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AFC North preview: Consistency at QB could decide a deep division

AFC North preview: Consistency at QB could decide a deep division Photo:

How's this for parity: Over the past nine seasons, the Bengals, Ravens and Steelers have captured three AFC North titles apiece. Pittsburgh has won a pair of Super Bowls and Baltimore another in that stretch, as well. There may be better divisions in football, but few are as hard-fought year-in and year-out as this one.

The North has a chance to be an even tougher gantlet in 2014 and beyond, should the rebuilding Browns finally close the gap on the three contenders accustomed to finishing ahead of them. 

While most of the focus in the AFC has fallen on the defending conference champion Broncos and the powerhouse Patriots, the North could be where the real action is.

DIVISION PREVIEWS: NFC: East | West | North | South
                                       AFC: East | North | South | West

The favorite: Cincinnati Bengals ... maybe?

The Bengals won the AFC North by three games last season, their 11-5 mark easily clearing the matching 8-8 efforts of Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Was the gap that wide? Not in head-to-head matchups, at least -- the Bengals were 2-2 against the Ravens and Steelers, beating both in Cincinnati but losing on the road.

With both Baltimore and Pittsburgh addressing weak spots this offseason, the defending division champs will be hard-pressed to repeat their cozy 2013 finish. In fact, right now Bovada lists Cincinnati and Pittsburgh with matching odds to win the division (2/1), and Baltimore isn't far behind (7/4). Those numbers do not mean a whole heck of a lot in the long run, but they do offer a little evidence that this race is expected to be competitive.

Of course, it's not as if Cincinnati backed its way into the crown last season. Marvin Lewis' team allowed the fifth-fewest points and third-fewest yards in the league, and that's with all-world defensive tackle Geno Atkins missing the latter half of the year with an ACL injury.

Atkins is back this season, as is cornerback Leon Hall (missed five games in 2013). The team's best defender in their absences last season, linebacker Vontaze Burfict, may be in the mix for that honor again in 2014. And the Bengals drafted aggressive corner Darqueze Dennard to join Hall, Adam Jones, Dre Kirkpatrick and Terence Newman at an enviably deep position.

Still, how successfully the Bengals can defend their title and how far they ultimately go rests on the shoulders of Andy Dalton. He received a contract extension this offseason that looked shiny on the surface (upward of $110 million total) but allows the team to reassess his value on a year-to-year basis. Dalton is 3-for-3 in leading the Bengals to the playoffs during his career ... and 0-3 once they get there. Even though wide receiver Marvin Jones has been sidelined several weeks by a foot injury, Dalton has ample help around him in the form of A.J. Green, tight end Tyler Eifert and multiple viable running backs.

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"Andy has earned his place here," Bengals president Mike Brown said in announcing Dalton's extension. "He has gained the confidence of the players, the coaches and the management of the team. We’re betting big on him because we believe in him."

Step 1 in that continued faith will be holding off the rest of the division again.

Dark horse: Cleveland Browns

In all likelihood, the Browns are a year or two away from a realistic shot at the playoffs. And yet ...

Chalk it up to the arrival of new head coach Mike Pettine or new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan or those two first-round picks, cornerback Justin Gilbert and Johnny Football himself. Whatever it is, there seems ample reason to believe in Cleveland. A strong offensive line and a defense that should be better than it was last season should only further that thinking.

Despite all the positive momentum, though, this is not a snap-your-fingers fix. This franchise has not won more than five games in a single season since 2007. Plus, whether Johnny Manziel or Brian Hoyer ends up under center, adjusting to Shanahan's scheme will take some time -- remember, Hoyer is coming back from a season-ending knee injury, and Manziel has never played an NFL down of consequence.

We'll know a lot about the Browns early. They visit Pittsburgh in Week 1, host Baltimore in Week 3, then host the Steelers in Week 6.

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Most important player: Ben Roethlisberger

There is not another quarterback in the league who plays the game quite like Big Ben. Andrew Luck may be the closest comparison, in size and form. Just as with Luck, take Roethlisberger out of the Pittsburgh lineup and you can more or less throw away any hope the Steelers have of staying competitive over the long haul.

The Steelers have won without Roethlisberger in the past -- Charlie Batch collected a relief victory in both 2011 and '12. But the drop-off from Roethlisberger to current backup Bruce Gradkowski (6-14 as an NFL starter) is steep, particularly when taking into consideration just how much the Steelers' offense relies on Roethlisberger's ability to ad-lib. He has needed that skill more than ever in recent seasons behind an often banged-up offensive line.

At least in Gradkowski the Steelers have a No. 2 quarterback with legitimate NFL experience. Baltimore, for example, cannot say the same with Tyrod Taylor tucked behind Joe Flacco. Still, even if Gradkowski could hold down the fort for a week or two, any longer timeframe sans Roethlisberger would spell doom for the Steelers.

Rookie to watch: C.J. Mosley and Ryan Shazier

For two franchises that pride themselves on physical, punishing football, both the Ravens and Steelers were rather underwhelming on defense last season. The Steelers coughed up more yards rushing than 20 other teams, while Baltimore's playoff hopes fell apart as New England and Cincinnati hung a combined 75 points on the scoreboard in Weeks 16 and 17, respectively.

To bring their swagger back, the arch-rivals took matching approaches to the first round of the draft. Pittsburgh moved first to strengthen its front seven, taking Ohio State's Ryan Shazier at No. 15 overall; Baltimore answered two picks later with Alabama's C.J. Mosley.

The versatile, athletic linebackers could play three-down roles for their teams immediately. Longtime Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau recently confirmed that Shazier had a starting job at inside linebacker in his hands, and Mosley wasted no time supplanting 2013 draft pick Arthur Brown atop the depth chart at the same position.

The expectations are high. The players' ceilings may be even higher.

"He actually reminds me of ... Mr. [Patrick] Willis," Baltimore's Terrell Suggs told SI's Don Banks of Mosley. "Definitely, because when Willis came into the league, it just clicked for him right away. I definitely see some resemblance with Mosley. Very athletic, intelligence for the game, and a quick study."

It will take more than one rookie linebacker each to fix what ailed the Baltimore and Pittsburgh defenses in 2013. Mosley and Shazier count as important steps forward nonetheless.

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Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau discusses coaching a young defense and molding inexperienced talent into title contenders.

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