Posted: September 3, 2013, 1:31 PM ; Updated: September 3, 2013, 2:50 PM
1. Baltimore Ravens
2012 record: 10–6
The reigning Super Bowl champions enter 2013 without some players who carried them to the title. LB Ray Lewis retired, safety Ed Reed signed with the Houston Texans, and WRAnquanBoldin was traded. The Ravens did re-sign QB Joe Flacco, who threw 11 touchdown passes and no interceptions in last season's playoffs. He will be supported by an elite RB in Ray Rice (1,621 total yards). Torrey Smith or Jacoby Jones will have to step up as go-to receivers. The off-season additions of safety Michael Huff (12 passes defensed for Oakland) and LB Elvis Dumervil (11 sacks for Denver) will help the defense transition from the Lewis-Reed era. Baltimore also added youth to the unit by choosing defensive players with its first four 2013 draft picks.
BOTTOM LINE: The changes on D make another Super Bowl run unlikely, but Baltimore will still rule this division.
2. Cincinnati Bengals
2012 record: 10–6
The Bengals are looking to build off two straight playoff appearances. Led by star DT Geno Atkins (12½ sacks) and DEs Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson (11½), Cincinnati was third in the NFL in sacks. They could be even better with the addition of 2008 Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison (from Pittsburgh). The offense is a work in progress. QB Andy Dalton (3,669 passing yards, 27 TDs) has established a connection with star WR A.J. Green (1,350 receiving yards, 11 TDs), but BenJarvus Green-Ellis (1,094 yards) and rookie Giovani Bernard need to amp up a sluggish ground attack.
BOTTOM LINE: The Bengals are a team on the rise. If Baltimore's new players struggle, Cincy could win the North.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers
2012 record: 8–8
A third-place finish for the Steelers is a rare sight, but that was the result of the team's first nonwinning season since 2006. LB James Harrison, the team's heart and soul, was released and replaced with rookie Jarvis Jones, who had 28 sacks over his last two seasons at Georgia. On offense the Steelers are expecting big plays from WRs Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders, who should jell with QB Ben Roethlisberger (3,265 passing yards, 26 TDs). Pittsburgh's ground game is not the force it once was. But 245-pound rookie Le'Veon Bell could help rejuvenate Pittsburgh's rushing attack.
BOTTOM LINE: Coach Mike Tomlin will keep his squad competitive, but Baltimore and Cincinnati have stronger teams.
4. Cleveland Browns
2012 record: 5–11
The Browns won't be great this year, but things are looking up for this young team. Rob Chudzinski, who groomed Cam Newton in Carolina, takes over as head coach and will help the development of second-year QB Brandon Weeden (3,385 passing yards, 14 TDs). The focus of the offense will be on RB Trent Richardson, who had 11 rushing touchdowns as a rookie. Cleveland's defense ranked 23rd in the league last year but is loaded with raw talent. Rookie LB BarkeviousMingo will improve the pass rush and take pressure off CB Joe Haden (10 passes defensed) and the rest of the secondary.
BOTTOM LINE: The Browns are inching closer to respectability. The playoffs are a possibility — next season.
DID YOU KNOW?
The Browns had 219 total games played by rookies last season. That was 43 more than the next-closest team (the Rams, with 176).
PHOTOS: DAMIAN STROHMEYER FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (RAVENS, BENGALS), ROBERT BECK/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (STEELERS), GREG NELSON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (BROWNS)