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AFC North preview: Expect another close battle for this top-heavy division

AFC North Preview: Breaking down the favorite, dark horse, rookie to watch and more in one of the NFL's most competitive divisions.  

When it comes to discussions of the NFL's most competitive division, the AFC North must certainly be considered. Three different teams have taken the North in the last three years: the Ravens in 2012, the Bengals in '13 and the Steelers in '14, and all three of those teams made the playoffs last season. Those three teams combined for a record of 31-11-1 in 2014, certainly making the North the most top-heavy of the divisions last season.

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Pittsburgh won the division atypically last year—on a strong passing game and a defense that barely held muster. The Bengals remained competitive all the way through with a balanced offense, a surprising defense, and a rookie running back in Jeremy Hill who led all backs in yardage in the second half of the season. The Ravens placed third, but still showed an improved offensive line, a breakout year from running back Justin Forsett, and a dominant front seven. If the Browns can ever figure their quarterback situation out, this could be a real Murderers' Row. Cleveland started last season 6–3 before things fell apart, and they may have the best overall defense in the division if a few young players can step up. No matter what changes in this division, expectations are high for another three-team race.

"Pittsburgh made the transition we were just talking about a year ago," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said at the 2015 owners meetings, when asked about how every team in the North deals with transition with success. "They had guys move on. Baltimore does it yearly and they have the plan for the next guy to step up and play. We know how talented Cleveland is as a football team. Their guys will be a year better in their system. it’s going to be a very difficult division as it always is.

"Every team in the division typically gets better. Three teams made the playoffs last year and the fourth was close."

Indeed, and the team that wins the North in 2015 will have earned it with a gauntlet of tough division rivalries. That's one thing that never changes with these teams.

• NFL division previews: NFC East | NFC North | NFC South | NFC West

Favorite: Ravens

This may have gone to the Steelers before Pittsburgh center Maurkice Pouncey broke a bone in his ankle against the Packers in Week 2 of the preseason. The offensive line was the fixture of Pittsburgh's improved offense in 2014, and without Pouncey for any serious length of time, the prospects are not so good. The Steelers have also not done enough to reinforce a defense that ranked 30th in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics in 2014, the lowest ranking in the history of FO's metrics, which go back to 1989. That's not a fluke, either. The 2013 Steelers ranked 19th, the second-lowest ranking in that same time period.

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The Ravens, on the other hand, seem to be the division's bastions of consistency, and that had a great deal to do with general manager Ozzie Newsome's personnel acumen. Few understand how to build depth and acquire players at the right time better than Newsome.

In 2014, the Ravens were ready for the Ray Rice fiasco with a quality rotation of backs, and in the new year, they're ready to replace defensive tackle Haloti Ngata with Brandon Williams and another group of talented role-players. Speed receiver Torrey Smith moves on to the 49ers? No problem—Baltimore took Central Florida burner Breshad Perriman and Minnesota tight end Max Williams in the first two rounds to bolster Joe Flacco's receiver corps. Multi-gap pass-rusher Pernell McPhee leaves for the Bears in free agency? Not to worry! Kentucky end Za'Darius Smith, taken in the fourth round, is already projected as the man in that same position.

There are occasional hiccups in the process, like the sprained PCL that has kept Perriman out of the process since the beginning of training camp, plus the secondary has issues. But overall, the Ravens remain the North's most consistent team. And sometimes, consistency is enough.

Dark Horse: Browns

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 Yeah, we know. But it's possible. Let's say that the issues which plagued the Bengals in their preseason loss to the Buccaneers hang around, and let's say that the Steelers are unable to match last year's explosive offensive output. And let's say that that Cleveland offensive line holds up, and Josh McCown turns out to be a serviceable enough quarterback, and first-round defensive tackle Danny Shelton combines with Phil Taylor to solve last year's run defense problems, and the rest of that defense lives up to its potential... it's not the craziest thing in the world.

Remember, this is the same team that started the 2014 season with a 6–3 mark with Brian Hoyer as the primary quarterback, before ending the season with a 7–9 mark. If a few things fall their way, is it impossible to imagine the Browns with a 9–7 record and a sixth-seed wild-card berth?

Difficult, yes, Impossible, no.

Division MVP: Andy Dalton, QB, Bengals

It all comes down to this, really. Dalton is the only multi-year starting quarterback in the division who hasn't proven himself to any serious degree. Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco have their big statistical seasons and Super Bowl titles to buttress any talk of season-to-season inconsistencies, but anything Dalton does wrong at this point in his career is magnified by his atrocious playoff history. In four postseason games (all losses for his team), Dalton has completed just 88 passes in 158 attempts for 873, one touchdown and six interceptions.

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Those who believe in Dalton as a future star will point to his 40-23-1 record in the regular season and two Pro Bowl appearances, but quarterback wins are poor measurements of quarterback quality, and Pro Bowls pale in comparison to Super Bowl berths. Every year, Dalton's coaches make all the right noises about his maturity and leadership, swearing that this is the year Dalton puts it all together.

“I'm not concerned with Andy as much as everybody else is,” offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said in July. “I understand that we haven't won a playoff game and that falls at his feet, and mine, too, and the rest of the offensive staff and players, as well. But he's done everything—and I mean this—he's invested everything that he can into preparing himself to be the best he can be for this season. And I'm totally behind him 100 percent, and I think he's going to have a great year— a good year, a great year.”

Jackson also said that he's ready to open "Pandora's Box" in regards to Cincinnati's offense, which is sadly appropriate, because with Andy Dalton, you never know quite what you're going to get. He's the most valuable player in this division because so much rests on his ability to finally get out of his own way.

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Breakout player: Timmy Jernigan, DL, Ravens

Baltimore felt comfortable trading Haloti Ngata to the Lions in the offseason based on the efforts of two players: Defensive tackle Brandon Williams, and Jernigan, who was selected in the second round of the 2014 draft out of Florida State. it took a while for Jernigan to find his feet as he battled a knee injury early in the season, but few rookie linemen were better in the second half of 2014. In total, Jernigan amassed four sacks, eight quarterback hits, 12 quarterback hurries and 15 stops in just 330 total snaps. Jernigan started just three games in his rookie season, but the Ravens are ready to see how much more he can take on.

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"I think he has welcomed it, and we've told him, 'You have to step up. This is your time now to step in there and do what you can do. We drafted you for a reason, and what we saw on tape is what we want to see on tape even at a higher level,'" defensive coordinator Dean Pees said of Jernigan in early August. "I think he has embraced that. It's still a different scheme for him. We kind of piecemealed it for him last year. He went in at certain spots, and we made life kind of easy for him; he only had a couple things he had to do. Now, he has to do the whole package. But again, I'd say—just like everybody else—we have a ways to go, but he's really working hard. We're pleased with where he is right now."

Rookie to watch: Danny Shelton, DT, Browns

Cleveland finished second to the Bills in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted pass defense metrics last season, but they finished 31st against the run. Only the Saints were worse, and it was one of the main reasons the Browns faltered down the stretch. Shelton could change all of that if he lives up to the potential he showed at Washington.

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At 6'2" and 339 pounds, Shelton has all the physical strength you'd ever want from a pure two-gap run-stopping nose tackle, but he's also agile enough to move from sideline to sideline, and quick enough to beat blockers for quarterback pressures and sacks. Shelton needs to keep his pad level low on a more consistent basis, but his NFL coaches are very excited about his future, and for good reason.

Coach with the most to prove: Marvin Lewis, Bengals

Lewis can be credited with taking this formerly awful franchise and bringing them to respectability. His 100-90-2 regular-season record in Cincy is even more impressive when you consider that when he took the job in 2003, the Bengals hadn't had a winning season since 1990, their draft history through the '80s was an absolute disaster, and the parsimonious ways of owner Mike Brown left a scouting staff in place that was just about nonexistent. Lewis took the franchise and made it a truly professional concern for the first time since the Sam Wyche era, and for that, he deserves better than his 0–6 postseason record.

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That said, his postseason record stands out like a sore thumb, and it's the primary reason the front office was unwilling to commit to Lewis beyond the 2015 season. Lewis received a one-year contract extension in April—it's an odd decision for a coach who ranks behind only Bill Belichick when it comes to current tenure with one team, but it's clear that if more doesn't happen in the postseason, Lewis will likely be given his walking papers. It may not be fair that Lewis has been tied to an average quarterback with a series of postseason disasters like Andy Dalton, but Lewis's detractors might counter with the notion that he could never get the Bengals closer to the brass ring with Carson Palmer, either.

In any event, some team will get one hell of a coach if the Bengals decide to go in a different direction.

Can't-miss divisional game: Pittsburgh at Baltimore, Sunday, Dec. 27

This rivalry has been one of the NFL's best for years, and it may very well decide the division once again. In 2014, there were the two divisional matchups, which the Steelers and Ravens split, and then Baltimore's 30–17 wild-card win over Pittsburgh.

That playoff game was notable for the absence of Le'Veon Bell, the Steelers' star running back, who was out with a knee injury. Backups Josh Harris and Ben Tate could only manage 44 yards on 14 carries, and the Steelers had three turnovers in an offensively unbalanced effort. It's always great when the Steelers and Ravens play late in the season, and this game should be no exception, especially if the teams are more evenly matched this time around.