Divisional breakdown: AFC North
How they’ll finish: Ravens, Bengals, Steelers, Browns
Best rookie class
This division is loaded with rookies expected to make a huge impact. Start with the Ravens, who may start two rookies on defense – safety Matt Elam, and linebacker Arthur Brown. The Browns are counting on rookie linebacker Barkevious Mingo, the No. 6 pick overall, to become an elite pass rusher. Rookie running back Le’Veon Bell could be the featured back for the Steelers. And while the Bengals drafted tight end Tyler Eifert in the first round, more attention is being focused on second-round running back Giovani Bernard. The Bengals believe Bernard can be similar to Ray Rice of the Ravens – dangerous as both a runner and a receiver.
Best set of defenses
Name another division in the AFC with four defenses this good. The Steelers ranked No. 1 overall in the NFL last season, while the Bengals ranked No. 6. With the additions of Elvis Dumervil, Michael Huff, Chris Canty Marcus Spears, Daryl Smith, Elam and Brown, the Ravens believe they are deeper and better defensively. And while the Browns may have trouble scoring, their defense is legit.
Biggest question: Are the Steelers still contenders?
The Steelers haven’t missed the playoffs two years in a row since the 90’s, when they had a three-year drought from 1998-2000. Was last year (8-8) an aberration, or the beginning of a decline? Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said he feels younger after offseason knee surgery, and was motivated by watching the rival Ravens win the Super Bowl. But the Steelers must prove they are better than the third-best team in this division.
Biggest question No. 2: Can the Bengals be more than a wild card?
The past two seasons have ended the same way for the Bengals – make the playoffs, lose in the first round. In 2013, the Bengals expect more, like a division title. Andy Dalton has another year of experience as a starting quarterback, A. J. Green is one of the NFL’s best wide receivers, and the Bengals’ defense is solid. This division could come down to Week 17 – Ravens at Bengals, Dec. 29.