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NFL 2014 preview: Bengals will take top honors in AFC North

Cincinnati Bengals are poised to finish first in the AFC North again this season
Pittsburgh Steelers can finish second in the AFC North if they overcome issues on defense

The Bengals will continue to sit on top of the AFC North, but they'll be eager to make more noise in the playoffs after last season's early exit. The Steelers will finish ahead of the Ravens and the offensively challenged Browns could find it difficult improving on last year's 4-12 mark.

The predicted order of finish:

AFC North

1. CINCINNATI
2013 | 11-5, 1st in North
Last year in playoffs | 2013

Going all the way: With Hue Jackson as offensive coordinator, the Bengals won’t be paying lip service to the running game as much as they did under Jay Gruden. That means an enhanced role for back Giovani Bernard, and less pressure on quarterback Andy Dalton and receiver A.J. Green. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins anchors a terrific front, and linebacker iVontaze Burfict is a tackling machine.

They’re doomed: Everybody’s looking to see how the Bengals will do in January, as the team is 0-5 in playoff games under Marvin Lewis. But it would be just as instructive to watch how Cincinnati performs in prime-time games and division games on the road. With Dalton playing all four quarters, the Bengals are 1-7 as visitors in the AFC North, 2-4 in prime time.

Now hear this: “The people who are the critics, they look at all of the negatives. They don’t look at all of the stuff that I’ve accomplished.” … All that matters is what everyone believes in this organization and what I believe in myself. That’s how I go about my business.” — Dalton, via the Cincinnati Enquirer.

2. PITTSBURGH
2013 | 8-8, 2nd in North
Last year in playoffs | 2011

Going all the way: Ben Roethlisberger has shown increasing efficiency in Todd Haley’s offense and was sacked only seven times in the final seven games last season. With Mike Munchak on staff, the running game should be improved with bruisers Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount bashing inside. Center Maurkice Pouncey is back after missing all but eight plays last season because of a knee injury. Rising stars on defense are end Cam Heyward and linebacker Jason Worilds.

They’re doomed: Despite being younger and quicker on defense, the Steelers haven’t proved they can stop the run. The Steelers are ultra-thin at corner. Four of Roethlisberger’s top five receivers are essentially new faces to him, the only familiar one being Antonio Brown.

Now hear this: “Hopefully I’m not one of them.” — Mike Tomlin, Steelers coach, in reference to having three fired head coaches on his staff: Haley, Munchak and Dick LeBeau.

3. BALTIMORE
2013 | 8-8, 3rd in North
Last year in playoffs | 2012

Going all the way: The run game will be a staple with Gary Kubiak as offensive coordinator. Baltimore was ranked 29th in offense last season. Steve Smith is another capable target for Joe Flacco, and Smith will finally have a quarterback with pinpoint accuracy. The offensive line is improved, although it had nowhere to go but up.

They’re doomed: The defense that once had the quintessential center fielder in Ed Reed no longer has a menacing safety patrolling the back end. (Matt Elam is better playing closer to the line of scrimmage.) Pass rushers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil are both on the wrong side of 30. Tailback Ray Rice is suspended for the first two games, critical division games against Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.

Now hear this: “I expect our offense to be a lot better. We haven’t performed up to our standards, statistically. This offense is going to be pretty tough to handle. We’ve got a lot of weapons and we’ve got a lot of tough guys. I expect us to be up there at the top of the league.” — Flacco.

4. CLEVELAND
2013 | 4-12, 4th in North
Last year in playoffs | 2002

Going all the way: Defensively, the Browns are in good shape. They were ninth in yards allowed last season, and feel they can get more pass-rush productivity from linebackers Paul Kruger and Barkevious Mingo. They have two talented press corners in Joe Haden and rookie Justin Gilbert.

They’re doomed: The jury is still out on Johnny Manziel, but his decision making hasn’t been stellar. He’s attracted the wrong kind of attention for his off-the-field antics, and losing his cool and flipping off Washington players cost him $12,000. Brian Hoyer will start as the No. 1 quarterback, but he’s coming off an ACL injury and has little experience. Browns are also minus standout receiver Josh Gordon, suspended for the season for failing a drug test.

Now hear this: “Johnny’s still the man. … Johnny being the No. 2, as you want to call it, we got arguably the best No. 2 in the NFL.” — Nate Burleson, receiver, on Manziel, to the Akron Beacon Journal.

Times staff writer Austin Knoblauch contributed to this post.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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