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The AFC North was undoubtedly one of the most competitive divisions in the National Football League last season with three teams making it to the playoffs. With only the AFC West seemingly more competitive, where literally any of the four teams could win the division, expect a lot of focus this season to be on the AFC North.
Whilst both the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens remain powerhouses in the AFC, and the Cincinnati Bengals have continued to grow and improve, it is hard to see a repeat of these three teams making it to playoffs again this year due to them facing a much harder schedule than last year. That being said, anything other than at least two teams qualifying from this division seems fairly inconceivable at the moment given the relative strengths of the other AFC divisions.
Given how competitive the division will be this season, there is perhaps only one outcome which can be guaranteed at this point â€“ the Cleveland Browns will finish bottom of the division. Sorry Cleveland fans but itâ€™s an inescapable fact that the Browns are a considerable way behind their divisional rivals.
Things arenâ€™t all doom and gloom for the Browns however as they took strides in the offseason towards putting themselves into contention in the coming years. The arrivals of Trent Richardson and Brandon Weeden potentially solve their running back and quarterback issues, whilst Josh Gordon has impressed in preseason and could form a productive combination with Greg Little at the wide receiver position. Donâ€™t expect immediate results, but things are progressing in Cleveland and there is a distant light at the end of the tunnel.
The Ravens, reigning AFC North champions, will have a difficult task to retain their status, but should have enough about them to see of the challenges from the Steelers and Bengals. Baltimore have taken big steps towards reinvigorating their defense and if you look beyond defensive talismans Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, then they boast one of the youngest defenses in the NFL, expelling the belief the Ravens are an ageing defense.
The loss of Terrell Suggs for the majority of the season will be difficult to cope with as it remains to be seen whether or not top draft pick Courtney Upshaw will be able contribute to the pass rush in a similar fashion, leaving an uncharacteristic amount of pressure on the Baltimore offense. Fortunately for Ravensâ€™ fans, Flacco and the offense seem to be flourishing with their new found responsibility. Preseason isnâ€™t always the best measure of teams ability, but Flacco looked in scintillating form in the new no-huddle offense, finding targets with ease as Baltimore boast perhaps the best receiving corps in their short history.
The most intriguing battle within the division is likely going to be who grabs the second spot, and likely make it to the playoffs, the veteran Steelers or the youthful Bengals. Pittsburgh are probably current favorites, despite the losses of both James Farrior and Aaron Smith from last seasonâ€™s roster and the holdout in preseason of star wide receiver Mike Wallace. They have a wealth of veteran experience and have a track record of being able to win when adversities seem piled up against them. They have also strengthened their weakest area, the offensive line, with the additions of David DeCastro and Mike Adams in the draft, something which should be beneficial for Ben Roethlisberger and Pittsburghâ€™s passing game.
Cincinnati on the other hand have improved significantly over the offseason, specifically bolstering their offensive line and secondary with Kevin Zeitler and Dre Kirkpatrick respectively, whilst second year players Andy Dalton and A. J. Green have improved not only as individuals, but also as a combination. They were also proficient in free agency, making the most of their cap space, bringing in the likes of Terence Newman and BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
The resolution of who finishes higher, Pittsburgh or Cincinnati, will likely come down to the two matches between the sides, and as exciting as it would be to see the Bengals upset the stranglehold the Steelers and Ravens have on the AFC North, the experience that Pittsburgh have will likely be enough to see off Cincinnati. The Ravens have taken steps towards injecting youth into what was seen as an ageing team, Pittsburgh will seriously have to consider doing likewise if they are to maintain their status as an elite team and keep above Cincinnati in the AFC North hierarchy.
Image Courtesy of Â Baltimore Ravens
Phot Credit : Shawn Hubbard