Changes atop AFC North, the top playoff division

Changes atop AFC North, the top playoff division
August 28, 2013, 2:24 pm
Share This Post

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.

---

AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org

Texans - Team News
Jadeveon Clowney - LB
According to HoustonTexans.com, there's a "decent chance" Jadeveon Clowney (knee)... "He feels good," coach Bill O'Brien said Monday. "Well see how it goes this week in practice. We'll be able to make a determination pretty soon about whether...
Oct 21 3:58PM Read More
Garrett Graham - TE
Garrett Graham caught two passes for 24 yards in the Texans' Week 7 loss to the Steelers. Graham was targeted three times, but dropped the other. It can be considered one of Graham's better statistical games of the season, which obviously means he's nowhere near...
Oct 20 11:31PM Read More
Andre Johnson - WR
Andre Johnson caught five passes for 77 yards in the Texans' Week 7 loss to the Steelers on... Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins each saw a team-high nine targets. There was nothing special about Johnson's night. His biggest play was a 24-yard grab on a deep in route in...
Oct 20 11:25PM Read More
DeAndre Hopkins - WR
DeAndre Hopkins caught six passes for 108 yards in the Texans' Week 7 loss to the Steelers on... Hopkins and Andre Johnson each saw a team-high nine targets. Ryan Fitzpatrick threw it to whichever receiver was working against embattled Steelers CB Cortez Allen. ...
Oct 20 11:16PM Read More
Alfred Blue - RB
Alfred Blue rushed for 14 yards on five carries and caught an 11-yard touchdown in the Texans'... Blue was the vulture on the opening-drive 11-yard score after Arian Foster managed 59 rushing yards to get the Texans near the goal line. Foster is an every-down back,...
Oct 20 11:09PM Read More
Ryan Fitzpatrick - QB
Ryan Fitzpatrick completed 21-of-32 passes for 262 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception... Fitzpatrick played well for much of the first half, leading the Texans on three consecutive scoring drives to open the game. It was a train wreck thereafter. One play...
Oct 20 10:56PM Read More
Arian Foster - RB
Arian Foster rushed for 102 yards on 20 carries in the Texans' 30-23, Week 7 loss to the... Foster got off to a blazing start, rushing for 59 yards on the Texans' 94-yard opening touchdown drive, but was vultured by Alfred Blue for the 11-yard touchdown catch to...
Oct 20 10:47PM Read More
Jadeveon Clowney - LB
Jadeveon Clowney (knee) is inactive for Monday night's Week 7 game against the Steelers. Clowney's lateral agility wasn't where the Texans wanted it to be in pre-game warmups. He's been out since undergoing knee surgery after Week 1. Whitney Mercilus is...
Oct 20 6:09PM Read More
DeAndre Hopkins - WR
DeAndre Hopkins (hand) is probable for Week 7. The Texans listed Hopkins on the injury report, but his status was never in doubt. He'll be a WR3 for Monday night against the Steelers.
Oct 18 2:54PM Read More
Arian Foster - RB
Arian Foster (groin) is probable for Monday night's game against the Steelers. Foster was limited on Thursday, but practiced in full the last two days. He should have another heavy workload against a Steelers defense that's allowing 4.4 yards per carry...
Oct 18 2:48PM Read More
Andre Johnson - WR
Andre Johnson (ankle) was upgraded to full in Saturday's practice and is listed as probable for... Johnson is good to go for Monday night's matchup with the Steelers. He's Rotoworld's No. 15 receiver this week.
Oct 18 2:39PM Read More
Jadeveon Clowney - LB
Texans OLB Jadeveon Clowney (knee) is listed as questionable for Monday night's game against... Clowney got in two limited practices this week, but said he still "can't run laterally." He could be held out in an attempt to get fully healthy for Week 8. If...
Oct 18 2:20PM Read More
Jadeveon Clowney - LB
Texans OLB Jadeveon Clowney (knee) returned to practice Friday. It was Clowney's first practice since undergoing knee surgery in Week 1. He's expected to be a game-time decision for Monday night. Clowney will likely be on a limited snap...
Oct 17 6:08PM Read More
Arian Foster - RB
Arian Foster (groin) was upgraded to full in Friday's practice. Foster suffered a groin injury in last Thursday's loss to the Colts, but his Week 7 status isn't in doubt. He should be fine for Monday night against the Steelers.
Oct 17 6:02PM Read More
Andre Johnson - WR
Andre Johnson (ankle) remained limited in Friday's practice. The Texans are limiting Johnson's practice reps, but he's expected to play on Monday night. Johnson is Rotoworld's No. 15 receiver this week.
Oct 17 5:53PM Read More