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AFC North 2013 Preview: Baltimore Ravens Facing A Gauntlet
There is perhaps no deeper division in the NFL than the AFC North. Every team has a playoff experienced or talented young roster in place that is not far away from a playoff run. The Baltimore Ravens are the kings of the mountain at the moment, but their hold on that prize is tenuous at best. Marvin Lewis and the Cincinnati Bengals appear poised to win their first playoff game in over two decades after another successful draft back in April. Are they the only team that can stop the defending champs?
Cleveland Browns - Rob Chudzinski ready to turn Browns offense around
There was no doubt the Cleveland Browns needed to make the right coaching hire if they were ever going to break their decade-long playoff drought. A lot of people think they made the right choice. Rob Chudzinski made his biggest impact on the NFL landscape when he turned quarterback Cam Newton into a superstar as a rookie. Yet his offensive wizardry wasn't lost on Browns fans, as he had a hand in their memorable 2007 season that ended 10-6, just short of the playoffs. Much like back then his roster is similar now: young, talented but lacking direction. Together with fellow rising star, Ray Horton, coaching the defense there is a lot of optimism brewing in Cleveland. Paul Kruger and Barkevious Mingo figure to invigorate the pass rush while young corner Joe Haden continues blossoming into a possible superstar. If Chudzinski can straighten out his quarterback issues between Brandon Weeden and Jason Campbell, they have enough pieces in place to make any team in the league sweat for four quarters.
Pittsburgh Steelers - Ben Roethlisberger can't rely on the defense again
The old powerhouse tasted disappointment for the first time in years in 2012, missing the playoffs with an 8-8 record. That doesn't mean the Pittsburgh Steelers have any plans of sinking into mediocrity. Few teams have shown the ability to bounce back from bad seasons quickly quite like the Steel City. The trick has been finding different ways to win. For the past seven or so years the trademark of their success was the vaunted blitzing defense of coordinator Dick LeBeau. However, as age catches up to a number of their core players the focus has shifted to the offense and star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Finally settled into his new scheme under Todd Haley after a frustrating season a year ago, fans expect Big Ben to carry more of the load in 2013. He should have better protection as players return healthy and a re-invigorated running game keyed by rookie Le'Veon Bell. If he can get over the loss of favorite target Mike Wallace, Roethlisberger has more than enough to keep the Steelers competitive.
Cincinnati Bengals - Andy Dalton and A.J. Green aren't alone anymore
Marvin Lewis has one nagging stigma on his otherwise impressive record as head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals. He has never won a playoff game. The past two seasons he has had chances against the Houston Texans and failed both times. So Cincinnati entered the 2013 off-season with the singular goal in mind of equipping their roster to get past the first round of the playoffs. The key to that was finding more weapons on offense to compliment Pro Bowlers Andy Dalton and A.J. Green. According to draft experts they accomplished this task when they took tight end Tyler Eifert in the first round and running back Giovani Bernard in the second. These two players give the Bengals offense an element of explosiveness they lacked the past couple seasons. It has also made them closet favorites to win the division. Together with All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins and a tough defense, Cincinnati has reason to feel that confident.
Baltimore Ravens - It is the Joe Flacco show moving forward
The same question will linger with the Baltimore Ravens until the regular season ends. How will they get past the losses of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed? The two defensive giants were the faces of Baltimore football for a decade and finished their job by bringing home the franchise's second Lombardi trophy. On top of this though, the team also lost key role players like defensive end Paul Kruger and linebacker Danelle Ellerbe. GM Ozzie Newsome did a remarkable job finding replacements such as Elvis Dumervil and draft picks Matt Elam and Arthur Brown. Yet their journey to filling such big shoes is second tier to reality. Ravens football now sits squarely on the shoulders of quarterback Joe Flacco. He has the Super Bowl MVP, a new contract and a huge leadership void to fill with Lewis and Reed gone. His first Pro Bowl season would do just that. Otherwise fans might question if his success came from feeding off the guidance of two future Hall of Famers.