2013 NFL Division Predictions: AFC North (Hanson)
Here are my 2013 AFC North preseason predictions with regular-season records:
1. Baltimore Ravens (schedule): 11-5
Over the past several years, we have seen that winning a lot of regular-season games is much less important than getting hot at the right time. The Ravens are the latest example of a team coming together when it mattered the most.
After betting on himself, Joe Flacco led the Ravens to a Super Bowl win and parlayed that into a nine-figure contract and some Chicken McNuggets (or whatever a super-rich quarterback eats at McDonald's). Flacco has been solid in the regular season, but his postseason stats are simply amazing. He has a playoff win in all five years he's been in the league and has a combined 18:2 TD-to-INT ratio over the past three postseasons.
The team will rely heavily on the 1-2 punch of Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce as they traded away their leading receiver to the Super Bowl runner ups and Dennis Pitta may miss all of the season with a hip fracture. With few big-time options in the passing game, I think Torrey Smith will take the next step forward in 2013.
The team's defense will look much different, but they may actually be better with the addition of Elvis Dumervil, Arthur Brown in the draft and Lardarius Webb, one of the league's top corners, back from his ACL tear.
I have the Ravens edging out the Bengals, but as they have shown, just getting to the postseason is the key—anything can happen from there.
2. Cincinnati Bengals (schedule): 10-6
It wouldn't surprise me if the Bengals win the division. It's funny how Carson Palmer "retired" because he didn't want to play for this team.
How'd that work out for you, Carson?
In addition, they have one of the league's best defenses. They ranked sixth in the NFL in total defense (319.7 yards allowed per game) and eighth in scoring defense (20.0 points allowed per game). They were top-12 in both rushing and passing defense and finished only one sack shy league leaders Denver and St. Louis.
Even though I have them finishing second in the division, the Bengals will be a dangerous team in the playoffs.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers (schedule): 9-7
The Steelers have had a bunch of bad luck over the past few seasons when it comes to keeping their running backs and offensive linemen healthy.
Although they expected (still expect) big things out of Le'Veon Bell, their second-round pick, he will miss 6-8 weeks with a Lisfranc sprain. Fortunately, he won't need surgery and the team's bye falls within that window of team. If lucky, he will only miss four regular-season games.
With Mike Wallace now in Miami, the Steelers will need Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and rookie Markus Wheaton to step up. In addition, Ben Roethlisberger has not played in 16 games since the 2008 season.
They ranked No. 1 in total defense (275.8 YPG allowed) last year and they get a healthier version of Troy Polamalu back and they drafted Jarvis Jones, who was one of the most productive college football players last year, to replace James Harrison.
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4. Cleveland Browns (schedule): 7-9
Despite the 7-9 projection, I think the Browns are an improved team with potential to win more than seven games. Playing in the AFC North makes winning more than that an uphill battle for the club, though.
Provided he can stay healthy, the Browns will rely on a heavy dose of Trent Richardson, who may get in the ballpark of 300 carries. While he averaged a disappointing 3.6 yards per carry and failed to rush for 1,000 yards, T-Rich was the only running back in the league to rush for double-digit touchdowns and catch 50 passes.
Like their AFC North brethren, the Browns have a solid defense and Joe Haden is one of the best young cornerbacks in the league.
All of our contributors will make their division and Super Bowl picks and we will track those on this centralized predictions page.