With the defending Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens calling it home, the AFC North remains one of the top divisions in the entire NFL. The Ravens and Steelers have always been among the top teams entering the playoffs; and last year Andy Dalton made a strong stance for why the Bengals should be mentioned in any playoff talk as well. And even though the Browns usually disappoint, there is always excitement in the air that THIS YEAR could be their year. And if this years preseason is any indication of things to come, we could all be in for a surprise. Through three-weeks of preseason football, it’s the Bengals and Browns that find themselves among the top of the standings with the Ravens, while the Steelers remain winless.
The <b>Bengals</b> have looked good in their two wins against Atlanta and Tennessee. In both games, they were just too much overall for their opponents. The huge difference between their two wins and their single loss against Dallas is the amount of points they let up. Allowing for less than 20 against The Flacons and Titans, they let up 24 to the Cowboys. Cincinnati is going to need their defense to show up every single game this year, if they have any chance to making the playoffs in one of the hardest divisions in football. All eyes are sure to be on linebacker James Harrison, as he was traded this offseason from division rival, Pittsburgh. After all, it’s never a good sign when a divisional foe is willing to let go of one of their most prolific defensive players. The Bengals hope to get at least another seasons out of Harrison, and that Andy Dalton and A.J. Green can light it up on offense.
Since the <b>Browns</b> have a hard time staying among the top of the rankings once the regular season starts, its only fair that we give them ample discussion time during the preseason. After all, they have a 2-1 record and find themselves at the top of the division standings (albeit tied with two other teams). The Browns have looked very strong at home so far this year, winning both of their games against St. Louis and Detroit. For Browns fans who were excited after the 24-6 trouncing over Detroit in week 2 at home, were probably a bit disappointed when Indianapolis opened up a favorable 27-6 whooping during week 3. What’s more concerning is week 3 is when the starters get more playing time in the preseason, and it could be more of a true indication of how the season could play out for the Browns. Brandon Weeden will have to have success in his second year as the play caller for the Browns, and you can expect Trent Richardson to get his fair share of responsibility as well.
The defending Super Bowl Champion </b>Baltimore Ravens</b> went into this preseason unlike any in the previous 16-years. This year, the Ravens defense, one that has been a trademark of hardnosed talent for nearly the last two decades, will have to prove it can still play without the services of Ray Lewis. Being the defending Super Bowl Champions puts a big enough target on your back, but losing one of your top players is even worse. Luckily, the Ravens have looked good thus far in the preseason. Their defense has been mediocre, but their offense, led by a newly paid Joe Flacco, has looked great and they’ve lit up the scoreboard in each of their first three games. Ray Rice has been among the top running backs for the last few years and he’ll need to do the same this year if the Ravens hope to continue the success they’ve had in the preseason, on their way to another Super Bowl.
The <b>Pittsburgh Steelers</b> will probably be the first to remind you that the preseason means nothing. And with a 0-3 record, they better hope that this isn’t a sign of things to come for the team this year. Pittsburgh has looked stagnant on both sides of the ball thus far, with lackluster performances on both offense and defense. Considering the fact that the Steelers have been great for so many years now, sometimes we just assume that they will remain atop their division. But with an injury prone Ben Roethlisberger, an aging Troy Polamalu, and after the departure of James Harrison, it’ll be interesting to see if the Steelers can keep it up this year. If the Steelers fail to succeed this year, we could be looking at a shakeup of the entire team this time next year.
The <b>AFC North</b> is always an entertaining division to watch. And this year should be no different, even without Ray Lewis.