Cincinnati Bengals- Since drafting superstar receiver AJ Green and quarterback Andy Dalton in the 2011 draft the Bengals have become relevant in a division long dominated by the Steelers and Ravens. Since the duo became the focal points of the offense Cincinnati has won nineteen regular season games in two years but twice been out in the first round of the playoffs at Houston. The first year they were just happy to have made the playoffs, last season a little disappointed by not going one better but this year they must make a deep run at the playoffs and there is even encouragement to believe they can contend for the AFC Championship. The AFC North will again be brutal, the superbowl winning Ravens and the Steelers just two seasons removed from a superbowl appearance and five since last winning it all make Cincinnati’s job tough but their roster now looks the best in the division and with continuity throughout the organisation they look ready to assert.
Offensively all eleven starters return and the Bengals added skill players in both of the first two rounds to further add to Dalton’s arsenal. Dalton himself is probably the biggest question mark next to the Bengals as serious contenders. He has struggled in his two postseason appearances to date and compared to the elite quarterbacks in the league he doesn’t measure up well. Prolific at Collegiate level, Dalton was a pretty polished player when he entered the league but the question now is has he any upside or is he already as good as he can become. Dalton’s strengths are his accuracy, decision making and football IQ. His weaknesses are lack of arm strength and lack of athleticism, essentially he is a pocket passer who excels in the short to intermediate passing game but struggles to stretch the field, the worry for the Bengals is that the quarterbacks who usually play for championships excel in their ability to make deep throws. Daltons’s favourite target is AJ Green, fast emerging as a serious contender to Calvin Johnson as the best wide receiver in the league. Green is unstoppable matched up one on one and wins more than his share when double teamed, at 6 foot 4 with amongst the best hands in the league he is a defensive coordinators nightmare. Opposite him is likely to be Mohammed Sanu another tall receiver who the Bengals need to step up in his second year, he has reportedly impressed in the offseason. Undersized Andrew Hawkins and another second year receiver Marvin Jones will also see plenty of playing time and look booked for the third and fourth receiver slots. Tight end Jermaine Gresham is the Bengals second best receiver but dropped too many passes last year, first round draft choice Tyler Eifert will pressurise Gresham and both should see plenty of playing time in two tight end sets, having two 6 foot 5 plus tight ends who can run on the field will give defensive coordinators fits. The running game will again see the law firm BenJarvus Green-Ellis get the start, he quietly had a 1000 yards rushing last year but his power style should be complemented by rookie Giovanni Bernard. The undersized Bernard is the lightning rod rusher, receiver and returner that the Bengals have been searching for. The offensive line of the Bengals whilst largely unheralded is solid and has experienced players throughout the depth chart.
The sixth best defense in the NFL in 2012 and the one with the third most sacks is largely down to one of if not the best defensive lines in football. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins is an elite player, maybe the best in the league at his position and he alone wreaks havoc, his combination of power and quickness is too much for overmatched offensive linemen and the only hope is to double team him. Ends Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson are both gifted athletes who thrive on the one on one rushing situations Atkins creates. Man Mountain Domata Peko rounds out the starters whilst Devon Stlll, Robert Geathers and Wallace Gilberry add quality depth. Signing free agent James Harrison from the Steelers brings a man with two Superbowl rings to the defense, Harrison a nasty hard hitting player brings a bad attitude with him. He was poor last year by his own standards but will have a chip on his shoulder after release, particularly with those two Steelers clashes surely paramount to him. Rey Maualuga and Vontaze Burfict complete the linebacking starters, the worry is that none are great in coverage and teams could find joy throwing to running backs coming out of the backfield and using multiple tight ends also. At corner, veteran Leon Hall is one of the better and more underrated corners around. Opposite him, former Cowboy Terence Newman and Dre Kirkpatrick, last year’s first round pick who had an injury plagued rookie season will battle for the starting job; the Bengals will hope the younger Kirkpatrick can win it. Adam ‘Pacman’ Jones has behaved himself in Cincinnati and is an excellent slot corner. Reggie Nelson is the team’s best safety but opposite him athletic but disappointing Taylor Mays will have a fight on his hand with third round draft choice Shawn Williams likely to contend for his job. This looks set to again be a top 10 defense behind its dominant line.
2013 Predicted wins– 10-11
Playoff Prediction– A third straight playoff appearance looks likely which in itself is an achievement for the Bengals but this year they must win at least one playoff game and I believe they will.
Baltimore Ravens- The Superbowl champions have the daunting task of trying to repeat last year’s success, the loss of key starters, including a couple of future hall of famers makes things even harder. Head Coach John Harbaugh is an astonishing 54 wins 26 losses and five straight playoff appearances since taking the helm plus of course now a Superbowl ring. Harbaugh and assistants Jim Caldwell and Dean Pees will again expect a deep playoff run but they only beat the Bengals to the AFC North title last year on tiebreakers so they can’t get ahead of themselves, especially with the Steelers never far away either.
Key to the offense are two men, quarterback Joe Flacco and wide receiver Torrey Smith. Flacco took the next step in an inspired playoff run last year, his eleven touchdowns with no interceptions was one of the finest playoff runs by any quarterback in postseason history. The question mark now is can the strong armed Flacco produce at that level consistently in the regular season to become an elite Quarterback, the Ravens need him to. After starter Anquan Boldin departed to Superbowl runners up San Francisco and tight end Dennis Pitta got a serious hip injury the need for Smith to step up was magnified. Not that Smith hasn’t been a success in his first two seasons in the league but he has been predominantly a deep threat and will need to be more of an all round receiver in 2013. Opposite him Jacoby Jones should get the start after his special teams heroics of 2012, particularly in the Superbowl. Tanden Doss looks best of the rest but there isn’t great depth at the wide receiver position. Pitta’s injury is untimely as he ascended to become a top 10 tight end last year; his replacement is experienced Ed Dickson, a solid blocker but not the receiving threat of Pitta. Running back Ray Rice is one of the league’s best and hardiest players, he hasn’t missed a game in four years and has over 1000 yards rushing in each, a further 2500 yards receiving in that spell shows his value and quality. Backup Bernard Pierce is a bigger, power runner who impressed in his rookie season while fullback Vonta Leach is the league’s best. Four of five offensive linemen return with retired center Matt Birk to be replaced by Gino Gradkowski. The rest of the unit have shuffled around a bit but found their best positions and overall this is now a solid line. The Ravens ranked 16th overall in 2012 and look set to be in a similar position in 2013.
Traditionally the Ravens defense has been one of the most feared in the league but in 2012 they didn’t strike fear into anyone in the regular season but by contrast were much better in the playoffs. The major talking point on the Ravens defense is losing both Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. The inspirational Lewis retired while the playmaking Reed moved onto Houston. The defensive line again look a strong unit, all-pro end Haloti Ngata is the key man, his bulldozing style wreaks havoc on offenses but injuries have been an issue in recent years. Improving fourth year man Arthur Jones should start opposite but veteran pickups Chris Canty and Marcus Spears are both capable starters who should push him. Terrence ‘Mount’ Cody as the nickname suggests is a behemoth nose tackle but has underachieved and will be pushed by rookie Brandon Williams, if Cody loses the job he could find himself cut. The linebacking corps not only has to deal with the loss of Lewis but also improving Dannell Ellerbe who had quietly become a key member of the defense. Rookie Arthur Brown is a speedy linebacker charged with filling Lewis’s shoes and should start inside with Jameel McClain who was lost to a back injury in 2012. Their pass rushing duo of Terrell Suggs who was never 100% after preseason injury last year and former Bronco Elvis Dumervil should be one of the top outside linebacking duos in the league. Ed Reed’s place in the secondary goes to former raider Michael Huff while first round rookie Matt Elam is slated to be the starter at strong safety. Lardarius Webb is a top 10 corner but was lost to a torn ACL last year, opposite him the gifted Jimmy Smith could oust Corey Graham but both will see plenty of the field anyway. This unit has few weaknesses despite losing two future hall of famers, rookies Elam and Brown must hit the ground running but are in the right organisation to do so.
2013 Predicted wins– 9-10
Playoff Prediction– The Ravens should continue John Harbaugh’s run of making the playoffs and if doing so are dangers to all with their playoff experienced roster.
Pittsburgh Steelers- The Steelers struggled to 8-8 and missed the playoffs in 2012 but haven’t gone consecutive years without a playoff appearance since missing in 1997, 1998 and 1999, an incredible stat. On paper however they don’t look to have closed the gap on the Ravens or Bengals but will certainly compete hard for a playoff spot, their best hope may be three teams from the NFC North getting in as they did in 2011. There was a lot of change in Pittsburgh in the offseason and they are making a concerted effort to get younger but it may be a couple of years before they are ready to be Superbowl contenders once more.
In Ben Roethlisberger the Steelers still have arguably the best Quarterback in the division but weapons to a Quarterback are what wheels are to a car and Big Ben’s look substandard. Talented underachiever Mike Wallace got overpaid by Miami, the Steelers are too smart to match such deals but his departure leaves Pittsburgh thin at Receiver. Antonio Brown had a poor 2012 after a breakout 2011, he must return to top form and Emmanuel Sanders must stay healthy opposite. Journeyman Jerricho Cotchery and declining Plaxico Burress will fight for time with speedy rookie Markus Wheaton. Fan and Quarterback favourite Heath Miller is a fine all round tight end but could miss the start of the season through injury which would further hurt the passing game. Rookie Le’Veon Bell could start at tailback, with Rashard Mendenhall gone the Steelers are left with Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer and free agent acquisition LaRod Stephens-Howling but while all three should get touches Bell won’t have to be anything special to win the job. The Steelers line is an oft maligned group but with Ben Roethlisberger’s live by the sword, die by the sword style of never giving up on a play they have a thankless task at times. The 2013 unit is a young group made up of high draft picks and anchored by pro-bowl center Maurkice Pouncey, last year’s first round pick Dave DeCastro should help after missing his rookie year through injury whilst tackles Marcus Gilbert and Mike Adams should improve and certainly possess the physical tools for the job. Overall an offense that ranked 21 last year wasn’t good enough but even with the prospect of an improved line the Steelers don’t look to have improved a great deal, their best hope may be rookie Le’Veon Bell upgrading a rushing attack which ranked 26th last year.
Defensive mastermind Dick LeBeau again produced the best defense in the NFL in 2012, ranked 1st in overall defense and against the pass and second against the run it was a championship calibre unit that should have been enough to make the postseason. On the defensive line long time starting nose tackle Casey Hampton moves on, undersized Steve McLendon and second year pro Alameda Ta’amu will battle for the job, both should see playing time. Former first round picks Cameron Heyward and Ziggy Hood should start at defensive end although veteran Brett Keisel outplayed both last year so a three way battle is on, all three will get playing time. With former defensive player of the year James Harrison gone first round pick Jarvis Jones and fourth year pro Jason Worilds should compete for playing time opposite Lamarr Woodley who must step up in Harrison’s absence. Inside, Lawrence Timmons, yet another first round draft choice of the Steelers has become the replacement for James Farrior they hoped he would be and he starts next to Larry Foote, an eleven year veteran in his second stint in Pittsburgh. The secondary will hope to provide more takeaways and key to that is all-world safety Troy Polamalu who has been little more than a spectator in the last couple of years. The hard hitting, field roaming ballhawk is a big play machine but at 32 years old must prove he can stay healthy. Free safety Ryan Clark has only begun to get the credit he deserves in Polamalu’s absence; he is an excellent football player. Cornerback Ike Taylor missed most of 2012 with injury but is still a very solid cover corner, with starter Keenan Lewis departing the impressive Cortez Allen is now slated to start opposite Taylor. Returning William Gay and third year pro Curtis Brown provide depth. Once again Dick LeBeau’s unit will be one of the league’s best, getting more from the likes of Cameron Heyward, Ziggy Hood and Jason Worilds will be a priority while getting a healthy Polamalu back could transform a top defense back to the steel curtain.
2013 Predicted wins– 8-9
Playoff Prediction– Only a fool would say the Steelers can’t make the playoffs but to do so several offensive players will have to step up and the unit collectively must improve. Pittsburgh knows how to win postseason games and if playing on into January will be feared by all.
Cleveland Browns– Nobody can accuse the Browns of being mediocre since returning to the league in 1999, they have been a lot worse than that. Randy Lerner sold the team to Jimmy Haslam after last season and within months Haslam was being investigated by the FBI for fraud; typical Cleveland Luck. Former NFL network analyst Mike Lombardi is the new GM, Rob Chudzinski who has held five NFL jobs gets his first head coaching stint and former Chargers head coach Norv Turner takes the reins of the offense. So, yet again, its start again in Cleveland, ask me if they have the right men this time and in every position I will say no, for the long suffering Browns fans I hope I am wrong.
Brandon Weeden looks set for a second year as starting quarterback but will turn 30 during the season, another genius move by the Browns drafting him a year ago in the first round. A new scheme will see Weeden play more from the shotgun, he was average at best in 2012 and his age dictates that he must improve this season or the Browns may yet again be delving for that elusive franchise quarterback in the draft. Running back Trent Richardson had a solid if unspectacular debut year but he played hurt and could breakout this year, he was talked of as an elite prospect coming out of college. Receiver Josh Gordon had a nice rookie season and Greg Little is improving, free agent pickup Davone Bess looks good value and is a solid slot receiver. Jordan Cameron looks favourite to start at tight end but the jury is still out on him. The offensive line gives Weeden and Richardson a chance, left tackle Joe Thomas is the best in the business and is ably supported by experienced Alex Mack, John Greco and Shawn Lauvao inside, second year pro Mitchell Schwartz will play right tackle. The Browns ranked 25th on offense last year, for Weeden’s sake they have to do better, Richardson, Gordon and Little give them a chance to do so but this is still an offense unlikely to strike fear into opponents.
The Browns defense played better than the 23rd position that they ranked at season end but had little help from the offense. Unfortunately for a unit that fought hard to the end they are asked to go back to a 3-4 defense just two years after changing from 3-4 to 4-3, more senseless upheaval in Cleveland. That said the Browns have some strong players and emerging talent on defense, an enormous defensive line of Phil Taylor, Ahtya Rubin and Desmond Bryant should be a disruptive force whilst their linebackers are a strong group also. Jabaal Sheard will change position to become a rush linebacker, free agent pickup Paul Kruger had a career year in Baltimore and will start opposite while first round draft pick Barkevious Mingo and former Cardinal Quentin Groves are quality situational rushers. Inside, veteran D’Qwell Jackson and 2012 rookie free agent find Craig Robertson should start. At cornerback, Joe Haden is one of the league’s best and is virtually considered a shutdown corner but opposite him a battle between rookie Leon McFadden, journeyman Chris Owens and third year vet Buster Skrine is wide open, team’s will target whoever wins the job early and often. At Safety TJ Ward will start with either Eric Hagg or Tashaun Gipson. The front seven is strong and has quality depth while Joe Haden is a top tier cornerback, the key to this defense being a top 10 unit which it could be is how the other corners play and not just the starter, if the Browns can get solid play from largely unknown quantities this defense could really be a force to be reckoned with.
2013 Predicted wins– 4-5
Playoff Prediction– If absolutely every question mark was answered with a huge tick they could be thereabouts but this is Cleveland and realistically another losing season looks a formality.