May 10, 2013; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals first round draft pick tight end Tyler Eifert (85) runs off the field during the Bengals rookie minicamp at Paul Brown Stadium. Credit: David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

Division Predictions: AFC North

Each week, Rishi Pochiraju will predict the placement of teams in an NFL division. Up first: the AFC North.

The AFC North features a load of defensive talent. Although Ray Lewis is gone, James Harrison is still in the division, just with a different team. The Ravens defense may not be the defense of old, but they are still, well, the Ravens. Even the Browns defense is above average, featuring star cornerback Joe Haden. Cincinnati has built through the draft and has constructed a complete team with a solid defense, and Pittsburgh is always expected to deliver with Dick LeBeau returning as defensive coordinator.

Yes, I am aware of the fact that Baltimore won the Super Bowl. However, I don’t like them to repeat as AFC North champions for a number of reasons. They would not have won the division if Ray Rice did not magically convert that 4th and 29 – Cincinnati would have. The Bengals have drafted well over the last few years, and I believe that they are set for a great 2013 season.

Without further ado…

1st Place:  Cincinnati Bengals

Cincy’s front office has drafted with extreme precision over the last three years. A first round pick of the team in 2011, A.J. Green has made the Pro Bowl in his first two seasons and has the potential to become the best receiver in the league. Andy Dalton was a second-round gem who also burst onto the scene in 2011.

In the 2012 draft, the Bengals struck gold again in the first round with the selections of Kevin Zeitler and Dre Kirkpatrick. They also found a solid receiver in the third round in Mohamed Sanu who could line up opposite of A.J. Green.

No matter what the critics say about Andy Dalton, I believe he is already a solid starter. Adding Tyler Eifert certainly helps, and A.J. Green will produce as always. Dalton is surrounded with a plethora of weapons and should have no difficulty stretching the field and putting up points.

Geno Atkins is one of the most underrated defensive players in the league on a solid defense who will play well yet again this season. Cincy’s defense may be the deciding factor that can make or break their season. After all, defense does win championships.

I have analyzed Cincinnati’s schedule, and it compares favorably to the schedule of Baltimore. Baltimore’s strength of schedule is greater than Cincinnati’s. Cincinnati should win at least one out of the two games during the regular season against both Baltimore and Pittsburgh, as they did in 2012.

I believe Cincinnati will take the crown for this division in 2013, topping Pittsburgh and Baltimore. The Bengals just hope they can get past the Houston Texans in the playoffs.

2nd Place:  Baltimore Ravens

I still expect Baltimore to make the postseason. However, they will be facing an uphill battle after losing many components of their defense – Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Dannell Ellerbe, and Paul Kruger, to name a few. They will still be very competitive with Joe Flacco now at the helm and leading the team, but face a tough schedule, not to mention playing Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. Twice.

The defending Super Bowl champs did attract some quality free agents to fill voids, such as Elvis Dumervil after the fax-machine fiasco. Ray Rice will be Ray Rice, with Bernard Pierce filling in when needed. I just don’t have confidence in this team this season, especially in what many call the toughest division in football.

3rd Place:  Pittsburgh Steelers

After a .500 season last year, Pittsburgh should bounce back. But this fully depends on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s health. Last year, he missed nearly a month because of injury. He recently underwent “minor” knee surgery, but no injury with Roethlisberger should be considered just minor – he is that important to the team.

The defense will be expected to perform as they have since Dick LeBeau has been the defensive coordinator. However, they are an aging unit and James Harrison is gone. Troy Polumalu is on the decline and hasn’t been himself for what seems like a few seasons now.

This could be a bounce-back season for Pittsburgh, but they will not be competitive in such a tough division.

4th Place:  Cleveland Browns

Cleveland’s defense is better than most believe. Trent Richardson is more than a solid running back, and Josh Gordon is capable of becoming a breakout receiver.

There are still questions at the quarterback position and the coaching staff is untested and unproven. The team is capable of improving on last year’s 5-11 record, though, and I believe that they will improve to at least 7-9, if not a .500 season.

However, I do not think they will be able to compete in such a tough division, especially with Cincinnati and Baltimore, and much less Pittsburgh. The only place to go for the team is up, though.

Tags: A.J. Green AFC North Andy Dalton Baltimore Ravens Cincinnati Bengals Cleveland Browns NFL Pittsburgh Steelers

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