If the AFC North wasn't already the toughest division in the NFL, it certainly is now. The Steelers, Ravens, Bengals, and even the Browns have upgraded their rosters and have done a lot of re-shifting.
While it is obvious that the Ravens have had the best offseason, that does not necessarily mean they will win the division. However, it is safe to say that they are the clear cut favorites.
Then again this is the NFL, where anything can happen. The Steelers, and maybe even the Bengals, can easily take the division crown. I would include the Browns, but they're in rebuilding mode and I don't see them being much of a threat.
With all that being said, lets take a look at how I think the AFC North will shape out this year.
P.S. I recently did a slideshow on the top-five Big Ben clutch moments to counter all the negativity about him recently. If you want to get away from his current affairs and go back to his best moments, please read it if you haven't already.
The Browns had a surprisingly good offseason. They had a great draft, took a nice dip in free agency by acquiring quarterbacks Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace, and signed Joshua Cribbs to a new contract.
Also, in case you haven't heard, the Browns are implying a new element to their Wildcat offense. With Wallace and Cribbs both lining up in the backfield, their offense just became a bit more unpredictable, thus keeping the opponent's defense guessing.
Their secondary got some much needed help by acquiring cornerback Joe Haden with their pick in the first round. Their front seven is a mixed bag with linebacker Scott Fujita coming in from free agency and nose tackle Shaun Rogers facing a four game suspension for a concealed weapon charge.
Regardless of the positives, I don't see the Browns doing much. They are once again in rebuilding mode with the front office and at quarterback. While the changes have been good, it won't be enough for them to stay afloat in the North, especially with the upgrades the rest of the division has made. Plus they have to play the AFC East, NFC South, and their division rivals twice.
Final Record: 6-10. Miss playoffs.
Where to start with the Bengals? They surprisingly swept the division last year, were division champs, and lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Jets. This was all with a mediocre schedule.
This year they have arguably the hardest schedule in the league. They have to play their division rivals twice, the AFC East, NFC South, Colts, and the Chargers.
With that being said, I honestly can't see the Bengals finishing better than with a mediocre season, especially since most of their hardest games are away. Don't get me wrong, the Bengals have great talent on their team. It just won't be enough to get them anywhere.
Final Record 8-8. Miss playoffs.
I know I will take a lot of criticism for putting the Ravens second. I don't care. I'm ready for it. I'm putting them second for a reason that will be further explained in the next slide.
The achilles heel of the Ravens last year was their receiving corps. That is no longer the case. They upgraded big time by acquiring legitimate number one receiver Anquan Boldin from the Cardinals, and deep threat Donte Stallworth from suspension.
These two receivers give ever improving quarterback Joe Flacco better targets to throw to. Add to the fact that Ray Rice has already established himself as a game changer and the running game is still great, you're looking at an offense that will be next to unstoppable.
The defense will see mixed results this year. While I expect the front seven to be even better with the addition of run stopper Terrence Cody, it's the Ravens' secondary that will kill them this year.
Ed Reed says he's only 35% healthy and will most likely start the season on the PUP list. Starting CB Dominique Foxworth is lost for the season with a torn ACL and Ladarius Webb is coming off an ACL injury. I forsee the Ravens' secondary being like the Steelers of last year.
Final Record: 11-5. Make playoffs as 5th seed.
The Steelers have had arguably their worst offseason since their foundation. What with Big Ben's sexual affair and Santonio Holmes getting traded, things aren't looking too good for them.
Big Ben will be serving a 4-6 week suspension to start the season which leaves either Dennis Dixon or Byron Leftwich to be the starting quarterback. Sounds like a horrible upcoming season? Wrong.
The Steelers made a surprisingly big splash in free agency this year bringing back old teammates such as Larry Foote, Bryant McFadden, Antwann Randle El, and Byron Leftwich. With these choices they added much needed depth to their roster.
The defense looks to get back to its old form with Troy Polamalu and Aaron Smith returning from injuries. The offensive line got some much needed improvement with the drafting of C/OG Maurkice Pouncey. As the Steelers look to get back to a power running game, they also drafted a fullback to help open up the holes for the running backs.
Although playing their division rivals twice, the AFC East, NFC South, Raiders, and the Titans will be tough, I believe the Steelers will eventually come out on top. The Steelers thrive when they are faced with a challenge. They did it in the 2005 postseason and during the 2008 season.
All in all, the Steelers should have a decent season. They have the most prime-time games with five and most of their hard games are at home. Ben won't be gone forever and if they can get past the first four weeks 2-2 at the least, they should be fine.
Final Record; 12-4. Make the playoffs as second seed and first round bye.