Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Cincinnati are the best three teams in this division.
The Steelers started 2013 0-4 and by midseason they were 2-6. The Steelers finished the season on 6-2 run to end the season at 8-8.
In the offseason, the Steelers added safety Mike Mitchell from Carolina and drafted defense with their first two picks in the 2014 draft: linebacker Ryan Shazier and defensive end Stephon Tuitt.
While the team has undergone a youth movement, they still have Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback and Troy Polamalu playing safety. I think this mixture of youth and veteran talent is enough for the Steelers to return to the playoffs in 2014.
Glancing at the Steelers schedule, they only play five 2013 playoff teams. Pittsburgh opens at home against the Browns and then have a Week 2 Thursday Night encounter in Baltimore which will be an early test for these teams. Pittsburgh and Baltimore split the season series last year. The Steelers won by a field goal in Pittsburgh while the Ravens won by 2 in Baltimore.
The Steelers have a month-long stretch where they play against teams that went a combined 14-50 in 2013. After hosting the Texans on Monday Night in Week 7, the Steelers have a short week to prepare for the Colts and their second primetime meeting with the Ravens on Sunday Night in Week 9.
The Steelers have a later bye week in Week 12. Pittsburgh's final five games are hosting the Saints, at the Falcons in Week 15, home against the Chiefs, and twice against the Bengals. Week 14 is their first meeting of the season taking place in Cincinnati followed by closing out the regular season against the reigning AFC North champions at home.
The Ravens were a playoff regular from 2008 through 2012 when they won the Super Bowl. In 2013 the Ravens finished the season 8-8 and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2007. Baltimore was at 8-6 before losing their final two games by a combined score of 75-24.
Quarterback Joe Flacco set a career high in passing yards last season but set a career high in interceptions with 22. If the Ravens are to return to the playoffs, Flacco needs to cut down on the interceptions. In the offseason, the Ravens hired Gary Kubiak as their offensive coordinator.
The Ravens will be without running back Ray Rice for the first two games due to a highly publicized domestic violence incident. League commissioner Roger Goodell admitted that the suspension was too light and tweaked the league's punishment to 6 games for a first incident and a lifetime ban for a second incident.
Baltimore opens the season at home against the Bengals. In Week 4, the Panthers come to town. Former Panthers receiver Steve Smith is now a Raven and has that game circle on the calendar. Week 5 the Ravens travel to Indianapolis to play the Colts. The quarterback class of 2008 reunites in Week 7 in Baltimore as the Falcons led by Matt Ryan come to won.
After the Ravens bye week in Week 11, the Ravens travel to New Orleans for the first time since Super Bowl XLVII. This time it is time to play the hometown Saints on Monday Night Football. The Chargers are the last 2013 playoff team the Ravens play in 2014. Their last four: at Dolphins, Jaguars, at Texans, and Browns. Those games could mark a return to the playoffs for the Ravens.
Cincinnati ranked 3rd in yards allowed and tied for 5th in points allowed last season. The Bengals beat the Packers, Patriots, Chargers, and Colts as part of their 11-5 2013 campaign.
In the playoffs, the Bengals allowed 196 rushing yards and 2 touchdowns against the Chargers. Quarterback Andy Dalton threw for 334 yards and a touchdown but tossed two interceptions and completed 56.8% of his passes. The Bengals front office awarded Dalton with a six-year, $115 million contract in the offseason. Is Dalton worth this money? He has a 30-18 record as a starter but is 0-3 in the playoffs. The Bengals defense can be one of the best in the NFL but they need the offense to perform better if Cincinnati is to win their first playoff game since George Bush was president.
No, not THAT George Bush.
THIS George Bush.
(hey, don't acted shocked that I would throw in some politics in this)
For their 2013 record, the Bengals were awarded three primetime games: Week 5 at New England, Week 10 against in-state rival Cleveland, and Week 16 hosting the Broncos on Monday Night Football. Other challenges to the defense will come in Week 11 when the Bengals travel to New Orleans to face off against Drew Brees and the Saints.
Cleveland has been the center of the news world. Cleveland was awarded the 2016 Republican National Convention. LeBron James announced that he was returning to play for the hometown Cavaliers. The Indians are still in playoff contention for the MLB postseason.
And then there are the Browns.
The Browns are on their 8th head coach since the team returned to the NFL in 1999. Rob Chudzinski was fired after one season and is currently on the Chuck Pagano staff in Indianapolis. His replacement, Mike Pettine, has bounced around the NFL as an assistant coach for the last decade.
The one addition that everyone is paying attention to that was added to this team in the offseason: Johnny Manziel.
For now Manziel is not slated to start. Those duties are being handled by Brian Hoyer. The Browns have a brutal opening stretch opening at Pittsburgh and then hosting the Saints and Ravens. The bye week comes in Week 4 and is followed by at Tennessee, Pittsburgh, at Jacksonville, the Raiders, and the Buccaneers. Other notable games are at Cincinnati for the Week 10 Thursday Night game, at Atlanta in Week 12, and hosting the Colts and Bengals before closing out the season on the road in Carolina and Baltimore.
It is possible that the Browns could be flirting with .500 by Week 9. Eventually Manziel will be under center for the Browns. It is just a matter of time before Pettine makes the decision to start him.
Let's review the list of quarterbacks that have started for the Browns since their return to the NFL in 1999:
Kelly Holcomb (also last Browns quarterback to start in a playoff game)
Only one, Couch, started all 16 games in a season. That was in 2001.
That is one impressive list of draft busts, over-the-hills, and journeymen ever comprised.
This year is the 50th anniversary of the Browns 1964 NFL championship. This was the last title that any Cleveland based professional sports team has won. The Browns are nowhere near to making the playoffs and the only way the Browns win the Super Bowl is on Madden.
With the clock set on 7 minutes.
And set on the easiest play level.
I could see two teams make the playoffs out of this division. The Browns will not be one of them.