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Steelers, Bengals, Ravens make AFC North tough to predict

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In the NFL, prediction season peaks just before the real season begins. And with the 2014 campaign about to kick off, I thought I'd grapple with the toughest division to prognosticate this year: the AFC North.

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Many divisions will, of course, be hard-fought, but this is one of the only groups in the NFL that is truly too close to call, featuring three good teams (the Pittsburgh Steelers, Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens) led by three good quarterbacks (Ben Roethlisberger, Andy Dalton and Joe Flacco, respectively) that are all capable of winning the thing. Consider that over the past three campaigns, the Bengals and Ravens have won 30 regular-season games and the Steelers have won 28, and that the division has produced six playoff teams and one Super Bowl champion (the 2012 Ravens) in that span. And don't count out the Cleveland Browns, who might not be contenders in 2014 but can definitely play the role of spoiler.

The AFC North also boasts some of the most intense rivalries in the NFL, with every possible matchup promising an explosive clash fueled by years of competitive animosity. So as the Browns prepare to face the Steelers and the Bengals get ready to square off against the Ravens in Week 1, let's dive into this, the most unpredictable division in the NFL.

Note: There will, of course, ultimately be a divisional winner, and as such, I've listed the teams below according to the order in which I think they'll finish, which is consistent with the way I said things would shake out in our NFL.com predictions.

1) Pittsburgh Steelers

Outlook: I really liked Pittsburgh's draft. First-round pick Ryan Shazier (linebacker) stands out, as does speedy big-play threat Dri Archer, while second-round selection Stephon Tuitt will bring some youth to the defensive line. Second-year pro Markus Wheaton will have a breakout season that should boost the offense, although we shouldn't forget about veteran Antonio Brown, who is very capable of posting sizable gains. Le'Veon Bell -- coming off an encouraging rookie campaign -- and new addition LeGarrette Blount are exactly what the team wants at running back: Both are big, hard-hitting ball carriers, and while they might still be facing punishment for recent marijuana charges, they'll both be on the field for Week 1. Free-agent safety Mike Mitchell was an important pickup.

Biggest strength: Ben Roethlisberger. You can never ignore a team that has Big Ben, who showed his colors when he turned around Pittsburgh's 2013 season following an 0-4 start. The strong-armed signal-caller can cut through the wind with the ball when the weather gets rough in November and December. Outstanding new offensive line coach Mike Munchak should make that unit -- which allowed Roethlisberger to be sacked 42 times in 2013 -- much better.

Biggest question mark: This won't necessarily sink the Steelers, not with the addition of Mitchell and especially not with a smart coordinator like Dick LeBeau running the defensive show, but I worry about the two aging pieces in Pittsburgh's secondary. Safety Troy Polamalu (33) can still play, but he's entering his 12th season and is not the top-line stud he once was. Thirty-four-year-old cornerback Ike Taylor, who was underrated for a long time, has simply looked old. I'm more concerned about Taylor than I am about Polamalu.

2) Cincinnati Bengals

Outlook: First-round pick Darqueze Dennard fills a huge need at corner, while the return of defensive lineman Geno Atkins, who missed much of last season with a torn ACL, will be an obvious boon to the unit. Cincinnati also can rely on middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who might now be one of the best at his position. As for the offense, quarterback Andy Dalton gets piled on, but we shouldn't ignore the fact that he's steadily increased his per-season win total every year he's been in the NFL, capturing nine victories as a rookie, 10 in 2012 and 11 last season. Rookie running back Jeremy Hill will be a better fit splitting carries with Giovani Bernard than recently-cut veteran BenJarvus Green-Ellis.

Biggest strength: The Bengals have quite the complement of pass catchers, led by A.J. Green, who's racked up the third-most receiving yards in the league since Cincinnati grabbed him with the fourth overall pick in 2011. Green isn't the only talented wideout on the roster, of course; there's also Mohamed Sanu, an all-around good athlete who can do some great things in his third pro season. And don't forget about Marvin Jones, who tied for 10th in the NFL last season with 10 touchdown catches, buoyed by a four-score afternoon. Jones will miss the first few weeks of the season after injuring his foot in early August, but he still has top-notch hands. Then there's the tight ends: promising youngster Tyler Eifert and veteran Jermaine Gresham, who is in a contract year.

Biggest question mark: Cincy's ability to win in the playoffs. After three straight first-round flameouts, everyone will be wondering if the Bengals can finally advance in the postseason. The thing is, this is a better team than many people seem to think; Cincinnati operates rationally and doesn't mortgage its future. Dalton is a popular scapegoat, but I personally have the utmost respect for the fourth-year pro. He might not be a perennial Pro Bowler -- he's not Tom Brady -- but he is a strong starter who took more blame than was warranted for the most recent playoff defeat (San Diego, we must remember, ran the ball down Cincy's throat). I have plenty of faith that this group has what it takes to shake those recent playoff blues.

3) Baltimore Ravens


Around The NFL previews the regular season for all 32 teams before the opening kickoff.

AFC East
» Bills | Dolphins | Jets | Patriots
AFC North
» Bengals | Browns | Ravens | Steelers
AFC South
» Colts | Jaguars | Texans | Titans
AFC West
» Broncos | Chargers | Chiefs | Raiders
NFC East
» Cowboys | Eagles | Giants | Redskins
NFC North
» Bears | Lions | Packers | Vikings
NFC South
» Buccaneers | Falcons | Panthers | Saints
NFC West
» Cardinals | 49ers | Rams | Seahawks

Outlook: Baltimore has done a number of things to improve since finishing 8-8 and missing the playoffs in 2013, including drafting linebacker C.J. Mosley, who has a chance to be the Defensive Rookie of the Year. In fact, I expect the defense, helped by the continued emergence of corner Jimmy Smith, to give up fewer points this year. The passing game also should get a boost from the addition of offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak and veteran receiver Steve Smith. Grabbing Smith after the longtime Panther was released this offseason was a great move, as the chip on his shoulder should push him to really make an impact. He's also joining a better corps -- with big-play threat Torrey Smith, talented tight end Dennis Pitta and the solid Jacoby Jones -- than he'd been working with in Carolina of late. Acquiring Jeremy Zuttah in a trade with the Bucs will strengthen the offensive line.

Biggest strength: Kubiak's effect on Joe Flacco. The lanky quarterback is much more athletic than he looks -- think back to his three-cone time of 6.82 seconds at the NFL Scouting Combine. This trait lends itself to the play-action attack favored by Kubiak, which should be a boon to the Ravens' offense. I also expect Flacco to cut down on his interceptions after throwing a career-high 22 in 2013.

Biggest question mark: The running backs. Of course, a necessary ingredient to effective play action is a capable ground game, and Baltimore's options there might give one pause. Can veteran Ray Rice, who was suspended for the first two weeks, regain a step after his production fell off a cliff last season? What about youngster Bernard Pierce, a popular breakout candidate in 2013 who averaged an underwhelming 2.9 yards per carry last fall? Kubiak's approach has historically been conducive to running success -- remember Arian Foster's explosion onto the scene with the Texans in 2010 -- and I think Pierce has a shot to emerge in 2014. He's a solid inside runner with a good first move, and he'll get a boost from both Kubiak's scheme and a better offensive line.

4) Cleveland Browns

Outlook: The Browns will not, as I said, contend for the division crown, but they will definitely have an impact on who finishes first. Consider that in 2013, as bad as they were, they split with both the Bengals and Ravens. They might not have much of a passing game to speak of, but they're committed to the run and their defense will give opponents fits. Long story short, whoever wants to emerge from the North cannot afford to overlook Cleveland.

Biggest strength: That defense. The Browns have some pieces on D, including standout playmaker Joe Haden, who is as capable as any corner in the NFL. I also like defensive lineman Phil Taylor and second-year pro Barkevious Mingo, who could break out with a 10-sack campaign. New head coach Mike Pettine is pretty good on defense, and he'll try to keep the score low, cause turnovers and maybe steal a couple of wins.

Biggest question mark: The passing game. Quarterback is a huge issue; starter Brian Hoyer is a good backup, but I'm not sure he has enough talent to win regularly. And while I'm a Johnny Manziel fan and think the rookie eventually will become a good pro, he's not ready now. Tight end Jordan Cameron caught a lot of passes last year, but with receiver Josh Gordon suspended for the season, Cameron likely will draw more double coverage, making it much more difficult for him to thrive.

Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.

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