AFC North preview: Can revamped Ravens compete?

The Baltimore Ravens not only find themselves with a Super Bowl Bull’s-eye on their back but must also overcome a roster which find’s many of their heroes missing from last year’s squad.

AFC North Division

BALTIMORE RAVENS

Team Theme: THE WIZARD OF OZ

Say what you will about the retirement of future Hall of Fame LB Ray Lewis and the loss of three free agent defections in LB Dannell Ellerbe, DE Paul Kruger and S Ed Reed – GM Ozzie Newsome did not panic. Instead, he made the signing of QB Joe Flacco priority-one, then went out and signed Pro Bowl DE Elvis Dumervil before attacking the draft with a defensive makeover plan that infused the unit with playmakers and speed. Remember, this team actually allowed more yards than it gained last year, no thanks to a declining defense that slipped 73 YPG from the previous season. They will be forced to pay the price for winning last year’s Super Bowl, however, as the Ravens’ 2013 non-division opponents were 94-74 (.560) last season, 2nd most difficult schedule in the league… all while wearing a major Bull’s-eye on their back. Say what you want, this isn’t same team that won Super Bowl, but the Ravens are confident additions they made will compensate for loss of several key players and enable them to contend for division title. In closing, while lauding Lewis’ career, our favorite sports columnist, Greg Cote of the Miami Herald, insists “He was so good his statue will lead the Ravens in tackles in 2013.”  

Stat You Will Like: The Ravens are the only NFL team to make the playoffs each of the last five years.
 
PLAY ON:
vs. Green Bay (10/13) - *KEY as a dog

IN THE STATS: The Super Bowl champs held zero foes to season-low yardage last year.


CINCINNATI BENGALS


Team Theme: CATS ON THE PROWL

You knew it was coming. It was just a matter of how long it would last. As expected last year, like a bad case of the flu, a dreaded case of Sophomore Blues attacked Bengals QB Andy Dalton. To his credit, he shook it off in time to lead his charges back to the postseason for a 2nd-straight year when Cincinnati turned a 3-5 start into a 7-1 finish in 2012. A superlative draft that landed TE Tyler Eifert and RB Giovani Bernard figures to compliment Jay Gruden’s hybrid West Coast offense while taking double-teams away from star WR A.J. Green. The second-half improvement last year was keyed by a defense that allowed 12.8 PPG while totaling 31 sacks, en route to a team record 51 sacks overall. The addition of Pro Bowl LB James Harrison is like the icing on the cake. Making back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time since 1982 – and first back-to-back winning seasons in a non-strike year since 1976 – has these Cats licking their paws. Now they want to break a streak of futility in the postseason, with the last win coming in the 1990 season, tied for seventh-longest such streak in NFL history. Considering they have never reached the playoffs three years in a row, the pressure is on.

Stat You Will Like:
Andy Dalton is the only quarterback in NFL history to make the playoffs in his first two seasons while throwing for at least 20 touchdowns each year.
 
PLAY AGAINST:
as a favorite vs. Green Bay (9/22)

IN THE STATS:
The Bengals were 3-1 ‘ITS’ in non-conference games last season.


CLEVELAND BROWNS

Team Theme: CH-CH-CHANGES

Under new ownership, Toledo native Rob Chudzinski becomes the 6th head coach in 10 years for Cleveland this season. After scoring more than 20 points in only six games over two seasons, the Browns saw all they wanted to see from Pat Shurmur. Chudzinski served as Browns offensive coordinator in 2007, the last time they enjoyed a winning season. After inking Chudzinski, Cleveland immediately signed former San Diego head coach Norv Turner as its new offensive coordinator. He will implement an up-tempo attack that should benefit QB Brandon Weeden, a strong-armed shotgun passer. The addition of WR Davone Best and added production from a healthy RB Trent Richardson should provide an added boost to the offense. Meanwhile, Arizona’s fiery former DC Ray Horton will reconstruct the defense, transitioning to 3-4 with multiple attacking fronts. The best news is the Browns will take on the easiest non-division strength-of-schedule this campaign, with foes going 72-93 (.436) in 2012.  For a team that has averaged more than 11 losses per season the last five years, those changes are welcome. 

Stat You Will Like: The Browns held the Steelers to season-low yardage in each of the two meetings last year.
 
PLAY ON: vs. Baltimore (9/15)

IN THE STATS: The Browns are 19-61 ‘ITS’ in all games the last five seasons.


PITTSBURGH STEELERS


Team Theme:
SOUND THE BELL

If there is one thing you can count on year after year, it’s Santa Claus working overtime on Christmas eve – and an impregnable Steelers ‘D’. And like clockwork, Saint Nick once again delivered as promised while, behind DC Dick LeBeau, the league’s No. 1 ranked injury-marred defense held seven opponents to season-low, or 2nd-low, yards last year. And speaking of injuries, Ben Roethlisberger was enjoying a career year last season before he injured his ribs and the Steelers staggered to a 2-5 finish thereafter. One can only imagine what happens when or if Big Ben and Troy Polamalu return to health. Help starts with more options on offense and that’s where the selection of RB Le’Veon Bell in this year’s draft kick starts the new plan. OC Todd Haley insists Bell has ‘Eddie George physical traits,’ so he should become the workhorse back they’ve missed since the retirement of Jerome Bettis. LeBeau knows finding a replacement for Pro Bowl – and major head case – LB James Harrison will become a main priority but believes Jason Worilds can be the man. Remember this: Pittsburgh hasn’t endured consecutive non-winning seasons since Bill Clinton was president (1998-99).  Get the Terrible Towels out… the Steel Curtain is back.

Stat You Will Like: Teams are 37-55 SU and 32-57-3 ATS facing Mike Tomlin’s Steelers, including 12-33-2 ATS when favored.
 
PLAY ON: vs. Tennessee (9/8)

IN THE STATS: The Steelers are 53-15 ‘ITS’ in all games since 2009, including 12-4 LY.


Note: Team write-ups are excerpts from the 2013 PLAYBOOK Football Preview magazine.  Numbers following team name represent the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback.  Potential designated ‘Play On’ and ‘Play Against’ Best Bets follow each team’s preview.

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