2013 NFL Preseason Predictions: AFC North (Woodhull)
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Here are my preseason predictions for the AFC North:
1. Cincinnati Bengals (schedule): 12-4
Any room left on the Bengals band wagon? Good thing I got my seat early (unfortunately it was year early).
Geno Atkins could be the best defensive tackle in the NFL and the Bengals added veteran and Pro Bowler James Harrison to an already stout group. They have two strong edge rushers: Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson (combined 19 sacks in 2012).
Andy Dalton is quietly one of the best young quarterbacks in the NFL and A.J. Green is already considered a premier wideout. The O-line is solid and dependable and rookie running back Giovani Bernard looks to add an element previously missing to the offense.
This team is solid all the way around and should be a favorite to make a deep playoff run this year.
2. Cleveland Browns (schedule): 9-7
Last year, I may have been the only prognosticator outside of Ohio to pick the Browns to reach .500. They came up three games short of the eight wins I predicted, but at times showed some life. They played Baltimore and Indianapolis tough and had a victory over the Steelers during a three-game win streak last in the season.
Now in what should be rebuilding year, the first with Rob Chudzinski as head coach and Norv Tuner as offensive coordinator, second-year QB Brandon Weeden has looked great through two preseason games. I expect to see more resurgence with the Browns this year – new coaching leadership can inspire players to be better. Tight end Jordan Cameron is catching a ton of attention (and balls) in the preseason for his ability to make plays. And despite the five wins last year, this team showed the talent of a better team.
Their defense is improving and will be top 10 this year. Drafting Barkevious Mingo was a terrific pick (despite the bruised lung) and Joe Haden has developed into one of the best shutdown corners in the NFL. The Browns are on the come and I expect them to surprise this year.
3. Baltimore Ravens (schedule): 9-7
I was down on the Ravens all throughout last year and felt they got a timely (if not lucky) run to the win the Super Bowl, overcoming an aging defense and a one-dimensional offense.
Post Super Bowl, this defense will look completely different. Long-time emotional leader and field general Ray Lewis is retired. The veteran and perennial Pro Bowler at safety, Ed Reed, joined the Texans. And valuable contributors, Paul Kruger and Dannell Ellerbe, were left to walk in free agency. The leadership from guys like Lewis and Reed can’t be readily replaced, but from a pure talent perspective, the defense may have improved. They stole Elvis Dumervil (due to his agent's faxing snafu) and grabbed Chris Canty in free agency who can add depth on one of the weakest positions on the defensive line.
Regardless of the overhaul, the defense will be tough this year, it’s on offense that I have my doubts. The offensive line can be porous at times and they were only average (16th in total offense) last year. This year, the two of their more reliable offensive weapons are missing: Anquan Boldin (free agency) and Dennis Pitta (injury). The offense takes a step back and the Ravens struggle to repeat last year’s success.
4. Pittsburgh Steelers (schedule): 8-8
A .500 record for the Steelers this year might be a little optimistic for a team that lost two key defensive cogs in Casey Hampton and James Harrison. Troy Polamalu has been overrated for a while, as he is a good run stopper but a liability in the passing game. There has been in-fighting between offensive coordinator Todd Haley and QB Ben Roethlisberger. Rookie running back Le'Veon Bell, seems to be injury prone, and tight end Heath Miller is trying to return from ACL surgery from the end of last year. Eight wins is going to be tough with the ragged roster this year, but the Steelers are a proud team and Mike Tomlin is a great coach.
All of our contributors will make their division and Super Bowl picks and we will track those on this centralized predictions page.