As one of the NFL's feistiest and most competitive divisions, the AFC North usually stages a down-to-the-wire pennant race. But that wasn't the case in 2013. The Cincinnati Bengals won in a runaway, taking the title by three games over the Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers.
I'm not expecting that to happen again in 2014. As the season begins, I see little separating the Bengals, Ravens and Steelers. The AFC North looks especially wide open, difficult to call.
Yes, the Bengals won in a romp a year ago and most of their playmakers are back. But both of their unit coordinators are now head coaches elsewhere, Mike Zimmer in Minnesota and Jay Gruden in Washington. Zimmer, a defensive guru, seems like an especially big subtraction.
Then there's the Bengals' quarterback, Andy Dalton. He has led Cincinnati to three straight playoff appearances, so his ability to win in the regular season isn't in doubt. But he's 0-3 in the playoffs, including a horrendous home flop last January. His overall bona fides don't match those of the Ravens' Joe Flacco or the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger, who have won three Super Bowls between them.
For that reason as much as any – quarterback play – I expect a tighter division race in 2014.
Flacco's disappointing 2013 has been well documented, but the pieces are in place for him to play better this season. He's following the clear-cut philosophy of Gary Kubiak, the Ravens' new offensive coordinator, who has a track record of success. The offensive line has been overhauled. The running game appears vastly improved. Flacco's array of targets has been expanded with Steve Smith Sr., Kyle Juszczyk and Owen Daniels.
I'm already on record with the prediction that Flacco, 29, will have his best season yet in 2014.
It's harder to tell what's going to happen with the Ravens defense, which is seeking an appropriate mix of age and youth, and has experienced some injuries. Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees has his work cut out for him.
But in today's NFL, if your quarterback is making plays and, perhaps more importantly, avoiding mistakes, your chances of winning go up.
That's certainly what the Steelers have going for them. Although Roethlisberger is 32 and has taken a pounding over the years, there's no evidence he's slowing down. Last year, he completed 64 percent of his pass attempts for 4,261 yards, with twice as many touchdowns (28) as interceptions (14). He'll be as tough as ever to beat this year.
True, the Steelers fell short of the playoffs in 2013, so they clearly need more than strong quarterback play. But like the Ravens, they have methodically addressed their perceived shortcomings during the offseason. It sounds familiar. Their defense is younger. There's a renewed focus on the running game. A no-huddle approach should cut down on the hits Big Ben absorbs.
Just as the Ravens are anxious to demonstrate their 8-8 record in 2013 was an aberration, the Steelers are anxious to show their two straight non-winning seasons were a blip.
As it was, both Baltimore and Pittsburgh still split their home-and-home series with Cincinnati in 2013, even as the Bengals were running away with the division. I'm sure that's why there's such a wild array of predictions for what will happen this year. Surfing around, I've seen all three teams get the nod as the favorite, citing different reasons.
The only certainty is the Cleveland Browns will bring up the rear again, although they've accumulated enough quality players to make them more dangerous. For now, Brian Hoyer is starting under center ahead of rookie Johnny Manziel, but it's inevitable that Johnny Football gets his shot. I think it could come as early as Week 3, when the Ravens are in Cleveland.
Beyond that, predicting the AFC North is a tricky business. The Ravens open with a back-to-back-to-back run of divisional games, so we won't have to wait long to gauge their prospects.
Last year at this time, I predicted they would go 10-6. Good job by me, huh? This year, I'm not going with a number. I'm just going to say this: The Ravens look like a playoff team to me. They're in a tough division, but they're improved on offense and line up difference-makers on defense. And their schedule is easier.
Back to the playoffs, that's my call for the Ravens in 2014.
Oh, and at least one of their AFC North brothers will join them.