NFL Season Preview: AFC North

Sports Mole previews the 2014 NFL season of teams from the AFC North.

The AFC North proved to be a simpler task than it would have appeared at the start of the season for the Cincinnati Bengals to clinch the title in 2013.

The Bengals finished with an 11-5 record to win the division as the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens struggled to an 8-8 record.

The Pittsburgh Steelers had a disastrous start to the year but recovered to also finish 8-8, while the Cleveland Browns limped to a 4-12 record.

Here, Sports Mole breaks down the prospects for the AFC North teams heading into the 2014 season.

Cincinnati Bengals

Andy Dalton #14 of the Cincinnati Bengals runs with the ball during the NFL game against the Indianapolis Colts at Paul Brown Stadium on December 8, 2013© Getty Images

Last season: 11-5 – Wildcard-round loss

Notable ins: Darqueze Dennard (Draft), Jeremy Hill (Draft), Will Clarke (Draft)

Notable outs: Michael Johnson (Tampa Bay Buccaneers), Anthony Collins (Tampa Bay Buccaneers), James Harrison (Retired), BenJarvus Green-Ellis (Free agent)

Outlook: The Bengals managed to stay intact for the main part on their roster as they lost defensive end Michael Johnson and left tackle Anthony Collins during free agency. However, their coordinators were plucked from the team to head coaching jobs at other clubs as Jay Gruden joined the Washington Redskins and Mike Zimmer the Minnesota Vikings.

The club also handed a lucrative long-term contract to quarterback Andy Dalton, who has to lead his side to their first playoff win under head coach Marvin Lewis this year to justify the deal and ease the pressure on himself. The Bengals have the weapons on offense with Pro Bowl receiver AJ Green leading the way along with Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu and Tyler Eifert.

The return from injury from Geno Atkins is huge for the Bengals as the lineman is one of the most dominant players in the NFL. The loss of Johnson could be detrimental to the team but Margus Hunt will be looking to fill the void at the defensive end. The club's linebacking corps is strong, as is the secondary, although there are minor question marks over the safety position.

Prediction: 11-5 – Divisional-round loss – The Bengals will get over the hump and win their first playoff game with Dalton and Lewis at the helm, but they don't have the quality yet to match the Denver Broncos and the New England Patriots.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Emmanuel Sanders #88 of the Pittsburgh Steelers celebrates after scoring on a 5 yard touchdown pass in the first half against the Miami Dolphins during the game on December 8, 2013© Getty Images

Last season: 8-8 – Missed playoffs

Notable ins: Mike Mitchell (Carolina Panthers), Cam Thomas (San Diego Chargers), LeGarrette Blount (New England Patriots), Ryan Shazier (Draft), Lance Moore (New Orleans Saints)

Notable outs: Ryan Clark (Washington Redskins), Emmanuel Sanders (Denver Broncos), Jerricho Cotchery (Carolina Panthers), Ziggy Hood (Jacksonville Jaguars)

Outlook: The Steelers can't possibly start the 2014 campaign worse than they did in 2013, when they failed to win any of their opening four games. The club managed to turn themselves around towards the latter half of the campaign and only narrowly missed out on an appearance in the post-season.

There have not been many changes to the roster over the off-season, but LeGarrette Blount should bring some power back to the Steelers running game and could forge an interesting one-two punch with Le'Veon Bell. The Steelers did lose wide receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery, meaning that Markus Wheaton will have to step up alongside Lance Moore for his side to replace them.

Defensively the Tomlin's side have bulked up and have added some speed to their linebacking corps. Ryan Shazier should provide power and pace at middle linebacker, as the club look to get back to the formula that took them to Super Bowls three times last decade. Cornerback could be an issue as they lack depth at the position, which could hold them back.

Prediction: 9-7 – Wildcard-round loss – The Steelers will make their return to the playoffs for the first time since the 2011 season, but they just don't have enough at the moment to make a surge to the latter stages.

Baltimore Ravens

Baltimore Ravens' Joe Flacco during a warm up on August 15, 2013© Getty Images

Last season: 8-8 – Missed playoffs

Notable ins: Steve Smith (Carolina Panthers), Jeremy Zuttah (Tampa Bay Buccaneers), Owen Daniels (Houston Texans), CJ Mosley (Draft), Timmy Jernigan (Draft)

Notable outs: Vonta Leach (Free agent), Ed Dickson (Carolina Panthers), Michael Oher (Tennessee Titans), Arthur Jones (Indianapolis Colts), Corey Graham (Buffalo Bills)

Outlook: The Ravens endured the curse of recent Super Bowl champions as they failed to reach the post-season only months removed from their triumph over the San Francisco 49ers. The pieces just weren't there for John Harbaugh and his side, as Joe Flacco struggled to live up to expectations after getting a huge contract from the club.

This season looks to be a little bit different especially on offense as the Ravens have added wily veteran Steve Smith to a passing attack that was extremely poor last season. Flacco now has three reliable weapons on offense in Smith, Torrey Smith and Dennis Pitta. Ray Rice was lucky to get only a two-game ban for his off-field demeanours, but he could be on a steady decline anyway if his performances last season were anything to go by.

Defensively the club have lost reliable defensive end Arthur Jones and were forced to dip into the Draft to find his replacement. CJ Mosley could be the player that the Ravens lost when Ray Lewis retired after the 2012 season, with power plays and speed in coverage at middle linebacker. The secondary is the issue for majority of the AFC North teams and that is no different here. Depth is a concern, particularly with Jimmy Smith's inconsistent play and Lardarius Webb's problems with injury.

Prediction: 9-7– Miss playoffs – The Ravens may just get edged out by the Steelers for the final playoff place in the AFC, as they stage a minor recovery from last season. Their record could only be a game better, but the performances should be a marked improvement.

Cleveland Browns

Johnny Manziel #2 of the Cleveland Browns warms up prior to the start of the preseason game against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field on August 9, 2014 © Getty Images

Last season: 4-12 – Missed playoffs

Notable ins: Johnny Manziel (Draft), Ben Tate (Houston Texans), Donte Whitner (San Francisco 49ers), Karlos Dansby (Arizona Cardinals), Miles Austin (Dallas Cowboys)

Notable outs: Brandon Weeden (Dallas Cowboys), TJ Ward (Denver Broncos), D'Qwell Jackon (Indianapolis Colts), Willis McGahee (Free agent)

Outlook: The Browns had another tumultuous off-season as they replaced their general manager, head coach and brought in quarterback Johnny Manziel in the Draft, while wide receiver Josh Gordon was banned for the season. Just another season in Cleveland!

Manziel was the most exciting player in the college game for the Texas A&M Aggies with his improvisations and incredible athleticism at the quarterback position. There was much pressure on general manager Ray Farmer to pick him and he did just that in the first round of the Draft. However, Manziel soon hit the headlines for his partying antics in Las Vegas, something that he was renowned for in college.

Head coach Mike Pettine made the decision to go with veteran Brian Hoyer to start the season, which could be the best thing for the club and Manziel, but the problem for Hoyer will be who he is going to throw to, as All-Pro Gordon is suspended and the cast of receivers signed all have injury doubts.

Cornerback Joe Haden signed a lucrative deal to stay with the club as they solidified their secondary in one sense, but also lost TJ Ward to the Denver Broncos. Donte Whitner was signed to replace him and on paper their defense looks quite solid, with another wily veteran Karlos Dansby also signed.

Prediction: 6-10 – Miss playoffs – Pettine will have a decent first year in charge of the Browns, but there is too much work to do to change their fortunes in one season. A solid first year with plenty to build on for the 2015 season.

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Quarterback Peyton Manning of the Denver Broncos leads his offense from the field on February 2, 2014
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