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Behind Enemy Lines: AFC North Preview

The Bengals were the only AFC North team to make the playoffs in 2013 and they return most of the elements that led them to the top of the division. But the Steelers and Ravens aren’t just going away.

CINCINNATI BENGALS
The defending AFC North champs signed quarterback Andy Dalton to a six-year extension worth $96 million, though just two years and $25 million are guaranteed. It’s a safe deal for the Bengals, who don’t seem convinced that Dalton is their long-term answer. Despite three consecutive playoff appearances, the team apparently wants to see more.

They have surrounded their quarterback with a talented young group that includes receivers A.J. Green and Marvin Jones, running backs Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill and tight ends Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifort.

In addition to their young nucleus on offense, the Bengals had a top five defense in 2013 and managed to keep the core intact with the exception of defensive end Michael Johnson, who was signed by Tampa Bay. Although Johnson will be missed as a premier run-stopper the Bengals, are confident Margus Hunt or rookie—and Pittsburgh native—Will Clarke will be able to step up. Defensive ends Wallace Gilberry and Carlos Dunlap bookened tackle Geno Atkins, and linebackers Vontaze Burfict and Rey Maualuga key a fearsome front seven. Corner Darqueze Dennard was a good attention to the back end.

Reason to Believe: The duo of Dalton and Green have never missed the playoffs in their three years in the NFL. They’ve bolstered the running game and back it all with a top-tier defense.

Reason to Doubt: Dalton has never won a playoff game, struggling badly in his three losses. Until Dalton raises his play, he’ll remain the little brother to Super Bowl champions Roethlisberger and Flacco.

BALTIMORE RAVENS
Coming off a disappointing 8-8 campaign last season the Ravens must improve to stay relevant in the AFC North. The offense looks to be improved with the Ravens Terrell Suggsaddition of veteran wide receiver Steve Smith, who will line up across from deep-threat Torrey Smith. Tight end Dennis Pitta is healthy after missing the entire 2013 season and will be complimented by former Houston Texan Owen Daniels, giving Joe Flacco two above average receivers at the position. Running back Ray Rice will be suspended for the first two games of the season, but backup Bernard Pierce looks more than ready to carry the load in Gary Kubiak’s zone-blocking offensive scheme. Baltimore’s offensive line still has questions, but with Eugene Monroe protecting Flacco’s blind side there is an increased comfort-level.

Haloti Ngata, Brandon Williams and Chris Canty anchor a formidable defensive line. The linebackers—C.J. Mosley, Daryl Smith, Elvis Dumervil and 2011 defensive player of the year Terrell Suggs—are downright fearsome. Although Suggs will turn 32 this year he still remains the heart and soul of this defense. The front seven should provide a boost to a secondary that rely on corner backs Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith.

Reason to Believe: The defense never did drop off after losing Ray Lewis and Ed Reed after their 2012 Super Bowl season, and they are poised to have another big year.

Reason to Doubt: Ray Rice has been steadily declining and his two-game suspension and ensuing controversy won’t help him bounce back.

CLEVELAND BROWNS
The Browns limped to a 4-12 finish in 2013 and found themselves in the AFC North cellar. Again. Drafting quarterback Johnny Manziel with the 22nd overall Browns fanpick instantly vaulted the Browns into the spotlight, but they haven’t exactly handled the hype very well. Manziel and Brian Hoyer are currently splitting preseason reps with the first team and it’s anyone’s guess as to who will ultimately lead the offense.

Whoever does win the job will be hard pressed to string wins together. Cleveland’s premier receiver, Josh Gordon, is facing a year-long suspension for marijuana use. Without Gordon, defenses will stack the box against Browns free-agent signee Ben Tate and force their unproven quarterbacks and receivers to make plays.

With all the hoopla surrounding Gordon and Manziel, a pretty good defense is often overlooked. Linebacker Paul Kruger was a great addition a year ago and cornerback Justin Gilbert of Oklahoma State widely considered the best corner in the draft. Gilbert should pair with Joe Haden to shut down a lot of receivers, especially with Kruger, Jabaal Sheard and Barkevious Mingo harassing quarterbacks.

Reason to Believe: The defense is good and getting better, led by a lockdown tandem at corner with of Gilbert and Haden. And it seems foolish to think that Johnny Manziel won’t dazzle at least a few times.

Reason to Doubt: Losing Josh Gordon is a significant blow to a team without a lot of weapons. Hoyer has major flaws and Manziel has major question marks.

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