The NFL is a league known for parity and toughness, two traits the AFC North possess. Not only is the most recent Super Bowl champion from the division, but all four teams have a legitimate shot to make the playoffs in 2013.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are on the decline from their heyday in the mid-to-late 2000s. The team, quarterbacked by Ben Roethlisberger, will still be a tough out, though, and looking to win the division again.
The Cleveland Browns are done being in the AFC North cellar. Behind running back Trent Richardson, the team has built a solid, young squad that looks to make 2013 their coming out party.
Despite losing many key players, the Baltimore Ravens are still NFL champions. Ray Rice, Joe Flacco and a rejuvenated defense will aim to bring back a second parade to their city. The division has been won by the Ravens for the past two years in a row and knocking them out of the top will be a difficult task.
However, it won’t be any of these three teams that will represent the AFC North in the NFL’s second season. It will instead be the upstart Cincinnati Bengals that capture the division title and the admiration by fans.
The last time the Bengals won the division was in 2009. They faced a steep downturn in 2010 as the team came in last place. Nonetheless, Cincinnati has been in the running every season since. In 2011, with a young quarterback, they finished 9-7 and made the playoffs. That was good for third with tough competition. In 2012, it was a 10-6 record and second place in the division with another playoff appearance.
It only follows that a first place finish will come in 2013. The Bengals have been progressing since 2010 and that will come to fruition next season. The fruits of their labors will be manifested in a division victory that is as sweet as they come.
Any success will come on the shoulders, and arm, of quarterback Andy Dalton. The TCU product has been on a tear since he entered the league in 2011. Consequently, the Bengals made the playoffs that year. In his rookie season, Dalton threw for 3,398 yards and 20 touchdowns with a quarterback rating of 80.4.
This past year, Dalton, and his team, improved slightly. He tossed the pigskin for 3,669 yards and 27 touchdowns. That left him with an 87.4 quarterback rating and a solid 62.3 completion percentage. The young quarterback has improved from his first season to his second and should take an even greater leap in his third year.
A huge reason for the success of Dalton has been A.J. Green, his star wide receiver. Both players were drafted in the same class and both players will play an incredibly important role in 2013. Green grabbed 65 catches for 1,057 yards and seven touchdowns in 2011. The following season, he caught 97 balls for 1,350 yards. His 11 trips to the end zone were fourth in the NFL. Green is a two-time Pro Bowler and one of the brightest young stars in the league.
As long as he and Dalton are clicking, the sky is the limit for the Bengals.
Because of those two budding stars, the offense is a strength for Cincinnati. The front office only expanded that strength by grabbing tight end Tyler Eifert in the first round of the 2013 NFL draft. Eifert was widely considered to be one of the best players at his position and should have an immediate rapport with Dalton. He will be another strong target in addition to Jermaine Gresham, Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu.
But when the offense has struggled, it has been the defense that has picked up the slack and allowed the team to win games en route to back-to-back playoff appearances.
Mike Zimmer has been an incredible defensive coordinator that is blessed with amazing talent. That talent is headlined by Geno Atkins, who has, in three short years, made himself into one of the best defensive tackles in the league. He is a two-time Pro Bowler and a First-Team All-Pro in 2012. Last season he had 39 tackles and 12.5 sacks, good for sixth in the NFL.
Joining him in the defensive trenches are Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson, two very tough players who broke out in 2012. Expect continued success from both of them next year.
However, the linebacker corps looks to be the most interesting group in Cincinnati. A struggling Rey Maualuga will be joined by the tough veteran James Harrison, an ex-Steeler. Harrison is feisty and will definitely be able to produce for the Bengals in 2013.
Another linebacker that will be able to make noise is Vontaze Burfict. The Arizona State product is entering his sophomore season in the league. If last year is any indication of future success then Burfict will be unstoppable in 2013. He notched 127 tackles last season and even grabbed a sack. Burfict was one of the better rookie linebackers and is a young player that will prove his worth in 2013.
The Bengals were seventh in stopping the pass and 12th when defending the run in 2012. They are blessed with a young defense that can only continue to improve.
With the Ravens losing many key players, the Steelers on the decline and the Browns not quite there yet, 2013 is the perfect season for the Bengals to break through and finally win the AFC North.
Baltimore will still be the toughest competition for Cincinnati, though. However, the Ravens have a .535 strength of schedule, the fifth hardest in the league. Look for Baltimore to drop a couple games and come into Cincinnati in Week 17 and lose. It won’t be easy for the Bengals, but 2013 is the perfect year to take home the AFC North.
Blessed with a combination of star power, youth explosion and veteran presence, the Bengals will be too much for the rest of the division to handle.
The team will get off to a strong start and finally pick up some important wins against their division rivals. It’s no secret that the Ravens and Steelers have ruled the division as of late, but Cincinnati has been making noise.
In 2013 that noise will finally be heard and the Bengals will win the AFC North.