIN (W), @GB (L), CLE (W)

Prediction: The defense is still brutally tough upfront, despite beginning to slow down in recent years. The addition of Jarvis Jones at linebacker could be a shot in the arm of the attack, while the speed element at receiver gives them a chance to put up major points. They would be a prime candidate to steal a division title, but a finish in third place is realistic, as is a last team in playoff berth as well. 10-6

 

 

Advertisements
Comments
  1. […] AFC East                                                             AFC North […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s