AFC North Preview
COMPETITIVE AFC NORTH UP FOR GRABS, AS OHIO TEAMS CHASE DOWN BALTIMORE, PITTSBURGH
The Baltimore Ravens didn't exactly look like world beaters through most of the 2012 NFL season. But, then they became WORLD CHAMPIONS by peaking at exactly the right time in the playoffs and Super Bowl. The Pittsburgh Steelers, who host the NY Giants Saturday Night in a Preseason game that will be nationally televised by the NFL Network, have proven they have the talent to do the same thing. That being said, both of those teams may be taking steps backward in 2013 while Ohio teams Cincinnati and Cleveland are very enthusiastic about moving forward. This could be a great year in the NFC North!
Baltimore is King of the Mountain, but lost a lot of talent in the offseason and is far from a sure thing to even return to the playoffs, let alone the Super Bowl. Can Joe Flacco shine over a full 16-game slate?
Pittsburgh is watching the Ben Roethlisberger era fade away because he can't stay healthy and the defense stopped forcing turnovers. Big Ben will always have the Steelers in the discussion. Can they be truly relevant again?
Cincinnati is a young team led by a young quarterback in Andy Dalton who is still early in his learning curve. They don't plan to take any steps backward.
Cleveland has a new head coach, an experienced backup quarterback in Jason Campbell who's ready to take over if Brandon Weeden can't do the job, and a positive attitude that things are finally moving in the right direction. The Browns played with enthusiasm in their exhibition opener against the St. Louis Rams Thursday Night. Of course, you can say the same thing about Baltimore (who crushed Tampa Bay) and Cincinnati (who blew past Atlanta in the ESPN game). Your move Pittsburgh!
2012 AFC North Standings (turnover differential/strength of schedule)
Baltimore: 10-6 (+9 turnovers, #13 schedule)
Cincinnati: 10-6 (+4 turnovers, #25 schedule)
Pittsburgh: 8-8 (-10 turnovers, #29 schedule)
Cleveland: 5-11 (+3 turnovers, #18 schedule)
Baltimore was the rare AFC team that played a reasonable schedule last year. That was a hidden weapon in their arsenal once the playoffs started, as they were MUCH more battle tested than Denver or New England. Cincinnati made the playoffs too, but didn't impress. They probably weren't really a "playoff caliber" team in 2012. The improvement of youth could get them to that level this year. Pittsburgh's horrible turnover differential against a very weak schedule was a serious problem. They MUST start getting more takeaways...and they've got to figure out a way to encourage Big Ben to stop taking so much punishment in the pocket. He can't afford to be hobbled all year.
Pittsburgh: 5.2 on offense, 4.6 on defense
Cincinnati: 5.2 on offense, 4.9 on defense
Baltimore: 5.4 on offense, 5.2 on defense
Cleveland: 5.0 on offense, 5.3 on defense
No surprises there...as Pittsburgh should outgain a soft schedule. Cincinnati would probably have been about break-even vs. an average schedule. Baltimore didn't find it's best form until after this measured sample was over with. Good news for Cleveland fans...they're not really that far off the pace in this stat combo. Smart coaching and more effective QB play could push them up to the mid 5's on offense. Will the new coach fix the defense?
2012 Third Down Conversions
Pittsburgh: 42% on offense, 35% on defense
Baltimore: 37% on offense, 36% on defense
Cincinnati: 34% on offense, 36% on defense
Cleveland: 31% on offense, 38% on defense
Wow, those offenses tell a story. Pittsburgh had an experienced QB. Baltimore had a disappointment at QB until Flacco caught fire in the playoffs. Cincinnati had inexperience at QB. Cleveland had a rookie at QB! We're always encouraging you to study this stat. It's a great indicator for QB play, QB intelligence, and coaching caliber. Baltimore's struggles on third downs were a huge minus considering their QB and coach!
2013 Projected Win Totals in Las Vegas
Pittsburgh: 9.5 wins
Baltimore: 8.5 wins
Cincinnati: 8.5 wins
Cleveland: 6 wins
You could pick any one of those and be enthusiastic about the Over. We all know football doesn't work out that way. Somebody's going to get riddled with injuries. Somebody's going to have bad luck in close games. One team may have everything go exactly right for them on the way to 12 or 13 wins. Right now...it's a very competitive group. Cleveland may no longer be a doormat, which takes away two relatively automatic wins from everyone else. The early season indicators suggest the North will be the best division in the AFC.
We'll finish off our divisional previews from the AFC Sunday with the AFC South. That will get you ready for Indianapolis vs. Buffalo in this week's exhibition finale. Will Andrew Luck be returning to the playoffs? Is Houston ready to step up and compete for the Super Bowl? Plenty to discuss in that report.
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