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.

  • cencalsteeler

    I didn’t even have to read the article. You had me at the standings!

  • Mike.H

    Even a dummy such as myself realized with Ed Reed, Ray Lewis, Boudin gone, beating Ravens is more manageable —

    I’d double team TORREY SMITH, he’s Steelers Killer if not [ double teamed]. dude has sub 4.4 speed with per catch average in the 15-17′ range… Note: week 3 Ravens plays Ed Reed Houston. Keep your eyes peeled, Steelers fans.

  • Brendon Glad

    I’ve got it as Bengals/Steelers/Ravens/Browns
    Bengals/Steelers making playoffs. Steelers winning AFC championship. Losing SB.
    But one way or the other, OMG did I enjoy those smug Ravens (who were CONVINCED that they improved their defense by losing Lewis, Reed, Kruger, Ellerby and others)…getting treated by Peyton Manning like he was taking his children out for an Easter Egg hunt.
    Here Julius, here’s a Touchdown. Are you confident yet? No? Ok here’s another. Oh hang on Wes, I’ve got one for you over here….don’t cry Demarious…there’s a BIG one for you over here…and a BIGGER one for you RIGHT under there… God, I know it’s only one game…but I sure did enjoy it.

  • Brendon Glad

    Because I hate the Ravens. I only even liked 3 players on that team remotely. Lewis, Reed, and Rice. So the disrespect they showed to Lewis and Reed by selling the media that they were markedly improving their defense by losing those 2 guys even was enough to irritate me…and I hate that team. It’s the smugness, I guess.

  • Brendon Glad

    It’s a little dangerous that Paul Brown has drastically reduced the “selfish-scumbag-loser” element of the Bengals. Because his ability to find actual football talent is pretty dang good. I’m a bit worried about that.
    But in a one-game scenario. Ben vs. Andy. I’m still feeling very good.

  • Shannon Stephenson

    Agreed, I had argued with a Ravens fan for months about their defense and he kept saying that those guys were too old and bringing them down. Hate to see if Reed and Lewis played Thursday how bad they would have been in that case…lol

  • Shannon Stephenson

    My feeling are that even though the Browns by everyone’s account is still considered the dog(no pun intended) of the North that they may get out of the dungeon. I do not think they will but if they win 8 games it would not shock me.

  • GNG

    He was handing out Tds like an Oprah Giveaway. You get Td. You get a Td. You all get a Td.


    Before any games were played I thought it would be CIN, & PIT battling it out for the DIV with 10-6. BAL 3rd 9-7 and CLE 8-8 4th.

    After a week I feel the same way, but need to see better productivity from the OFC really quick…I’m not 100% sold that Sanders is a legit #2 WR…12 targets last week I think proves the coverage is favorable…he needs to produce more than 57 yds, or Brown will be doubled all year. A lot of people wanted Wallace out of here but without Heath…Brown, Sanders, Wheaton is not frightening anybody imo.

    CIN…best overall talent…OL just okay. Run defense didn’t hold up last week…Bears were able to salt that one away. Split.

    BAL…still enough talent to be dangerous on any given Sun., but WR/TE is a problem…DEF will be better than wk 1 for certain. Split

    CLE…I don’t think they have the right guy @ QB…decent WR core but like PIT won’t scare anyone, solid DEF will keep them in games.. Sweep