2014 NFL Preview: AFC North


It wasn’t so long ago that the AFC North was one of the most dominant divisions in the NFL and one of the most difficult to break through. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens ruled the North winning 9 of 11 division titles since the creation of the AFC North division in 2002. There was rarely a year where Pittsburgh or Baltimore were not favourites to make the playoffs and many times they were favourites to win the Super Bowl, and made good on that prediction. Yet in 2013 something seemed different when the rulers of the AFC North were set to begin another season. The Steelers and Ravens did not seem like the powers that they once were with aging teams going up against young rising teams. As the teams that everyone forgot about began to build their prospect base the Steelers and the Ravens were winning. With the wins continuing to come these teams didn’t have a lot to worry about and the wins continued to come. They were two of the strongest teams in the NFL and were always teams to watch when it came to the playoffs. They continued to win and continued to build their teams to fight it out against each other all the while another team was sneaking up behind them. The Cincinnati Bengals have been up and down and are the only team to unseat either of the big two in the division. Still they had never been able to sustain the ability to win the division. It did not scare the Steelers or the Ravens as they continued to come back to the top even after losing one year. Last year everything seemed to be shifting though as the Cincinnati Bengals won the division again but this time it had a different feeling. Instead of the Bengals seeming like a one-and-done team that could not return in 2014 to win the division again the focus became about who could beat them in the new season. The Steelers are still an aging team that has now ended two seasons with an 8-8 record. They are a team that many see as falling fast and the Bengals have taken full advantage. Meanwhile a year after winning the Super Bowl the Ravens suffered from a decline in their offence also finishing 8-8. With the two dominant teams not making the playoffs last year and seemingly on the decline the AFC North could be in for a power shift in 2014. The Bengals will try to win the division again and make the shift more permanent while the Steelers and Ravens are hoping to get back to their winning ways. As these three teams have plenty to figure out in the season most are overlooking the team that has rarely been able to put up a fight. The Cleveland Browns are rejuvenated with some buzz around them but the questions about whether that buzz can translate to wins remains to be answered. The AFC North is in the midst of a shift but only the season will prove if that shift is a pattern or just a one-off.

Baltimore Ravens


The Baltimore Ravens are two years removed from their second Super Bowl in a season that was supposed to act as a passing of the torch. The old guard, or essentially Ray Lewis, was ready to leave and hand the reins to the younger generation. That generation was built on the arm of Joe Flacco and essentially Lewis’ replacement Terrell Suggs. The Ravens were not going to change the way that they played but there were going to adjust. Defence was still king but Joe Flacco would be given more responsibility in the offence as the Ravens attempted to move into the new era of a pass-happy NFL. That transition clearly did not work out well as the Ravens struggled from the start to keep things going from the season before. They finished with an 8-8 record and were out of the playoffs in an extremely disappointing season. The Ravens’ offseason was not much better as three players were arrested for off-field issues. That included star running back, Ray Rice, who was arrested for aggravated assault from an incident in a New Jersey Casino. The issues have been a massive distraction for a team that just wants to get back to football. Rice may still have to answer for his crimes leaving some uncertainty on the field form a team that won as much as they lost last year. The Ravens will also be going into a new season with plenty of changes on an offence that was ranked 29th overall in total offence in 2013. With offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell leaving for Detroit the Ravens brought in former Texans head coach Gary Kubiak to try to give the offence a boost. On defence there is not much change needed after ranking 12th overall in 2013 and continuing to be a defensive team first. While the defence remains solid the Ravens enter 2014 looking for some answers on offence and with a new coordinator as well as some new weapons for Flacco they hope to be in the playoff hunt once again.



Cincinnati Bengals


The Cincinnati Bengals are the team on the rise in the AFC North and are the only team to break through the dominant two teams in the division. They have been the team that has challenged the top two for years but never seemed able to repeat the performance the next year. That all seems like it could be changing though as the Bengals not only won the division but easily won the division in 2013. With an 11-5 record the Bengals were far and above the best team in the North as they made their way to the playoffs for the third year in a row. The issue for the Bengals in those three years though was that the Bengals ran out of steam in the playoffs. The trend continued in 2013 as despite a great season and division title the Bengals were eliminated in the wild card playoffs. For the Bengals it is not about making the playoffs anymore as it is about winning a playoff game and taking a good season into the postseason. The Bengals are built on their defence that may not include the biggest names in the NFL but was the 3rd ranked defence in 2013. With Carlos Dunlap, Rey Maualuga, and possibly the biggest defensive star Geno Atkins lead the way up front the Bengals are not the best but are a tough defence to score on. The offence is not too bad itself with an ability to electrify at any moment. Led by playmakers A.J. Green and Giovanni Bernard the Bengals’ offence can strike at any point. The biggest issue this year for the Bengals is that both of their coordinators did such a great job in 2013 that they found head coaching jobs in the offseason leaving the Bengals with big holes on the sidelines. With the talent on the field for the Bengals it is about putting them in the right situation to make plays which is what they will have to do if they hope to repeat as division champions and take the next step in the playoffs, but everything is there for them to do it this year.


Cleveland Browns


The Cleveland Browns are often the forgotten team in the AFC North as the talk surrounds the top three teams. Those three teams have been the teams that are always in the talk to win the division while the Browns are almost always favourites to finish at the bottom of the division. They have rarely had a lot to look forward to in Cleveland as year after year they bring in potential stars that flame out. This year the Browns looked to the draft to find their next star that they hoped this time could pan out and lead them out of the basement. When the Browns traded out of the second round for a second first round pick everyone knew who they were going after. Drafting Johnny Manziel immediately created a buzz in Cleveland as the quarterback that everyone was talking about was now a Brown. There are a lot of questions about Manziel and whether his game can translate to the NFL and for those questions Manziel will not be starting for the Browns in the immediate future. That leaves the Browns with plenty to think about throughout the season even without the distraction of Johnny Football sitting on the bench. Their offence lacks any major playmakers, which they are hoping that Manziel can fix eventually, and that lack of playmakers could be increased with the potential season-long suspension of leading receiver Josh Gordon. Meanwhile the defence has quietly risen to be a top 10 defence in the league and has the makings of an aspect the Browns can build on. Still despite a better defence led by young stars Barkevious Mingo and veterans Joe Haden, Paul Kruger, and now Karlos Dansby the Browns are a better defence than many would expect and should improve with new head coach and former Buffalo Bills and New York Jets defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. There are still a lot of issues for the Browns but a new coaching staff and new potential superstar have brought some hope to Cleveland as they try to climb out of the basement.


Pittsburgh Steelers


The Pittsburgh Steelers had one of the strangest declines in the 2013 NFL season as many expected them to finish at the top of the division. Missing the playoffs was not exactly how they drew it up in a city that is used to winning. In 213 the issue could be drawn back to the fact that the Steelers’ defence, usually one of the best in the NFL, fell to 13th overall in the league. That was an issue for the Steelers who depend on a tough defence to win games. They did not look anything like their old selves in 2013 and that resulted in a poor finish for a team that has suffered with an aging defence and an offence that was not built to carry the load. The Steelers are not a team to sit around and wait for a big rebuild though and they went to work in the offseason trying to fix their age issue on defence. In 2014 there is the potential for the Steelers to start two rookies and a second year player on defence. Stephon Tuitt and Ryan Shazier will be the rookies who will have to step in and carry the weight of a legendary defensive team. Meanwhile Jarvis Jones will step in as a full-time starter this year in his second year. Veterans Tory Palamalu and Ike Taylor will take on a leadership role for these young payers as they hope the injection of youth can help their defence return to the top of the league. Meanwhile the offence does not look to be very improved heading into 2014. Without any big playmakers on offence the Steelers defence will need to carry the team again until someone can step up. Antonio Brown is the only proven playmaker on offence while Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount face discipline from off-field issues that could leave the backfield in the hands of rookie Dri Archer. The Steelers are not one of the top teams anymore and with too many questions they may find themselves out of the playoffs again this year.



The AFC north looks to be an interesting race as a number of teams have the opportunity to win the division if everything goes right. That is the case for the Pittsburgh Steelers but with a rough offseason it seems like not much will go right for the former powers. Expect the Steelers to have another rough season where they will fall to the bottom of the division. That is not the case for the Cleveland Browns though as they have too many holes and too many questions to answer before they can compete for the division title. Still they seem to be improving year by year and could find themselves slightly out of the basement this year. Then there is the battle for the top spot with the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals as the two teams that will fight it out for the division. The Ravens are still not an offence that is going to scare anybody while the Bengals are the opposite along with a great defence. For that reason the Bengals will take the division while the Ravens look to fight for a wild card spot.



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