Our NFL preview continues with one of the toughest divisions in football, and the home to the reigning Super Bowl champions, who will not begin the season leading their own division’s power rankings.
1. Cincinnati – The Bengals leap frog the defending Super Bowl champions after a great offseason. Offensively, they were average last season, but they return all 11 starters and add to the mix rookie tight end Tyler Eifert, a multi-dimensional threat in the passing game, and rookie running back Giovani Bernard, who will give a big boost to a lackluster rushing attack. Quarterback Andy Dalton should have enough of a running game and enough targets in the passing game to give the Bengals a top-10 offense this season.
Defensively, Cincinnati returns many of its key players like Michael Johnson, Geno Atkins, and Rey Maualuga, while adding veteran linebacker James Harrison, who gives their defense a proven pass rusher. There are some questions on defense, most notably at safety, but there’s more than enough on that side of the ball to make the Bengals one of the better defensive teams in the AFC this season. With a strong roster and a well-balanced team, much like the team they had last season, with a few nice additions, the Bengals are expected to win the AFC North and become one of the top Super Bowl contenders coming out of the AFC this season.
2. Baltimore – After winning the Super Bowl last season, the Ravens have undergone a lot of changes to their roster, which has created some uncertainty heading into the 2013 season. Gone from their defense are the likes of Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Bernard Pollard, Dannell Ellerbe, Paul Kruger, and Cary Williams. They did manage to add free agents Michael Huff and Elvis Dumervil, who will fill spots in the starting lineup, and they feel good about rookies Matt Elam and Arthur Brown, but there will be a lot of moving parts in Baltimore’s defense and we’ll have to see them perform in the regular season to know how the group comes together.
Offensively, there are serious questions about who Joe Flacco will be throwing the ball to after the team traded Anquan Boldin and lost Dennis Pitta to injury. The Ravens signed veterans Brandon Stokley and Dallas Clark in hopes of getting a boost, but with Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones being their primary receivers, a lot of pressure falls on the shoulders of Flacco, not to mention the new contract he has to live up to. Baltimore should have a stable running game with Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce, but if Flacco can’t step up and make plays in the passing game, the Ravens could be in trouble offensively, and they don’t yet know if they’ll be able to lean on their defense as much as they have during the first five years of Flacco’s career, which is why they start the season second in the NFC North’s power rankings.
3. Pittsburgh – The Steelers come off a disappointing season in 2012, and as their key players continue to age, there has to be questions about whether they’re still a threat to make a deep playoff run, or even get to the postseason. Despite missing James Harrison, Casey Hampton, and Keenan Lewis on defense, Pittsburgh is in good shape on that side of the ball if their veterans are able to hold up and stay on the field for 16 games this season. The Steelers had one of the top defenses in the NFL last season, and even if there’s some drop off, they have the talent to be a top-10 defense once again.
Offensively, the loss of Mike Wallace will hurt a lot, and the Steelers will have to find a way to improve a running game that averaged fewer than 100 yards per game last year. Without Wallace or any other big-play receivers, a lot of responsibility falls on Ben Roethlisberger, who needs to stay healthy this season for the Steelers to reach the playoffs. With so many questions, Pittsburgh could be in danger of taking a further step back from last year’s 8-8 record if they can’t get things figured out on offense.
4. Cleveland – The Browns find themselves in a familiar position, the bottom of the AFC North, heading into the 2013 season, although they have a glimmer of hope that they can finally get out of the basement this year. The additions of veteran Paul Kruger and rookie Barkevious Mingo give the Browns an improved pass rush, which could help make up for some of their obvious deficiencies in the secondary.
Offensively, the Browns are holding out hope that Brandon Weeden can make significant improvements in his second season, especially after showing some promise in the preseason. Of course, the biggest key to their offense is the health of Trent Richardson. If he can stay on the field, Richardson could carry Cleveland’s offense, but without him they don’t have the playmakers to score enough points to give themselves a chance to win on a weekly basis. The 2013 season doesn’t look too promising for the Browns, but a healthy Richardson, an improved Weeden, and a viable pass rush could give them a chance to be a respectable team, and with a little luck, they may be able to work their way out of the AFC North basement.