AFC North: 2013 NFL season predictions

Bengals season prediction: 10-6

August, 28, 2013
8/28/13
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The Cincinnati Bengals will make history this year. Not Super Bowl history, but an unprecedented team accomplishment. The Bengals will solidify themselves as one of the best young teams in the NFL by going to the playoffs for a third straight year, something that's never been accomplished for a franchise that dates back to 1968.

The Cincinnati defense is championship caliber. The front four ranks among the best in the league, and this is backed by two ferocious hitters in linebackers Vontaze Burfict and James Harrison. On paper, this is the best defense in the division, and quite possibly the entire NFL. Based solely on the defense, the Bengals will earn a wild-card spot and advance to the divisional round.

Why aren't the Bengals predicted to go further? I have my doubts about quarterback Andy Dalton. The Bengals have put together an impressive supporting cast around him, which is headlined by wide receiver A.J. Green. And the top two draft picks, tight end Tyler Eifert and running back Giovani Bernard, add more playmakers to the offense. But Dalton has a history of not producing in critical situations, whether it's third downs or in the playoffs. This is why the Bengals still rank behind the Ravens in the division and will be one win-and-done in this year's playoffs.

Predicted finish in AFC North: Second

Steelers season prediction: 9-7

August, 28, 2013
8/28/13
10:15
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The six Lombardi trophies that line the front of the library at the Steelers’ practice facility offer the strongest statement that 8-8 is simply not acceptable in Pittsburgh.

The Steelers slipped to mediocrity in 2012 and it is fair to ask whether they will be good enough to be even an eight-win team this season. That is how many questions the Steelers are facing after missing the playoffs for only the second time in Mike Tomlin’s six years as head coach.

The offense could be better in Todd Haley’s second season as coordinator as he and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger have a better rapport and understanding of one another.

But a young offensive line must keep Big Ben upright and create enough running room for an underwhelming group of running backs. The Steelers will open the season without injured tight end Heath Miller, putting more pressure on wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders to emerge opposite Antonio Brown.

A defense that has allowed the fewest yards in the NFL the past two seasons must put more pressure on the quarterback and create more turnovers. Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu staying healthy would go a long way toward the Steelers improving in both areas.

Predicted finish in AFC North: third

Ravens season prediction: 11-5

August, 28, 2013
8/28/13
10:15
AM ET
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This is the most popular prediction for the defending Super Bowl champions this year: The Baltimore Ravens will not reach the playoffs after losing Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Anquan Boldin. But that is focusing on what the Ravens have lost and not what they have added. The Ravens are not a rebuilding team. They are still very much a playoff team. Other than Boldin, you can make the argument that Ravens have either adequately filled all of their voids or improved in those spots from last season.

The defense, which ranked 17th last season, upgraded its pass rush with Elvis Dumervil and its front seven with defensive lineman Chris Canty and inside linebacker Daryl Smith. There are more concerns with the offense, especially after losing tight end Dennis Pitta to a dislocated hip. Baltimore, though, still has quarterback Joe Flacco and playmakers such as running back Ray Rice and wide receiver Torrey Smith.

The Ravens have been the surest bet when it comes to the playoffs. No other team has been to the postseason the past five seasons, and the Ravens have done enough this offseason to keep them as the favorites to win a third straight AFC North title. It is difficult to imagine the Ravens capturing the same magic from last season's playoff run, but they are talented and experienced enough to reach the AFC Championship Game again.

Predicted finish in AFC North: First

Browns season prediction: 6-10

August, 28, 2013
8/28/13
10:15
AM ET

The Cleveland Browns will end up being the most improved team in the AFC North and will still finish in last place. That's how tough this division has become. The goal would be to reach .500, but there's still too many holes on this team for the Browns to achieve that. This has the look of a sixth straight double-digit-loss season, even though this team will be better than the previous ones.

The offense will be more explosive under coordinator Norv Turner, and Trent Richardson can be a top-five running back if he remains healthy. On defense, the Browns invested $35 million in guaranteed money in linebacker Paul Kruger and defensive lineman Desmond Bryant in free agency and used the No. 6 overall pick on pass-rusher Barkevious Mingo. There's no doubt that the Browns will be more disruptive on defense.

But despite salary-cap room, the Browns didn't significantly upgrade at cornerback, free safety, inside linebacker, guard or fullback. As one team official told me, you can't expect the Browns to fix all of their problems in one offseason. This franchise is at least one more year away from challenging the likes of the Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers.

Predicted finish in AFC North: Fourth

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