Changes atop AFC North, the top playoff division

Changes atop AFC North, the top playoff division
August 28, 2013, 2:24 pm
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Cleveland Browns tight end Dan Gronkowski, top, makes a catch over Indianapolis Colts free safety Antoine Bethea during the first half of a preseason NFL football game in Indianapolis, Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)

(APWF)

No Ray Lewis or Ed Reed steadying Baltimore's championship defense. James Harrison? Traded in his Steelers' black-and-gold for tiger stripes.

There's a lot of change at the top of the AFC North, which has unsurpassed success at sending teams to the playoffs - and winning championships - over the last five years. And there's an upstart contender this time around: a Cincinnati team that has the fewest changes in the league.

Looking for playoff favorites? The North is still the place to be, although the pecking order might be in need of a change.

Five things to watch in the NFL's toughest division:

THE TOUGHEST CORNER ON THE BLOCK: In the last five years, no division has sent more teams to the playoffs than the AFC North - 11 overall. It's the only division that has sent at least two each season, including three in 2011. Those Northerners have reached the Super Bowl three times, claiming two titles.

The Ravens have reached the playoffs each of the last five seasons; the Steelers have reached the Super Bowl twice during that span. Now, newcomers are looking to extend the trend. The champion Ravens have reinvented themselves. The Steelers lost Harrison to the rival Bengals. Cincinnati has been the most stable team - there's a shock! - after elbowing ahead of Pittsburgh last season. Cleveland brought in yet another head coach to try to fix its longstanding mess.

``I don't think anybody that's in the AFC North thinks there's going to be a lapse in Baltimore and Pittsburgh,'' Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. ``They've continued to plug in players and play well for years, so this is nothing new.''

RAY-LESS AND REED-LESS RAVENS: Lewis was in the spotlight with his pregame dance and inspiring play as the Ravens won their second Super Bowl title. Trophy in hand, the middle linebacker retired, and the Ravens decided it was time to overhaul a defense that finished 17th last season and nearly let a big lead get away in the Super Bowl. They brought in ends Chris Canty and Marcus Spears, linebackers Elvis Dumervil and Daryl Smith, and safety Michael Huff.

``There's no place but to go up from last year,'' tackle Arthur Jones said.

Plus, the Ravens have Joe Flacco and Ray Rice and have shown they know how to win the big games, making the defending champs the ones to beat.

ONE AND DONE: The Bengals spent the offseason keeping their roster virtually intact. In the old Bungles days, that would have been a sign of more trouble. Not anymore. The Bengals have reached the playoffs each of the last two seasons with a young defense ranked among the top 10 and an offense growing around third-year quarterback Andy Dalton and star receiver A.J. Green.

They've proven they've got enough to reach the playoffs as a wild card. The challenge is to get there for the third year in a row - something the Bengals have never done - and actually win in the postseason. They lost in Houston in the last two seasons, extending their streak without a playoff victory to 22 years. Maybe this is the year it finally ends.

``You can look at different teams and say, `Well they've got this, they've got this.' We have just as good as anybody else,'' cornerback Terence Newman said.

BEN THE HARRIED: The Steelers have too much experience watching their offense with Ben Roethlisberger injured. They're trying to keep him healthy by cobbling together a young offensive line - only one player older than 25 - and drafting running back Le'Veon Bell for a little spice in the running game. Bell hurt his left knee and sprained his right foot, sidelining him for the start of the season. Roethlisberger and offensive coordinator Todd Haley have tried to develop a better working relationship.

``You want your guys that are out there, especially Ben who is handling the football on hopefully an every-down basis, to feel invested in what's going on,'' Haley said.

Even though Harrison left, there's still plenty on a defense that ranked No. 1 last season. And the Steelers feel a bit like an underdog coming off an 8-8 season. ``We have a lot to prove,'' Brett Keisel said.

RUNNING IN PLACE ... LAST PLACE: The Browns settled on Brandon Weeden as their quarterback for the second straight season, a small step forward for a franchise in flux since it returned as an expansion team in 1999. Cleveland hired Rob Chudzinski, its sixth head coach in those 15 years, and set about trying to dig out of its futility. Cleveland has 12 losing records in the last 14 years and hasn't won more than five games in any of the last five seasons.

The Browns have repeatedly changed not only coaches but quarterbacks - Tim Couch, Kelly Holcomb, Jeff Garcia, Trent Dilfer, Charlie Frye, Derek Anderson, Brady Quinn, Colt McCoy and Weeden - without so much as putting together two winning seasons in a row. Still a long, long way to go.

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org

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