Teams in predicted order of finish
1. BALTIMORE RAVENS: Key defenders gone, but Flacco has weapons
- How they did in 2012: 10-6 (4-2 vs. North); in playoffs, beat Colts 24-9 in Wild Card round, beat Broncos 38-35 in 2OTs in Divisional round, beat Patriots 28-13 in AFC Championship, beat 49ers 34-31 in Super Bowl.
- 2012 top performer: RB Ray Rice (Pro Bowl, 1,143 yards rushing, 478 yards reciving, 10 total TDs)
- Key losses: WR Anquan Boldin, LB Ray Lewis
- Key additions: DE Chris Canty, S Matt Elam
- Why we picked them here: Much is made of the team losing LB Ray Lewis (retired) and S Ed Reed (to Houston), but the most damaging loss for the Super Bowl champs might be WR Anquan Boldin (to San Francisco). QB Joe Flacco returns, having signed a six-year, $120.6 million contract. RB Ray Rice, who gained 1,621 yards from scrimmage, is back, and third-year WR Torrey Smith returns to be Flacco’s go-to guy. The defense, despite the loss of two possible future Hall of Famers, is retooled with younger players.
2. CINCINNATI BENGALS: Dalton & Co. poised for a playoff breakthrough
- How they did in 2012: 10-6 (3-3 vs. North); in playoffs, lost to Texans 19-13.
- 2012 top performer: WR A.J. Green (Pro Bowl, 1,350 yards receiving, 11 TDs,)
- Key losses: LB Manny Lawson, CB Nate Clements
- Key additions: LB James Harrison, RB Giovani Bernard
- Why we picked them here: The team has taken some hard knocks over the years: 22 seasons without a playoff win, but there are signs that streak might be coming to an end. Cincinnati has made the postseason the past two years, losing to Houston each time. Last year, it was a respectable 19-13 setback. QB Andy Dalton can throw to one of the best WRs in the game, Green. Dalton has average arm strength but does own this distinction: He is the only QB to make the playoffs in each of his first two seasons and throw 20 or more TD passes each season. Rookie RB Bernard is exciting to watch carry the ball, but at 5 feet 9 inches and 208 pounds, he can’t block a pass rusher. That often dictates how much a RB plays.
3. PITTSBURGH STEELERS: Big Ben must carry load again
- How they did in 2012: 8-8 (3-3 vs. North); missed playoffs.
- 2012 top performer: QB Ben Roethlisberger (3,265 passing yards, 26 TDs, 8 INTs)
- Key losses: LB James Harrison, WR Mike Wallace
- Key additions: RB Le’Veon Bell, DE/OLB Jarvis Jones
- Why we picked them here: The Steelers hoped to get back to their glory-days style of play based on a strong running game and a solid defense. Enter RB Le’Veon Bell, drafted in the second round. But Bell suffered a sprained foot injury during the preseason, and it’s not known how long he will be out. QB Ben Roethlisberger always gives the team a chance to win. The defense, which ranked 17th last year, lost mainstay LB James Harrison (to Cincinnati).
4. CLEVELAND BROWNS: Offense improved, but .500 may be ceiling
- How they did in 2012: 5-11 (2-4 vs. North); missed playoffs.
- 2012 top performer: RB Trent Richardson (950 yards, 11 TDs)
- Key losses: KR/WR Josh Cribbs, TE Ben Watson
- Key additions: DE/OLB Barkevious Mingo, DE/OLB Paul Kruger
- Why we picked them here: Cleveland has some exciting playmakers, notably RB Trent Richardson and WR Josh Gordon. QB Brandon Weeden has the physical tools to succeed, and WR Greg Little will put up big numbers if defenses double-team Gordon. New defensive coordinator Ray Horton will stress pressuring the quarterback. Despite this cheery outlook, an 0-4 start is a distinct possibility, and 8-8 would be a great season.
FANTASY FRIENDLY AFC NORTH SLEEPER: Josh Gordon, WR, Browns
- Why we like him: As a rookie last year, Gordon had 805 receiving yards. More than that, he just looks the part of a star ready to bloom. He will miss the first two games because of a substance-abuse suspension, but that could drop his value significantly, perhaps, and you could swoop in.