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NFL Pro Football 2014 AFC North Preview

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Fearless Rick's NFL Preview - AFC North

Rick Gagliano | July 17, 2014

AFC North

Cincinnati Bengals

2013 Record: 11-5

2014 Expected Finish: 12-4

QB Andy Dalton finally matured and got the pieces he needed in place for a smashing 2013 campaign, which saw the Bengals capture the division title, improve their regular season record for the third straight year and reach the playoffs for the third consecutive season.

At issue is whether the Bengals are a serious playoff contender or are in a division which is going in reverse. With both the Steelers and Ravens on the decline in 2013 - and the Browns in their usual last-place funk - the Bengals were the logical winner in the North, but they've lost three straight years in their opening playoff game, last season falling in undistinguished manner at home to the Chargers, 27-10. The previous two seasons ended in wild card losses at Houston, 19-13 in 2012-13 and 31-10 in 2011-12.

Dalton had his best season yet as a passer, completing 61.9% for 4293 yards and 33 TDs, but 20 interceptions proved a concern. His experience and a solid offensive line, which allowed just 29 sacks (3rd) and a solid running game, led by BenJarvus Green-Ellis (aka the Law Firm) and Giovani Bernard give the Bengals a solid look.

A.J. Green leads a talented receiving corps, catching 98 balls for 1426 yards and 11 scores in 2013. Marvin Jones, Mahamed Sanu and tight ends Jermaine Gresham andTyler Eifert form an impressive group that had the Bengals at #8 in passing yards per game (258.5) in 2013. They all return.

Cincinnati's defense was among the league's best last season finishing tied for fifth in points allowed(19.1), 3rd in yards/game (305.5) tied for fifth in interceptions (20) and second league-wide in yards/attempt (5.45).

This unit should only improve with the addition of FS Daniel Manning and rookie corner, Darqueze Dannard.

Look for the Bengals to be tested early - four of their first six games are against the Ravens, Patriots, Panthers and Colts, and dominate the division. They won all eight of their home games in 2013, but lost all three divisional games on the road. If they find success away from home against division opponents, the rest of the league will take notice and the Bengals become a threat to be playing in February, 2015.


Baltimore Ravens

2013 Record: 8-8

2014 Expected Finish: 9-7

Slumping to 8-8 and missing the playoffs for the first time in ages, the Ravens seek to rebound from a 2013 season which started ugly - with a 49-27 pasting at Denver - and finished uglier, losing their final two games to New England, 41-7 and AFC North champion, Cincinnati, 34-17.

The Ravens had been within playoff striking distance prior to the season-ending debacle, winning four straight to get to 8-6, before the defense completely imploded and the pressure got to QB Joe Flacco and the offense.

Primarily, defensive problems came as a result of an offense which struggled to 25th overall, scoring just 20.0 points per game, well below the league average. Ray Rice struggled from early on in the running game and Flacco, just a year out from being named Super Bowl MVP, had trouble finding receivers and keeping drives alive.

The Ravens were pitiful in the running game, finishing dead last in yards per carry (3.14) and 30th in rushing yards per game (83.0). Rice will need help from his offensive line and better productions from backups Bernard Pierce and newcomer Justin Forsett, who should add some punch to the backfield.

Steve Smith may be the solution at one receiver position, with big-play capable, Torrey Smith on the other side and Dennis Pitta at tight end.

The defense was ranked 12th overall, so the dismal 2013 campaign cannot be put upon their shoulders, though they could improve their pass rush, with the addition of rookies Timmy Jernigan (DT) and C.J. Mosely (LB). Terrell Suggs needs some help up front.

The secondary is sound, though unspectacular. They managed to hold opponents to a completion rate of just 56.9%, third-best in the league.

If Baltimore's offense can improve, the defense will be even better and the Ravens could rebound to challenge Cincinnati for the top spot in the North.


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Cleveland Browns

2013 Record: 4-12

2014 Expected Finish: 7-9

Futility has been the mantle of the Browns for as long as nearly anyone can remember. They completed the 2013 campaign with a 4-12 mark, the sixth straight season they were either 5-11 or 4-12.

That led to coaching changes, brining in first-year head coach Mike Pettine, who brought along offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and offensive line coach Andy Moeller.

What has the staff and fans excited is a potentially-bright future with college sensation Johnny Manziel drafted in the first round at quarterback. Manziel has a huge upside if he can stay healthy and avoid trying to do too much by himself. Rookie QBs have flourished of late, and Manziel will certainly add a spark to a Browns offense that finished last season 27th in points scored (19.3) and 17th in yards per game, at 339.4.

The questions are whether Miles Austin - acquired from the Cowboys via free agency - can become Manziel's go-to guy (replacing the departed Josh Gordon) on passing downs and how much read-option Pettine and Shanahan work into the Cleveland attack. Downhill runner, Ben Tate, seems a good fit as a #1 back, with rookie Isaiah Crowell poised to be the backup.

Cleveland's defense will be improved with the additions of safety Donte Whitner and LB Karlos Dansby, both smart, experienced veterans. They join a group that was 23rd in points allowed (25.4) in 2013, but respectable in most other categories, including 3rd in yards per play (4.80) and eighth in passing yards per game allowed (221.1).

The defense struggled with too much time on the field and too many short fields in 2013, when the Browns had a turnover margin of -8. If Manziel can prove himself and play some possession football - a big question mark - the Browns may finally be on the road to success, but it may be a long, long road.

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Pittsburgh Steelers

2013 Record: 8-8

2014 Expected Finish: 6-10

For the second straight season, the once-playoff-perennial Steelers, finished the season early at 8-8 and look to regroup and retool.

Injuries, especially the season-ender to center Maurkice Pouncey in Week 1, were a bane to Pittsburgh's success, but the team has been going in reverse since the 2010-11 season which ended in a loss to the Packers, 31-25. In the ensuing three years, they've reached the playoffs just one time, in 2011-12. If they can't get to the playoffs again this year, it could mark the end of the road for head coach Mike Tomlin, who has made changes to his staff, but hasn't done enough via the draft or free agency to bring in quality talent.

Big Ben Roethlisberger still has the arm and the quality to lead at the QB position. He threw for 4261 yards, 28 TDs and just 14 picks in 2013, but lacking a consistent running game really hurt Pittsburgh. They finished tied for 27th at an anemic 86.4 yards per carry. LeVeon Bell got most of the touches last season, and will again in 2014, and the addition of bruising LeGarrette Blount has to help, but it probably won't be enough to carry Pittsburgh into the playoffs.

On defense, the Steelers were middle-of-the-pack in 2013, but they were horrible against running teams, finishing the season 21st in both rushing yards per game (115.6) and yards per rush (4.27). The secondary is adequate, but more beef is needed up front for the Steelers to find success and they haven't made the moves to accomplish that.

2014 could be the first losing season in Pittsburgh in quite some time, a finish that will have fans and the front office looking for new ideas.

Copyright 2014, 2015, Rick Gagliano, Downtown Magazine. All rights reserved. Downtown Magazine is located in the Uinted States of America and is not affiliated with the National Football League or the NCAA. For more information, contact us here. Use of this site is for entertainment purposes only.

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