A Three Horse Race? The State Of The AFC North

By Jeremy Hritz

*Throughout the season, I will be writing a weekly article on the state of the AFC North. This is the first article in the season series.

2013 AFC North Standings

Week 1 AFC North Schedule

Week 2 AFC North Schedule

1. Bengals, 0-02. Browns, 0-0

3. Steelers, 0-0

4. Ravens, 0-1

Bengals @ Bears, 1:00 PMDolphins @ Browns, 1:00 PM

Titans @ Steelers, 1:00 PM

Broncos 49, Ravens 27

Steelers @ Bengals, 8:40 – Monday Night FootballBrowns @ Ravens, 1:00 PM

The last two seasons have not been kind to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC North, as they finished second in 2011 and third in 2012, begrudgingly taking a backseat to both the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals. After an 8-8 season, the Steelers are looking to climb their way back to the peak of the division that they used to dominate. However, reclaiming the top spot will not be a simple task, as the Ravens and Bengals are both talented clubs, and the Cleveland Browns are an emerging young team looking to improve on a 5-11 season that featured some gleams of promise.

The Ravens are the defending Super Bowl champions and now have a more confident Joe Flacco at quarterback after his stellar postseason MVP play. And while there was a mass exodus on defense, losing the likes of Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Paul Kruger, and Bernard Pollard, Ozzie Newsome and company replenished the cupboard by bringing in reputable replacements.

Dennis Pitta has been lost for what may be the entire season, and Anquan Boldin is now playing for the other Harbaugh, hindering the quality of Flacco’s receiving corps. They do, however, still have Ray Rice, who is difficult to tackle, but whether or not they feed him the ball consistently remains to be seen.

If the Ravens first contest against the Broncos says anything, it is that it will take some time for the new players on defense to coalesce, as they surrendered 510 yards and seven touchdown passes from Peyton Manning. While it would be nice to believe that this type of performance will be a trademark of the Ravens defense this year, they more than likely will improve as they continue play.

Unfortunately, for the Ravens, they suffered another gut shot to their group of pass catchers, as Jacoby Jones injured his MCL and will be out until October.

Are these early signs of the Ravens demise?

The Bengals are loaded with talent, both offensively and defensively, highlighted on offense by wide receiver A.J. Green and on defense by defensive tackle, Geno Atkins. Throw in the additions of rookies Giovani Bernard at running back and Tyler Eifert at tight end, and some of the pressure may be alleviated from third year quarterback Andy Dalton.

Some believe that the Bengals have the best defense in the NFL, and possibly the best defensive player in Atkins. At the conclusions of last season, the Bengals were ranked sixth overall defensively in yards given up, punishing quarterbacks by sacking them 51 times, and recording 30 total turnovers. With the addition of James Harrison, many feel that the defense will be even better.

Yet the biggest question mark with the Bengals will continue to be mistake-prone Dalton who has not shown that he can effectively stretch the field and takeover games. Couple that with a head coach in Marvin Lewis who just can’t seem to get his teams beyond the first round of the playoffs, and the jury is still out.

The Browns are one of the youngest teams in the NFL and have some decent talent; however, a lack of stability in terms of coaching and ownership could stifle any growth that the team made over the last two seasons.

The Browns strongest unit is the defense, highlighted by Phil Taylor, Jabaal Sheard, and Joe Hayden. Depending on his development and health, Barkevious Mingo could improve the Browns pass rush.

Offensively, running back Trent Richardson is the focal point, and if he can stay healthy, he makes the running game a force. Beyond Richardson though, the old-second year quarterback Brandon Weedon is still an uncertainty, and his receiving corps is not a supremely talented group.

While the Browns may improve on their 5-11 2012 season, they don’t have enough to overcome the strength of their divisional opponents.

The AFC North will be a three team race, with either the Steelers, Ravens, or Bengals finishing atop the standings, while the Browns are still several players away from being a serious contender.

Will the rest of the AFC North get crushed in their openers like the Ravens? Or will they make a case for the strength of the division?

Sunday will soon let us know.