Today we will conclude our preview of the 2013 NFL season. The AFC East and AFC North both represents divisions with teams that compete for Super Bowls. By no means does this mean they are competitive divisions. Often times these divisions are very top heavy. Let’s begin looking at the AFC East.

AFC East

            The New England Patriots have ruled the AFC East since the beginning of the Tom Brady era. They have been the beneficiary of a weak division in the last decade and a half that has given them an easy route to the playoffs year after year. For the first part of that dominant decade (while they were winning Super Bowls), they also were beneficiaries of an illegal system under head coach Bill Belichick that allowed them to gain a competitive edge. The Patriots will be without tight end Aaron Hernandez who got himself in legal trouble being involved with murder(s). They may also be without tight end Rob Gronkowski, who has been unable to get healthy after undergoing several surgeries for his back and arm, for a sustainable time. This will certainly hurt the Patriots, who ranked #1 overall in points scored last year. However, because of the weak division, the Patriots are a virtual lock to win the AFC East because of Tom Brady.

            The Miami Dolphins hope to contend for the AFC East crown with Ryan Tannehill at quarterback. Joe Philbin will be in his second year at head coach as he tries to improve on an offense that struggled last season. The Dolphins brought in big-play threat Mike Wallace hoping to give Tannehill a down field target. The offensive line, anchored by Mike Pouncey, needs to give Tannehill more time in the pocket or the offense will yet again finish in the bottom third of the league in yards gained. Defensively, the Dolphins allowed fewer points than any team in the division last season. If they play well defensively and improve on offense, they may have a chance to challenge the Patriots.

            The New York Jets have been quite the side show since Rex Ryan took over in 2009. His tenure began very successfully, making back-to-back AFC championship appearances in his first two years. In the 2 seasons afterwards, the Jets only went 14-18 as the offense, under quarterback Mark Sanchez, continues to regress. Last season the Jets ranked 30th overall in yards gained including 30th overall in passing yards. In the offseason, the Jets used their 2nd round pick on quarterback Geno Smith hoping to bring Sanchez some competition. Unfortunately, Smith has been a disappointment thus far in preseason. Furthermore, Sanchez may be out indefinitely after getting injured. There are rare occurrences where rookie quarterbacks come out of nowhere and play on a high level. Because Geno Smith is a raw talent, and because the Jets are somewhat of a circus, I do not see the Jets improving this season. But at least they aren’t the Buffalo Bills…

            The Buffalo Bills expected great improvement when they signed Ryan Fitzpatrick in 2009. The Bills did improve offensively and finished 2nd to the Patriots in points allowed in the AFC East. Still, the Bills released Fitzpatrick this past offseason. After a concussion may have ended Kevin Kolb’s career, the Bills will turn to Jeff Tuel for quarterback in the season opener despite having first round pick EJ Manuel on the roster. The Bills nearly lost CJ Spiller to a knee injury in the preseason but by all accounts they avoided a potential disaster. Steve Johnson will need to play up to his potential if the Bills want to contend. Regardless of how well the offense plays, the defense finished last in the division in points allowed. New head coach Doug Marrone has a tall task in front of him.

AFC North

            Joe Flacco finally won the big one last year with the Baltimore Ravens. Their ride in Ray Lewis’ last season is one that won’t be forgotten any time soon. Flacco’s play earned him a big contract that many have argued is not very team friendly. The Ravens lost Anquan Boldin, one of Flacco’s favorite targets, as well as Ed Reed, Paul Kruger, and Dannell Ellerbe. One of the toughest tasks in sports is not just winning a championship, but winning back-to-back championships. Having that target on their back could lead to a down year. However, John Harbaugh has had the Ravens in the AFC championship game 3 out of his 5 years as head coach and they will remain competitive if their defense and running game is as strong as years past. The Ravens will no doubt have a chip on their shoulder as they are the first defending champion that will open the season on the road (since they started doing the Thursday primetime games to open the season).

            The Cincinnati Bengals were the laughing stock of the NFL for nearly a decade. Marvin Lewis has weathered the storm of many potential disasters and has the Bengals competitive again. Last season, the Bengals were perhaps the most balanced team in the division. The offense and defense both are full of playmakers including Andy Dalton, A.J. Green and Geno Atkins. With the offseason losses the Ravens will have to deal with, the Bengals may end up emerging as the team to beat in the AFC North.

            The Pittsburgh Steelers are a team that may still be in a state of transition. Gone are the great players that helped win them two championships in the last decade in Hines Ward, James Farrior, Aaron Smith, and James Harrison. The Steelers may have had statistically the best defense in the league last season but if they want to compete for a division crown, they will need to force more turnovers. Offensively, the Steelers will have to deal with the losses of Mike Wallace as well as being without Heath Miller, who had a career year last season, indefinitely. Ben Roethlisberger will have to do a better job specifically in the red zone and perhaps another year with Todd Haley will be a good thing for the Steelers. The Steelers have also not had great luck in the draft recently thanks to untimely injuries. Pittsburgh does have a chance of contending for a division crown though but it will be up to Ben and the defense to make that happen.

            The Cleveland Browns found themselves in a familiar spot last season, at the bottom of the AFC North. They ranked dead last in points scored and points allowed in the AFC North last season. Brandon Weeden and Trent Richardson have the potential to be competitive offensively if they limit turnovers. New head coach Rob Chudzinski will have tall order to begin his coaching tenure. Changing the culture of Cleveland is hard enough, but to topple teams in the division that compete for Super Bowls annually may be even tougher. Unless the AFC North has a down year and the Browns somehow squeak a few close wins out (especially on the road where they were 1-7 last year), don’t expect much to change.

            This concludes my previews of each division in the NFL. If you missed my previews of the NFC and the AFC West and South, make sure you check them out. Watch out for a prediction column this Friday. The regular weekly column will begin next Wednesday. It’s only a matter of time before the first regular season kickoff!

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