The AFC North has always been known as a tough division, and it will only get tougher in 2013. As they do every season, the Baltimore Ravens will have to play six games against their divisional neighbors. The only difference this time is that they will be defending their Super Bowl title. The Cincinnati Bengals are forging ahead into year three of a youth movement led by Andy Dalton and A.J. Green. The Cleveland Browns are rebooting with their seventh head coach in fourteen years. The Pittsburgh Steelers are looking to regroup after a disappointing season plagued by injuries and poor play. All three teams are hungry, and have bones to pick with the Super Bowl champs.
The first divisional foe Baltimore will face is Cleveland, who travels to M&T Bank Stadium a week after the season-opening rematch between the Ravens and the Denver Broncos. No matchup with the Browns has ever been a walk in the park for the Ravens, and this one won’t be any easier.
The new coaching staff boasts a lot of proven talent, including Ray Horton, Rob Chudzinski and Norv Turner. Horton is known as a great defensive mind, and he will have plenty of tools to get under Baltimore’s skin. Ex-Raven Paul Kruger, who was acquired in free agency, and first-round pick Barkevious Mingo will bolster the pass rush, keeping Joe Flacco on his toes.
Jacoby Jones and/or Tandon Doss could have a big game, though, as Buster Krine has continued to struggle at cornerback. The Browns’ offensive attack will be hampered without their starting wide receiver Josh Gordon, who will still be serving a two-game suspension at that point. Davone Bess and David Neslon will be leaned on to pick up the slack. How involved the drop-prone Greg Little will be is anybody’s guess.
The Ravens close out the month October by traveling to Pittsburgh to take on their bitter rivals. Coming off of a tough home contest against the Green Bay Packers, the Ravens will likely be in no mood for another long, hard game. Don’t be surprised if Jim Caldwell and Flacco go for the big plays early.
The Steelers’ defense is still formidable, but it’s also a year older. James Harrison and Keenan Lewis are gone, however, which will leave holes in the pass rush and secondary. Rookie outside linebacker Jarvis Jones could put some pressure on Flacco, but he could also be picked on in pass coverage. The offense will be operating without top receiver Mike Wallace for the first time since 2009, which means they’ll be relying primarily on Emmauel Sanders, Antonio Brown and Heath Miller (assuming he is healthy). Ben Roethlisberger will have trouble staying on his feet, though, since Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil will spend much of the game destroying the damaged offensive line.
The Ravens come off of their bye week with a trip to Cleveland. On paper, not much will have changed other than the return of Gordon. That, however, could potentially make a big difference in this game. Baltimore’s defense will have to stay alert and be ready for Turner to employ more of a vertical passing attack. Haloti Ngata, Chris Canty and Arthur Jones will have to get in on the pass rush to stifle Brandon Weeden and force the offense to run through Trent Richardson. Turnovers could end up being the difference-maker here.
A week later, Baltimore hosts the Bengals, who could wind up being the Ravens’ toughest divisional opponent in 2013. The jury is still out on Dalton as a franchise quarterback, but Green is well on his way to becoming the NFL‘s next big thing. Rookie Tyler Eifert will give the Ravens’ defense one more headache to deal with, especially if he is coupled with Jermaine Gresham. Giovani Bernard and BenJarvis Green-Ellis will test the run defense early and often. If they can get into a rhythm, the Ravens might have to buckle down late in the game to pull out a win.
The loss of Manny Lawson, as well the Bengals’ shaky safety situation, could make a last-minute win seem more possible, though. The Ravens have no shortage of deep threats that can stretch the field when called on. The offensive line will just have to protect Flacco from Geno Atkins and ex-Steeler Harrison to give him enough time to connect with his downfield targets.
Continuing the theme of ending months with tough games, the Ravens host the Steelers in their final game of November. This final contest between these divisional foes will be nationally televised, so expect it to be long and brutal. It’s certainly possible that Roethlisberger will be sidelined with an injury this deep into the season, which would pit the Ravens against another familiar play-caller in Bruce Gradkowski. It would be easy to pick the Ravens if that happens, but the Steelers have shown in the past that they can still be feisty enough to win tough games with a backup quarterback.
The Ravens end the season with a trip to Cincinnati for the third year in a row. Assuming everyone is healthy for this game, a Bengals victory could be in the cards, especially if they repeat history and end the regular season on a three-game winning streak like they did in 2012.
So, as one can see, it will not be an easy division for the Ravens to play against this year.