The AFC North has been one of the most competitive divisions in all of the NFL over the last several years. While the Cleveland Browns have been at the bottom, the fight between the Pittsburgh Steelers, Cincinnati Bengals, and Baltimore Ravens has been compelling to watch.
In 2012, after winning the division, Baltimore proceeded to go on a magical run and beat the 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII. Lesson learned here: while AFC North teams might not look very dominant during the regular season, there is a good chance they will perform in the playoffs – Baltimore also played in the 2011 AFC Championship Game.
Looking ahead to 2013, things look like they could be as tight as ever in this division. For any team from the division to win it all again, they must get through a tough regular season schedule – the AFC North matches up against the NFC North (Lions, Packers, Bears, Vikings) in inter-conference play.
With that said, it would be easy to just give the Ravens the nod going into 2013 but certain individuals, say those in Vegas, aren’t very sure.
Let’s take a look at how the AFC North stacks up and some of the prevailing storylines from the off-season.
Starting at the top with Baltimore, because they are after all the Super Bowl champs. The Ravens don’t look like the same team that won it all a season ago, from a pure personnel standpoint. Baltimore lost some key positions both on offense and defense and has tried to replace them as best as possible. It also hasn’t helped that even some of those players Baltimore retained went down with injury, most notably tight end Dennis Pitta. The loss of Pitta really hurts, especially with receiver Anquan Boldin already gone as well. The Ravens still have some big play threats on the outside in Jacoby Jones and Torrey Smith, which form a solid duo.
Defensively for Baltimore they lost guys like Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, the backbone of the unit. But they did add Elvis Dumervil, who has looked good in the preseason outings. The The Ravens look primed to defend their championship.
Cincinnati won the AFC North last season, but made an early exit in the postseason. They come back trying to make it two-straight, though that has been something that’s been difficult to do in the AFC North.
The Bengals were mediocre on offense last season and need to take a step forward. Having wide receiver A.J. Green certainly helps, as quarterback Andy Dalton continues to be productive under center. The defensive unit of the Bengals added former Steelers’ linebacker James Harrison to come in and wreak havoc. This should help a run defense that was already good, ranking 12th in 2012.
Pittsburgh is the third real contender of this division, but the only one of the top-three not to make the postseason last year. Mike Tomlin’s team doesn’t want to miss out on the playoff party in 2013 though, that’s for sure.
While the Steelers were the best defense in the NFL last season, they were surprisingly disappointing on offense, especially in the run game. Pittsburgh ranked 26th in rushing in the NFL, which definitely held them back. The Steelers drafted running back Le’Veon Bell out of Michigan State to come in and compete, hopefully bringing a spark to the ground attack. If they can improve that department, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger can have some breathing room.
Ah, and then there’s Cleveland. The Browns are the odd guy left out in this division, failing to put up a legitimate contention in quite some time. But it’s a new year after all, heading into 2013. Quarterback Brandon Weeden has a year under his belt, as does running back Trent Richardson.
Of course, there are areas all over the field that need to be fixed. The highest that the Browns ranked in any category last season was 19th. They added a good pass rusher by drafting Barkevious Mingo out of LSU. Slowly but surely Cleveland is putting the pieces together to make a formidable playoff contender. It just doesn’t look like it will be happening this season though.