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2013 AFC North preview: Rise of the Bengals?

The Ravens and the Steelers have been playing keep away with the crown in the NFL's black-and-blue division. Can a talented young Bengals team put an end to that?

Evan Habeeb-US PRESSWIRE

While the AFC North might lack the top-tier titans of the NFC West or a glamorous team like the Packers or Pats, it boasts plenty of top-to-bottom quality. And that relative parity sets up some fascinating storylines for the 2013 season:

A Super Bowl Champion, gearing up to defend its crown as young faces step up to replace franchise icons.

A proud former title-holder, battling age and injury for one more shot at glory.

A young, up-and-coming squad looking to shatter its Wild Card ceiling and claim a place among the game’s elite.

And, last but (maybe, finally) not least, a perennial doormat that’s at long last amassing enough large, violent men to trade body blows with the division’s bully-boys.

That’s downright cinematic, there.

Defense has long been the division’s hallmark, with the Steelers and Ravens fielding lock-down units that have helped them play a two-team game of Keep-Away with the division title. But as former Defensive Players of the Year disappear from both squads, the Bengals and Browns seek to elbow their way to the head of the class. Cincy features a defensive front headlined by monster DT Geno Atkins and a back seven dotted with up-and-coming talent…as well as former Steelers’ DPOY James Harrison. For Cleveland’s part, a defensive focus in free agency and the draft gives new DC Ray Horton plenty of toys to play with, including former Raven Paul Kruger and a potential Aldon Smith Starter Kit in rookie LB Barkevious Mingo.

On the offensive side, Ben Roethlisberger has set the standard for quarterback play by a wide margin. But if Joe Flacco has truly shed the inconsistency that defined his career up until the 2012 playoffs, he may lay claim to the division’s quarterbacking crown and hang onto it for quite a while.

It’s a tightly-packed group of teams that have each seen their share of offseason upheaval. The title will likely be claimed by the offense that’s best suited to navigate what could be the toughest defensive division in the league.

Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens’ attack will feature newly-minted No. 1 wideout Torrey Smith and the all-around excellence of Ray Rice, aided and abetted by what figures to be the division’s best offensive line. Beyond those guys, however, the Baltimore O may have more questions than answers. Jacoby Jones turned in some sparkling moments in the playoffs, but from down Houston way you can hear some Texas-size snickers at the prospect of counting on Jones as a dependable asset over a full-season workload. The loss of Flacco security blanket Dennis Pitta was a major blow to the Ravens’ passing game, as tight end now offers a choice between the inconsistent (Ed Dickson) and the decrepit (Dallas Clark).

While the Ravens’ ground game should be solid with Rice and the hard-charging Bernard Pierce, there’s not a pushover front seven among the division’s defenses. Can the Ravens get it done spamming Torrey Smith in the passing game against division foes with stout shadow corners Joe Haden and Ike Taylor?

Pittsburgh Steelers

For all of Pittsburgh’s efforts to bring balance to their offense, 2013 will place another huge load on Ben Roethlisberger’s broad shoulders. The load already figured to be large, as Roethlisberger’s own security blanket – tight end Heath Miller – is slowly working his way back from a late-season ACL tear. It grew larger in April when deep ball impresario Mike Wallace took his talents to South Beach. And the load seemed to become downright crushing in late August, as the loss of rookie Le’Veon Bell to a foot sprain combined with a lackluster preseason showing from the OL cast a pall over Pittsburgh’s ground-game prospects.

Roethlisberger will absolutely wear out Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders in the passing game, and Sanders in particular could enjoy a breakout contract year if Brown draws consistent attention from Haden and Lardarius Webb. The Steelers will hope that rookie burner Markus Wheaton can cover for a depleted TE corps as a #3 option in the pass game. They’ll also hope that a full-season commitment to zone blocking will mesh with the talents of a healthy Bell and a fairly athletic offensive front. Hope #3 is that a host of drives don’t end in field goals due to a lack of red-zone weapons in the passing game and drive-blocking acumen on the ground.

But one hope above all springs eternal in the Steel City – the hope that a frequently battered Big Ben can survive for sixteen games. With everyone from Atkins and Carlos Dunlap to Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs to Paul Kruger and Barkevious Mingo coming for him, that hope is thinner than Steeler fans would like.

Cincinnati Bengals

While the division’s big names suffered losses on offense, Cincinnati may have made some substantial gains. They’ll be counting on highly-drafted rookies Tyler Eifert and Giovanni Bernard to help shift the balance of power. Eifert offers a seam-stretching target who could also thrive in the red zone, and who will provide a test for Pittsburgh’s aging safety duo as well as fellow rookie Matt Elam in Baltimore. Bernard may be even more intriguing, as he gives the Bengals a backfield receiving option to counter Ray Rice and Trent Richardson. His blend of speed and pound-for-pound power could help him wrest lead back duties from the rapidly ossifying Benjarvus Green-Ellis, and the sooner he does so the better the Bengals’ attack is likely to be.

Unfortunately for Cincinnati, there’s no way to handicap the divisional QB race that doesn’t place Andy Dalton in a distant third. That’s seldom a recipe for a division crown, no matter how strong the rest of your roster may be. Dalton is still growing as a player, and the all-around excellence of AJ Green will buttress his other weapons nicely. But the onus is still on the young redhead to take the next step forward against a trio of divisional DC’s with histories of bedeviling far more accomplished quarterbacks.

Cleveland Browns

While the Browns still have high hopes (OK, so maybe they just have ‘hopes’) for Brandon Weeden’s development, their offensive attack will center around 370 touches for Trent Richardson. Richardson has dropped a dozen pounds and gained a measure of health after an injury-plagued rookie season, and he’ll need every advantage as he takes on a robust set of run defenses. At least he won’t be going it alone this season – Rob Chudzinksi and Norv Turner’s vertical offense should feature the skills of sophomore wideout Josh Gordon and athletic TE Jordan Cameron to good advantage. And if the Browns’ OL can get healthy on the interior, they should keep Richardson and company reasonably well-insulated from defensive depradations.

The Browns’ weakness at QB, however, is even more pronounced than Cincinnati’s. Weeden has shown flashes and could find himself in an offense better suited to his skills this season, but he’s still got a long way to go. A lack of overall offensive punch could mean that Cleveland is destined to play the bridesmaid rather than the bride in 2013. But ‘bridesmaid’ is a big step up from the ‘valet guy in the chapel parking lot’ role that the Browns have been playing more or less constantly since ’99, and the bells could actually be tolling for them in the near future.

The Last Word

The most through-and-through, black-and-blue division in the NFL seldom finds itself the hotbed of offseason hype. But while other squads grab headlines, the teams of the AFC North hold a wealth of intriguing stories for 2013. And by the way, they also hold the Lombardi Trophy.

And they won’t let it go without a fight.