Last season, HHSR celebrated the start of the 2012 NFL season with a monstrous two-part column featuring all of our predictions for the year. This season, we’re shaking things up a bit by hitting football fans in the head with smaller previews of each division. And what better place to start than the AFC North?

Home of the Super Bowl Champions three of the last eight years (most of any division), the AFC North is a division not for the faint of heart. No divisional foursome has better exemplified old school smash mouth football over the course of the last decade that this one, which is probably why the team that comes out on top is typically a tough out in the postseason. Of course, the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers are responsible for 98% of everything said in this paragraph. That could all change in 2013 though.

The defending Super Bowl Champion Ravens went on an improbable run this past winter that resulted in the franchise’s second championship. While emotional leaders Ed Reed and “Pastor” Ray Lewis rallied the troops in the locker room, it was quarterback Joe Flacco that strung together the best stretch of football in his career and propelled Baltimore to a title. This season, Lewis and Reed are gone — lost to retirement and the Houston Texans respectively — as are leaders Anquan Boldin, Paul Kruger, Dannell Ellerbe and Cary Williams, all of whom were pivotal to the Ravens Super Bowl run.

You trust Flacco to drag the Ravens to a repeat? I sure don’t. That title run he went on last year seemed madd Eli Manning-ish, and not in a good way. In four playoff games, Pretty Flacco threw 11 TDs and zero picks, with an average passer rating of 118.1 over that stretch. Compare that with his career 1.8:1 TD to INT ratio and his 86.3 passer rating, along with the Super Bowl MVP’s new six-year, $120.6 million contract and it’s not hard to be a Flacco skeptic. Expectations for this guy are all the way out of wack now.

You can replace the speed on the the field (and the addition of Elvis Dumervil doesn’t hurt), but you can’t replace that leadership and those intangibles. As trite as it might be, the Ravens will take a step back this year.

Sidebar: That Flacco deal is the richest contract EVER in the NFL! That would be like 2 Chainz being the highest paid rapper of all-time. It’s one thing to have a great year when no one was paying attention. It’s another to have a great year when it’s expected of you, and you’re getting paid as such.

Meanwhile, the Steelers will continue to moonwalk to the bottom of the AFC North if they can’t figure out their offensive line and running back problems. In addition to the reoccurring protection issues, Pittsburgh is scrambling to find an adequate tailback after their second round pick Le’Veon Bell injured his foot last week. They let Mike Wallace take his talents to South Beach and James Harrison walk to division rival Cincinnati. The normally stout Pittsburgh D has been hit & miss in recent years; if they aren’t up to the task of carrying the team this year, the Steelers could easily find themselves in the AFC North basement.

The Bengals meanwhile continue to trend upward. In addition to making their second appearance as the subject of HBO’s Hard Knocks — they went 10-6 and won the division the first time they appeared on the show back in 2009 — Cincinnati is poised to take a significant step forward this season. Andy Dalton and A.J. Green are in their third season together and are already an elite quarterback/flanker duo. The Queen City also added pieces to their skill positions (tight end and running back) via the draft. Additionally, the Bengals finished third in the NFL in sacks last year and added the menacing yet highly unlikable Harrison; if they can continue to get after the quarterback, making the playoffs for the third consecutive season should be a formality.

The other Ohio team bypassed the TV route and decided to take their act straight to the silver screen.

Despite the Hollywood-like soap opera that hangs over their ownership, the Browns are also heading in the right direction. Cleveland’s defense was slept on last year, but performed well in enough stretches to inspire confidence from their downtrodden fan base. This spring, they added Desmond Bryant, Quentin Groves, Baltimore’s Paul Kruger and first round pick Barkevious Mingo to a group that included Phil Taylor, Jabaal Sheard and Ahtyba Rubin, to create a potentially dominant front seven. Second-year signal caller Brandon Weeden will have new offensive coordinator Norv Turner to lean on, as Turner will be calling the plays. If Weeden can get the offense to put up more than nine points per game as they have for the last 10 years, the Browns and new head coach Rob Chudzinski could contend for a wildcard spot.

AFC North Champion: Cincinnati Bengals

While the Ravens and Steelers seem to be struggling to stay afloat as the division’s elite, the young Bengals continue to blossom under head coach Marvin Lewis. Lewis is now the second longest tenured coach in the NFL behind Bill Belichick, yet his Bengals have never made it beyond the wildcard round of the playoffs. For Cincinnati, the stars appear to be aligning in 2013. With the Pittsburgh and Baltimore scrambling to keep up with their own metrics of consistency and the Bengals continued growth, Cincy should find themselves in the driver’s seat heading into January.

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