Season Preview AFC North
The AFC North is consistently one of the toughest divisions in football. The division is known for its bitter rivalries and hard hitting defense. The Ravens-Steelers rivalry has become one of the most intense rivalries in professional sports. The Baltimore Ravens have won 2 of the last three division championships but missed the playoffs in 2013. Cincinnati won the division but lost an embarrassing home playoff game to San Diego. Pittsburgh was 8-8 last year and Cleveland finished last as usual. It looks to be anyone’s division as 2014 approaches. The Bengals are the division champions until someone knocks them off.
The Baltimore Ravens are primed to become contenders again. Coming out of the draft the Ravens have only one area of real concern, the right tackle position. The Ravens got an upgrade at center, making a trade for Jeremy Zuttah with the Buccaneers. With a healthy Kelechi Osemele at guard it is up to either Ricky Wagner or undrafted free agent James Hurst to step up at right tackle. The Ravens fatal flaw in 2013 was their offensive line. In 2014 it should be greatly improved.
The Ravens signed Steve Smith in free agency. Smith will be a difference maker. Last year teams could take away Torrey Smith and the Ravens were out if options. You can’t double team both Smiths, and you can’t forget about Dennis Pitta. The Ravens look to run a lot of two tight end sets. New offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak has a track record of great running games that speaks for itself. Expect bigger and better things offensively for Baltimore.
Defensively the Ravens also have high expectations. Rookies CJ Mosley and Terrance Brooks should make an impact on day 1. Brent Urban and Timmy Jernigan add to a strong defensive line. The Ravens finished 12th in defense last year; I think they are capable of a top 10 performance in 2014.
I expect Baltimore to win the division with a record of 12-4. Joe Flacco has a legitimate offensive coordinator and a good group of weapons. He has no excuses in 2014 and he has won with less.
The Bengals have one of the best rosters in football. Despite losing defensive coordinator, Mike Zimmer, the Bengals defense is strong. They have a great group of playmakers on offense AJ Green, Giovani Bernard and Tyler Eifert just to name a few. The question is how far can Andy Dalton take them.
The Bengals were practically given their division title last season. Baltimore and Pittsburgh were dysfunctional and the Browns…well they were the Browns. If Baltimore regains the stride that won them the division title in 2011-2012 the Bengals are in trouble. Andy Dalton traditionally plays poorly. Dalton on most days would have given the Ravens the game with 2 interceptions in week 17. The 2013 Ravens were too stubbornly bad to take advantage. The Bengals are a good team that should be respected but not feared. Marvin Lewis’s club is 0-5 in the postseason for a reason. Cincinnati will go 10-6 and be a wild card team, thats my prediction.
The Cleveland Browns got a lot more interesting in the NFL Draft, getting their franchise quarterback, Johnny Manziel. The Browns probably won’t have a lot of patience and Manziel may get on the field early. Its hard to be patient after years of losing. Fans expect Manziel to save them, only time will tell if he can. Terrance West was a good draft pick for Cleveland. He adds a power running game to take pressure off the quarterback. Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron are the main weapons for Cleveland’s passing attack. The offense is the question, we know they have a good defense. I think the Browns will be competitive, they are heading in the right direction. However they are a year or two away from making some real noise.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have missed the playoffs for two consecutive seasons and could be looking at a third. They may have a special duo in Ben Roethlisberger and head coach Mike Tomlin but they do not have a special team. Roethlisberger was the only reason Pittsburgh managed 8 wins last season. The defense is not what it once was and neither are some its aging starsThe Steelers may be capable of a decent year, but they are behind Cincinatti and Baltimore.
In the end it comes down to the Ravens and the Bengals. The Ravens will take steps offensively and Joe Flacco will out duel Andy Dalton. The Ravens and Bengals meet week one. Both teams will look to make a statement in the opener.