Much will be riding on Andy Dalton in 2013. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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
( Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times / August 29, 2013 ) The insertion of Wittek at quarterback benefited Marqise Lee tremendously.
-USC comes out in the 2nd half with the clear intention to throw the ball– the opening tactic proves inefficient, after 3 passing plays, the Trojans have to punt after a three-and-out
-Kris Albarado kicks a perfect punt that lands on Hawaii's 1-yard line; the Trojan defense remains unflappable, and forces a Warrior three-and-out–the pressure from the front 7 keys the short series for Hawaii once again
-Max Wittek finally gets a shot on the Trojans' 2nd offensive series of the 2nd half; after a couple of runs by freshman Justin Davis for 5 yards, Wittek gets pulled down in the backfield on 3rd down–the passing game wasn't really given a true chance, with Wittek throwing only on a 3rd-down play, so getting sacked seems understandable for now
-the absence of cornerback Anthony Brown starts to show, as Hawaii grabs 24 yards downfield on a vertical pass; the drive ends for the Warriors soon, though–freshman Jabari Ruffin lines up on the D-line, and then pressures and knocks down Hawaii's quarterback, having a clear path into the backfield
-the offensive line continues to have its struggles, as Wittek gets sacked once again, this time on first down; while Tre Madden eclipsing the 80-yard rushing mark is promising (which he accomplishes on this drive), it proves not enough, as the Trojans fail to move the chains
-the Warriors add 2 more first downs to their total, as they begin to develop a fluency in the passing game–this comes as a result of the depleted Trojans secondary, which misses Kevin Seymour and now Anthony Brown, who left during the game
-Devon Kennard continues his fantastic game with another sack, but later commits a holding penalty that essentially nullifies his previous contribution
-after a face mask penalty on George Uko places Hawaii at the Trojans' 25 yard line, Dion Bailey snags an interception, USC's 4th for the night
-Kevin Graf started off USC's possession poorly with a false start penalty, but Max Wittek, along with the help of Justin Davis, then orchestrated the Trojans' most fluent and effective drive of the game: after consecutive 18 and 14-yard runs by the freshman Davis, Wittek completed his first pass to Marqise Lee for 16 yards, followed by a few more runs by Davis and a 17-yard throw by Wittek to Lee again
-Wittek then starts the 4th quarter–on the same drive–with another completion to Lee for 13 yards to situate the Trojans at Hawaii's 5-yard line
-although the auspicious drive down the field concludes with a Heidari field goal after Max Wittek fails to find an open Randall Telfer in the back of the end zone on 2nd down, we may have an early favorite for USC's starting quarterback job heading into the team's next game: not only did Wittek seem very comfortable throwing the ball, but he also involved USC's star threat–Marqise Lee (46 yards)–and meshed well with the running game (Davis recorded 42 yards)
-the defensive unit gets a lucky break with a no-call on clear passing interference on a downfield Hawaiian pass; the Trojan defense yields just 1 first down en route to another Warrior punt
-Wittek continues to lead the USC offense efficiently, and further develops his brewing chemistry with Marqise Lee (with another 12-yard connection to his star receiver); Davis adds another rushing explosion of 21 yards to his resume, but a costly fumble–that moves USC back 10 yards–gets him pulled from the game
-the drive ended with a punt, and while Wittek displayed less proficiency than in the Trojans' previous possession, he did supplement the offense with flashes of a potent, downfield threat–Wittek nearly converted 2 deep balls to Nelson Agholor (with one of these chances resulting in a passing interference call), an offensive facet that Kessler could not replicate earlier in the contest
-the staunch USC defense records yet another sack (7 for the game now), and after a couple of Hawaii first downs, the defense forces a punt
-the rushing attack for the Trojans has so far fulfilled their desperate need for offensive efficiency on the ground, which has become even more evident by Madden's 25-yard burst to start off what looks like USC's last series; Wittek launches another sublime deep throw, but Lee–his target–loses concentration and cannot real in the catch; one can only think that with more reps for Wittek in practice as starter, a fluency with Lee will be better cultivated
-the bruising runner Javorius Allen enters the game for SC, compiling 18 yards along with a key 1st-down conversion run; and who could be more deserving to punch it in for a touchdown than Justin Davis?–the freshman plowed in with less than one minute in the game, adding a TD score to his superb performance in this game (74 yards on 14 attempts); Davis, along with Tre Madden (109 yards on 18 carries), have made Trojan fans and even coaching staff forget about the absence of Silas Redd and D.J. Morgan
-what could have easily occurred much earlier in the game, happened in the waning seconds: the Hawaiian air attack burns the USC secondary–in this case, cornerback Devian Shelton–for a 60-yard touchdown strike