Could Bengals Rule AFC North?
By JOE KAY
AP Sports Writer
CINCINNATI – They do things a little differently in the AFC North.
They’re patient with their coaches and quarterbacks – well, with the exception of Cleveland, which is in a league of its own when it comes to change.
They develop a style and stick with it, win or lose.
And it’s worked.
The AFC North is coming off what amounts to a down year for the NFL’s most successful division over the past six years.
Only one team reached the playoffs, Cincinnati, which lost in the opening round for the third year in a row.
The Bengals’ response? Give the coach and the quarterback contract extensions.
“You see some of the teams in the North, just the way they go about the game is a little different from some teams across the league,” Bengals offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said.
Defending champion Cincinnati has undergone the fewest offseason changes, aiming for a franchise-record fourth straight trip to the playoffs.
The Steelers and Ravens have adjusted their rosters, but stayed with their overriding philosophies.
And then there’s Cleveland, where the only thing that hasn’t got lost in the shuffle is the nonstop losing.
Some things to watch in the AFC North this season:
THE DOMINANT DIVISION: No other division has sent as many teams to the playoffs over the last six years. A dozen teams reached the postseason over that span, two more than any other division. The North’s streak of five straight years with multiple playoff teams ended last season.
Northerners have reached the Super Bowl three times over that span, claiming two titles. Last year was the first time since the 2009 season that the North didn’t get at least one playoff victory.
ANDY’S TIME: No quarterback in the division will be under more scrutiny than Andy Dalton, who has been as good as it gets during the regular season, and at his very worst in the playoffs. The Bengals gave him a six-year contract extension even though he’s 0-3 in the postseason.
He fell apart during the second half of a 27-10 playoff loss to San Diego last season. The Bengals haven’t won a playoff game since 1990, tied for the sixth-longest streak of futility in league history.
“The guys have stuck with me from the time that I’ve been here,” Dalton said. “I had to earn their respect at the beginning and now I feel like I have their respect. Yeah, the (playoff) game didn’t go how we wanted it to. I was a big part of the reason why we lost.”
LET BEN BE BEN: The Steelers went 6-2 down the stretch to stay in playoff contention last season before finishing 8-8, missing out on the postseason for the second year in a row. The Steelers gave two-time Super Bowl champion Ben Roethlisberger more freedom in a no-huddle offense during the late surge and will be looking for more of the same.
Only seven players were left from their last Super Bowl title team when they opened camp.
“There is a sense of urgency,” said receiver Lance Moore, one of the newcomers. “We know 8-8 is not what this organization is all about. This organization is about competing for championships and we’re going to be willing to do whatever it takes to get back to that.”
RUN, RAVENS, RUN: The Ravens had one of those miserable Super Bowl follow-up seasons. After beating San Francisco for the Lombardi Trophy after the 2012 season, they lost linebacker Ray Lewis to retirement, then won only eight games as their offense fell apart.
Joe Flacco threw 19 touchdowns and 22 interceptions while getting sacked a career-high 48 times. Ray Rice managed only 660 yards as the Ravens finished 30th in rushing – last in yards per carry. Baltimore brought in Gary Kubiak as offensive coordinator. Rice will miss the first two games under suspension for his arrest on a domestic violence charge.
Kubiak has Flacco moving around more in the pocket, but it’s the running game that will decide whether the Ravens can shake off their only non-playoff season since coach John Harbaugh took over in 2008.
“There’s no doubt about it, we’ve got some weapons out there,” Flacco said.
THE BROWNS WAY: While the rest of the division hangs onto its quarterbacks and coaches, the Browns do things their way. Since returning as an expansion team in 1999, they’ve had seven full-time coaches and 20 starting quarterbacks. The last coach, Rob Chudzinski, got only one season. Replacement Mike Pettine takes over a team that has gone 4-12, 5-11, 5-11, 4-12, 5-11 and 4-12 in the last six seasons.
Cleveland was revved up by Johnny Manziel’s arrival, stoking hopes the team finally had a franchise quarterback. He failed to win the starting job in camp – that went to Brian Hoyer – but gained national attention for raising his middle finger toward the Washington bench during a preseason game.
Johnny Football already knows what it’s like to be frustrated in constantly changing Cleveland.
Predicted order of finish: Cincinnati; Pittsburgh; Baltimore; Cleveland.