I believe the AFC North is by far the best (and deepest) division in the AFC. The AFC North is the home of the Super Bowl Champion Ravens, the up and coming Bengals, the veteran Steelers and the improved Browns. Can the Ravens defend their crown? Can the Bengals take the next step? Can the Steelers keep their window open? And can the Browns turn potential into victories?
2012 Record: 10-6; 2nd Place
2013 Prediction: 11-5
Confidence in Pick: 40%
Losses: Manny Lawson, Bruce Gradkowski, Thomas Howard, Pat Simms
Pickups: James Harrison, Josh Johnson, Tyler Eifert, Giovanni Bernard
Reasons for Optimism:
Andy Dalton – Say what you want about Dalton, but only 3 QBs in the history of the NFL have thrown for 20+ TDs in each of their first 2 seasons, Marino, Peyton Manning, and Andy Dalton. That is amazing company. Dalton, in his first two years has also done something no Bengals QB has done since Kenny Anderson, and that is lead the Bengals to back-to-back playoff appearances. That’s not to say I don’t have my concerns about Dalton (I most certainly do), but let those facts sink in. With the exception of INTs, Dalton improved in every major category in his second year, and did so without having a #2 receiver. If Dalton threw for 27 TDs with no #2 and little from the run game in 2012, I don’t think 30+ TDs is out of the question given the weapons he will have in 2013.
Receivers – AJ Green is hands down a top 5 WR and now he has some legit receivers to help him out. Green, Sanu, Gresham and Eifert can cause matchup nightmares for any defense, especially when you throw in the receiving threat out of the backfield in Giovanni Bernard. This Bengals offense should be fun to watch and even tougher to stop.
Improved Running Game – BJGE was a solid back in 2012 (1,094 yards and 6 TDs), but he offered little in the passing game (22 catches for 104 yards) and defenses did not have to worry about the big play. Now, with the addition of Bernard, the Bengals have a RB that can catch coming out of the backfield and can also offer the proverbial “homerun threat” every time he touches the ball. BJGE and Bernard should make up a very dynamic backfield in 2013 and make the Bengals offense very difficult one to stop.
Defense – The #6 defense in the NFL in 2012, the Bengals forced 30 turnovers and were 3rd in the league with 51 sacks….and they should be better in 2013. In the offseason, the Bengals added James Harrison to their already potent pass rush, get a more experienced Vontaze Burfict, and get back a 1st round CB (Kirkpatrick). This will be a top 5 defense and possibly the top overall defense.
Experienced Youth – The Bengals have the 12th youngest team in the NFL with an average age of just under 26 (25.91), yet, with back-to-back playoff appearances, almost all of their players have playoff experience. There are only 3 teams younger than the Bengals with playoff experience (Seattle, GB, NE).