Along with falling from its glorious heights of recent years, the AFC North will endure even more change in this upcoming. The division's fate will not rest on the likes of a certain franchise quarterback from Pittsburgh, or a stalwart Baltimore defense. It's all about the "Red Rifle"–Cincinnati signal-caller Andy Dalton–and it could be like that for years to come.
But before fulfilling any lofty expectations, the third-year pro out of TCU must learn to utilize the best the Bengals' offense has to offer: superstar wideout A.J. Green. Despite posting mesmerizing numbers in his first two years in Cincinnati, Green's production was still hindered by his quarterback's lack of an efficient and consistent deep ball. Dalton does nearly everything else at a satisfactory rate, with an accurate touch, a proven ability to move down field, and good leadership at the quarterback position. All he has left is to refine his mechanics on deep throws, a facet he's been heavily focused on this past offseason, and if improved, could result in positive effects beyond just that on Green.
The Bengals also may now possess the most potent tight end tandem. After a falling-out in New England, the Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert duo could prove the best in the NFL. Add those towering targets to an augmented rushing attack–drafting Giovanni Bernard in the second-round was one of the best steals of the draft–and the Bengals look to have a top AFC offense.
And now, believe it or not, the strong point of this team. The Bengals D has never looked better than in 2012, ranking 6th in total defense, anchored by franchise player Geno Atkins on the defensive line. Re-signings and new additions bolster the linebacker crew, that found its leader last year in undrafted headcase Vontaze Burfict.
Cincinnati's main competitor in the AFC North is the reigning Super Bowl winners, the Baltimore Ravens. Here's my mindset going into evaluating NFL teams coming off championship years: success in general will be hard to come by, and certainly will not be repeated, as the "Super Bowl hangover" can cause the team to even miss the playoffs. I may not have the statistical reasoning to support a bold assumption like that, but I do have historical patterns and trends from the past 6 years (previous year's Super Bowl winners in bold).
2007 season: Colts lose first playoff game in the divisional round
2008 season: Giants lose first playoff game in the divisional round
2009 season: Steelers miss playoffs entirely
2010 season: Saints lose first playoff game in wild card round
2011 season: Packers lose first playoff game in the divisional round
2012 season: Giants miss playoffs entirely
Now I'm not saying we should judge future results completely based on what history has conveyed to us. It should pertain more to what will occur on the field of play–and that's where the concern arises for the Ravens (though I'm still drawing my conclusion that Baltimore fails to win its division or a playoff game from the historical effect).
Though the Ravens continue to reiterate that there was never "one guy" that served as the true heart-and-soul of the team, it's naive to think that Ray Lewis' retirement can be easily overcome by replacements; even more importantly, sustaining such a grave loss in leadership will prove even more difficult.
Beyond simply this irreplaceable linebacker position, the Ravens have seemed like a revolving door of players. Several other key linebackers have departed, as well as center Matt Birk, receiver Anquan Boldin, and safety Ed Reed. An influx of rookies and new signees must now attempt to mitigate the damages done by so many departures. So much change can never result in good for a team coming off a magical Super Bowl run, as both the coaching staff and returning players will now embark on a potentially lengthy acclimation process.
And on that subject of returning Ravens: how can Joe Flacco live up to a contract that makes him the highest-paid player in NFL history, if for nearly every non-January/February week of the last season he appeared as an average quarterback? The point is that Flacco was grossly overpaid, and with practically no chance of truly earning his money's worth, this only adds Baltimore's looming mess of problems.
Some other notes on the rest of the division's competitors:
- injuries continue to plague "Big Ben" Roethlisberger, and his offensive surroundings won't help: the Steelers are thin at wideout and at the running back position (again), and the linemen have not proven to give adequate pass protection
- a once-vaunted defense put less pressure than ever on opposing quarterbacks, contributing to the overall decrease in forced turnovers
- bottom line: the Steelers can still be a formidable squad at times, but with Roethlisberger's tentative health, a shot at the division seems out of reach
- the Browns' front office and coaching staff experienced a culture change this offseason; hiring coordinators like Norv Turner and especially Ray Horton, the Browns will likely improve
- the offense largely remains unaltered, and with Trent Richardson already having proven himself, quarterback Brandon Weeden will be expected to make a leap
- the Browns augmented their defense through the draft as well as in free agency, and have potential for an effective pass rush
- bottom line: the changes are nice sign to a grief-stricken franchise like the Browns, but it will take a few more years before they assert themselves in the AFC north
Cincinnati Bengals: 3rd seed
Baltimore Ravens: 5th seed