The New Powerhouse (2013 AFC North Preview)

afc_north

The AFC North is on the same type of path as the NFC West except they are a step ahead as they are the toughest division in football. Most good divisions have two good teams while the other two struggle. This continues on year after year as teams fall and team rise there always seem to be two good and two bad teams. That is not true in the AFC North as they have gone from a typical division to the toughest. There are not only two teams that can win this division but instead there are three teams with another on their way up. The Baltimore Ravens come in as the defending Super Bowl Champions and will look to begin a run of dominance. Finishing in first place last year Baltimore is also the reigning division champion and are hoping to repeat and remain on top. The Pittsburgh Steelers may be the one team on the decline in this division but they are a franchise that doesn’t slow down very often. They will be looking to get back to the top of the division and challenge the Ravens once again. The Cincinnati Bengals are the team on the rise after finishing in second place in the division and heading to the playoffs. They are looking to come back this year and take another step forward as they try to win the division and move further in the playoffs. Meanwhile the Cleveland Browns sit at the bottom but are far from the team they used to be with many seeing them as the darkhorse pick of the season. The Browns have been bad for so long that nobody is expecting them to be better but the rebuild has started and will make them a better team. The North is a tough division for all teams but only one can come out on top as the battle begins again. All four teams will fight it out all year for the division title as all have a shot at the title, even though some have a better chance than others, and one will come out on top.

 

Baltimore Ravens

baltimore_ravens

The Baltimore Ravens are the Super Bowl Champions after an amazing year that capped off with their second Super Bowl since returning to Baltimore. It would be a bitter-sweet victory for the Ravens as they would win the championship but see many of their leaders leave afterwards. It is something that happens with a lot of championship teams as the Ravens would be cleaned out after the championship. When a team wins other teams immediately look at them and their free agents to find that experience that many teams are missing. This year they will look to move on from these losses as the leaders from their Super Bowl run are gone and new leaders must emerge for a repeat. The Ravens have always been based on defence and a big part of this defence has been Ed Reed and Ray Lewis as the two veteran leaders of the squad. Reed and Lewis are now gone and have joined Paul Kruger, Bernard Pollard, Dannell Ellerbe, and Ma’ake Kemoeatu. The Ravens have lost their veteran base on defence and now have to reorganize the team and they will do so with their young up and coming talent. Remaining on the team are Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata, and Lardarius Webb who will look to carry on the tradition of the Ravens defence. Suggs has become the defacto leader and the replacement to Ray Lewis at linebacker, although he will be more of a rush linebacker than a middle linebacker. With a few cornerstones left on the defence all is not lost but the dominant defence that has made the Ravens the Ravens over the past few years is no longer here. On offence Baltimore is taking a different approach as they have put a lot of faith in Joe Flacco paying him a massive $120.6 million six-year contract as a reward for winning the Super Bowl. Now Flacco takes over the leadership role on the team as the face of the Ravens. The offence will look to Flacco for leadership but Ray Rice and the running game will remain a major part of the team along with Jacoby Jones and Torrey Smith in the passing game. The Ravens have lost a lot of their best players from last year’s Super Bowl team and although they will still fight for the top spot a repeat is unlikely.

 

Strength:
Cornerstones left
– Although the Ravens lost a number of their best players they still have some of the cornerstones of their team including Haloti Ngata, Terrell Suggs, Joe Flacco, Lardarius Webb, and Ray Rice leaving a talented team

Weakness:
The Hangover
– The super Bowl hangover is a real thing as an entire offseason of appearances and celebrations can take a toll on a team and it will only be made worse by the fact that the Ravens lost so many good players

Biggest Addition:
Elvis Dumervil, OLB (Free Agent, Den)
– Denver’s mistake has become the Ravens game as he will join the team and move to outside linebacker helping Terrell Suggs in the rush game and putting more pressure on the opposing QB

Biggest Loss:
Ray Lewis, LB (Retirement)
– There was no question that Lewis was a major reason for the Ravens winning the Super Bowl as the emotional leader for the team but his retirement has left a massive hole in the team as their leader is now gone

Cincinnati Bengals

cincinnati_bengals

The Cincinnati Bengals are a team on the rise as they continue to improve and become a real contender in the NFL. This year the Bengals are looking to repeat their performance from last year and take it a step further. It has taken a while for the Bengals to come up to this standard as they have had their ups and downs throughout the years. They have shown promise and then fallen short multiple times but last year would see an end to that. They would finish second in the division and take the wild card spot. They would lose this wild card game but a new contender was born as they will look to come back this year and improve on their performance from last year. Like a true AFC North team the Bengals did this by building a great defence and an offence that can put up just enough points. The Bengals defence is a very balanced group that has the ability to stop the run and put pressure on the passing game. Led by Geno Atkins the Bengals were a force last year and this year they look to be even better. Atkins is back on the line and will be joined on the outside by James Harrison who will play a rush linebacker position and help to provide even more pressure. The Bengals defence will be the focus of this team this year as they will be the reason why they will go back to the playoffs. Without a lot of losses the Bengals look to be a better squad than last year which is not a good thing for the rest of the North division. The offence was the missing piece for the Bengals for ears but the addition of Andy Dalton and A.J Green was the difference that put them over the top. The Dalton has helped the offence to new heights although he is limited in his options as AJ Green and Jermaine Gresham mark the only real weapons in the passing game. Although the Bengals drafted Tyler Eifert there is still a need for another playmaker on this team. The Bengals are a defence first team and they are only getting better as another fight for the top spot and a playoff spot seem to be in their near future.

 

Strength:
Defence
– The defence is a good one and is what carries this team to their playoff appearance last year and they will be better this year as they will continue to carry the team this year as the strongest part of the team

Weakness:
Passing Weapons
– AJ Green is a very good receiver but after him and tight end Jermaine Gresham there is not a lot else for Andy Dalton to work with as the passing game will suffer with few options allowing defences to key on a few players

Biggest Addition:
James Harrison, LB (Free Agent, Pit)
– Making a team that already has the ability to pressure the QB even better at pressure will make this team even better as James Harrison has a lot to prove with many people claiming that he has lost a step

Biggest Loss:
Nate Clements, CB (Free Agent)
– The Bengals did not lose too many people on offence but losing a veteran in the passing defence is a challenge to fill as the Bengals look to try to move on with their one veteran impact loss on defence

Cleveland Browns

cleveland_browns

The Cleveland Browns have been in the basement ever since they returned to the NFL in 1999 as an expansion team. The Browns have gone through countless head coaches and management groups and they have yet to make any difference on the team. Going in to the 2013 season the Browns are hoping that a new owner and coaching staff will finally be able to make a difference. After years of never being able to improve the Browns may finally be turning a corner though as they are beginning to add more pieces to the team that all can make a difference. The biggest change started last year when two first round picks would result in an entirely new offence. Brandon Weeden and Trent Richardson would be brought in to change the team and they did just that. Still the Browns did not have a lot of success but they seemed to finally be on the right path after years of never seeming to get any better. This year the Browns are hoping that a few more additions will help the team get even better and begin to climb up the standings. This year the defence would welcome a new playmaker and Super Bowl Champion Paul Kruger who will move to outside linebacker in the new 3-4 system. Kruger will bring in a veteran presence to a young offence that includes 3rd year linebacker Jabaal Sheard and 4th year corner Joe Haden. The defence is not the best or most experienced but there is potential in the defence that may surprise some people. The offence is the group that will help this team although they are not much improved from last year. Trent Richardson and Brandon Weeden are really the only playmakers on the team as Greg Little, Josh Gordon, Davone Bess, and Jordan Cameron will not change the game. The offence could have used some more upgrades in the offseason but the Browns still have some good young players that are the base for the hopeful resurgence of the Browns. Cleveland is improving but they are behind the rest of the division as it is one of the toughest in the league. It will not help the rebuild if the Browns continue to lose but this year expect some surprises out of the Browns as they could sneak up on some people although they will once again be out of the playoffs.

 

Strength:
New Leadership
– New head coach Rob Chudzinski is the first major move by new owner Jim Haslam and the new coaching change would also bring in Norv Turner as the offensive coordinator to help Brandon Weeden get better

Weakness:
Young Team
– The best players on this team are all Browns draftees from the past few years and that means there are a lot of inexperienced players on the team that will be sure to make mistakes that most teams will not

Biggest Addition:
Paul Kruger, LB (Free Agent, Bal)
– The Browns are a very young team and the signing of Kruger immediately adds some much-needed experience as the former defensive end, he will play linebacker in Cleveland, will bring his experience from last year’s Super Bowl run to the Browns

Biggest Loss:
Josh Cribbs, WR (Free Agent)
– Cribbs was one of the only major playmakers on the Browns for years and he will not be back this year leaving a hole in the returners role as well as the offence who will need all of the playmakers they can get

Pittsburgh Steelers

pittsburgh_steelers

The Pittsburgh Steelers seem to be the one team in the division that is starting to lose a step as they are not the dominant team anymore. The Steelers have not been keeping up with the improving Ravens and Bengals as they seem to be falling behind. The Steelers have one major problem as they continue to be the old team on the block. The Steelers rarely allow any of their young talent to their full potential instead focusing on the veterans they have built up. Generally have a number of veterans on a team is only good news as they can provide experience and will not panic when something goes wrong. The problem with having a team full of veterans is that they are slower and can lose a step when they get higher up in age. The Steelers defence has always been their strength as they look to a stifling group to give them a boost. There will be changes with this year’s defence though as they have shed some of their top players. James Harrison, Casey Hampton, Will Allen, and Keenan Lewis are all gone leaving some big holes on the defence. Although the Steelers would try to replace Harrison with rookie Jarvis Jones he will likely not have much of an impact this year. The rest of the issues were not corrected though as there will be multiple holes in the defence this year. It will not be the same defence as they are used to but they will not be the worst defence as they will still be able to shut down teams. The offence is led once again by Ben Roethlisberger who is a tough QB to take down and will need to be a true leader this year. As usual the Steelers are not flashy on offence with few big playmakers besides Roethlisberger. This year they will have Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown in the passing game while the running game will look very different. Isaac Redman will be the top back while rookie Le’Veon Bell will likely see some time as one of the few rookies that may be able to get playing time this year. The Steelers are still a good team but they are not as dominant as they used to be with a battle for the top spot likely not happening although a wild card fight might be in the future.

 

Strengths:
Proven Winner
– The Steelers are rarely out of the hunt as they continue to hang around the battle despite seemingly losing a step the and that experience winning will help the Steelers stay in the fight in the division

Weakness:
Aging Team
– The Steelers are getting up there and they need to start thinking about allowing their young talent to take bigger roles or they will soon find themselves at the bottom of the division and looking to rebuild

Biggest Addition:
Nobody
– The Steelers did not do a lot this offseason as they would concentrate on saving money rather than spending it with more cuts than additions as nobody added will have an impact on the team

Biggest Loss:
Rashard Mendenhall, RB (Free Agent, Ari)
– The running game was in solid hands with Mendenhall controlling the ball on the ground and he will no longer be with the team leaving a bit of a question mark in the backfield without a stable replacement

Prediction:
1. Cincinnati Bengals
2. Baltimore Ravens
3. Pittsburgh Steelers
4. Cleveland Browns

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