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AFC North Preview: Steelers the pick to win division

We previewed the AFC North on our latest "Around The League Podcast", complete with record predictions that you can see below. Our AFC East Preview can be read right here. Some musings from the crew:

We like the Pittsburgh Steelers more than most

The Cincinnati Bengals are the AFC North's trendy team. The majority of preseason publications are taking the Bengals to win the division, with the Baltimore Ravens the next most popular pick. But we see things differently.

Three of the four ATL writers picked the Steelers to win the division. We also had immortal special guest Dave Dameshek, who picked the Bengals to win the division just like Dan Hanzus. (Dameshek had the Ravens at 9-7, his hometown Steelers at 8-8, and the Browns at 6-10.) No one picked the Ravens to repeat as division champions, much less world champions.

My reasoning for the Steelers pick is simple. They still have the best quarterback in the division -- Ben Roethlisberger -- and they were very unlucky last season losing close games. They aren't an organization that stays down for long.

It all comes back to Dalton

All five of us had the Bengals above .500, but Marc Sessler and I didn't have them making the playoffs. It all comes back to Andy Dalton.

There's a perception that Dalton is a league-average quarterback who needs to step up his play for the team to take the next step. There's also an argument to be made he's not even league average yet, supported by a good defense and an effective play-caller who works around Dalton's limitations. Dalton struggles throwing the ball deep and generally was a mess down the stretch late last season. His playoff performance against Houston is hard to forget. The pieces around him are better and the defense has a chance to dominate, but Dalton remains a concern until proven otherwise.

Transition year for Ravens

Everyone picked the Ravens to make the playoffs, Dan Hanzus excluded, but we had the Ravens as a wild-card team. I pegged them for the same record as a year ago (10-6) despite all the turnover on the roster. The Ravens' season will in part be decided by Joe Flacco retaining the gains he made during the playoffs last year.

It also will be decided by guys who barely factored or didn't factor into last year's run: Daryl Smith, Arthur Brown, Elvis Dumervil, Lardarius Webb, Terrell Suggs, Matt Elam and a tight end to be named later.

Browns defense can compete with anyone

Cleveland's pass rush has a chance to be special. There aren't many rosters that can match Ahtyba Rubin, Phil Taylor, Paul Kruger, Desmond Bryant, Barkevious Mingo and Jabaal Sheard. Throw in creative new defensive coordinator Ray Horton, and this group could be among the best in the conference.

Opinions vary more widely on whether Brandon Weeden can make a huge step with Norv Turner in his hip pocket. Hanzus is driving the Weeden bandwagon, believing the Browns are going all the way to the playoffs at 9-7. That sounds a little crazy, but crazier things happen in the NFL every season.

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