The Infallible Preview of the 2014 NFL Season: AFC North

Cincinnati (12-4). No one is convinced the Andy Dalton is a savior. He claims he’s the face of the franchise but I’d most certainly argue that it’s AJ Green at this point. Giovani Bernard is set up for a big season as BenJarvus Green-Ellis will likely slow down a bit and receiver fewer touches. Tyler Eifert is likely to take the starting gig away from Jermaine Gresham unless he begins to produce the way everyone knows is possible. Marvin Jones will be looked upon to do more than catch touchdowns (though he won’t do it as much as last year). If that happens then all will be well. We already know the Bengals have a top-flight defense that is easily the deepest in the NFL at cornerback and has many capable bodies on the line.

After coming back from a 2-game suspension, Rice has a lot to prove both on and off the field.
After coming back from a 2-game suspension, Rice has a lot to prove both on and off the field.

Baltimore (11-5). After a subpar year (for their standards) in missing the playoffs for the first time in 6 years and winning the Super Bowl, the Baltimore Ravens look to get back to normal. It will start with Torrey Smith becoming the wideout we know he can be and Steve Smith becoming the slot guy that helps guide this younger group to success. Gary Kubiak’s system works and Owen Daniels works in it. Dennis Pitta has immense talent and the two tight-end sets will be interesting to see. Ray Rice will miss two games and then take back the starting job from Bernard Pierce. I’d be surprised is his year is anything other than very good. The offensive line was terrible last year but has improved some, which should help Rice average 4 yards a carry. Though Rice will make his biggest contribution as the versatile back that was a top 5 fantasy player for a few years. With a top 5 linebacking corps, a healthy group of corners, and an improved D-line, things are looking up in the Charm City.

Pittsburgh (7-9). One combination that was dangerous last year that won’t change is Ben Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown. If Le’Veon Bell can stay healthy and the O-line can block for him with some consistency, a productive season is probable. Heath Miller is healthy but getting old and there’s no real number two receiver unless you count Lance Moore or Darius Heyward-Bey (that’s a joke). The defense isn’t what is has been, but should be solid against the run. While there are big names in the secondary, none of those big names are in the prime of their careers. Troy Polamalu is a shell of his former self and has become a liability. Unlike Ed Reed who got slower as he aged, but maintained a remarkable innate ability to read offenses and make big plays even when his coverage skills were lacking, Troy has always been a big hitter and that just isn’t enough anymore.

Amidst the offseason Twitter-war of Richard Sherman and Patrick Peterson, a name that wasn't heard but should be is Joe Haden. Perhaps the best cover corner in the NFL.
Amidst the offseason Twitter-war of Richard Sherman and Patrick Peterson, a name that wasn’t heard but should be is Joe Haden. Perhaps the best cover corner in the NFL.

Cleveland (6-10). With the hoopla involving LeBron James (and soon-to-be Cavalier Kevin Love), you’d assume the Johnny Manziel talk would take a back seat. You’d be assuming wrong. Josh Gordon is also in town and likely only missing half the season. The Browns look awfully smart for keeping him now, eh? Even if Brian Hoyer is the short-term solution and the passing game is solid with Jordan Cameron, the running game is still the most important part of the offense. Ben Tate has tons of potential, but when will he finally be that guy? Good news for Cleveland fans is that Terrence West is ready and waiting if Tate doesn’t make good on the offseason contract he signed. Without pass catchers beyond Gordon, the first half of the season might just be a race to see what happens when Manziel gets to start and the two controversial figures get together on the field. With free agent Donte Whitner and first round pick Justin Gilbert join Joe Haden, this secondary looks fierce to say the least. Still, there’s just not enough help up front to pressure the quarterback and create disturbances on the run D.

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