Just a little more than seven months after winning the Super Bowl, the Baltimore Ravens open up the 2013 season by traveling to Denver featuring a much different team than the one that hoisted the Lombardi Trophy.
That's not to say that the Ravens won't have a chance at repeating, which was the concern about a week into free agency. After losing key players like Ray Lewis, Matt Birk, Dannell Ellerbe, Cary Williams, Ed Reed, Anquan Boldin, Paul Kruger and Bernard Pollard from last year's Super Bowl team, it looked like the Ravens might be in for a rebuilding season.
Things changed drastically when Denver botched paperwork with Elvis Dumervil, allowing the Ravens to swoop in and grab a dynamic pass rusher that fits perfectly in their defensive system. Chris Canty and Marcus Spears added more depth along the defensive line, an area of concern heading into the offseason, and Michael Huff gives the Ravens a really talented safety who could blossom in their organization. Just like that, the Ravens were back in the hunt.
The Ravens were also able to add Daryl Smith, a veteran linebacker, after the Rolando McClain fiasco. Smith is coming off of an injury but previously lead the Jaguars in tackles and could thrive in Baltimore.
The NFL Draft certainly didn't hurt either, as the Ravens replaced Reed with play-making safety Matt Elam and Lewis with linebacker Arthur Brown. Brandon Williams won't get much publicity coming from a small school, but he could be a beast in the middle of the defensive line.
There is definitely concern on offense with the loss of Boldin and the season-ending injury to Dennis Pitta. The offense struggled mightily in the preseason, as the team couldn't find a reliable target outside of Torrey Smith.
The defense has a chance to be great, but it might take awhile for everything to come together. Given the problems on offense, the Ravens will need to run the ball and play well defensively (that formula sounds so familiar) to get back to the postseason.
While the Ravens will once again have to overcome a difficult schedule to win the AFC North, they should remain the cream-of-the-crop in the division.
Pittsburgh still has Ben Roethslisberger, but their offensive line and his style of play is making it hard for him to stay on the field. They are still an old team that isn't necessarily rebuilding, but trying to make some changes on the fly without any cap room with which to work.
After watching them in the preseason, I have major concerns. They can't run the ball at all, they can't protect the quarterback and while Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders are quality wideouts, they will miss Mike Wallace's ability to stretch the field vertically. If Roethlisberger can stay healthy, he will single-handedly keep the Steelers around .500, but I'm not sure how he avoids injury behind that o-line.
Cincinnati has shown signs the past couple of years of trying to make push at the division title, but it seems they've hit their ceiling. The Bengals have beaten very few teams with a winning record over the past few seasons and it's becoming painfully obvious that Andy Dalton doesn't have the talent to consistently win games, only not lose them. Until the Bengals prove they can beat some of the league's better teams, it's hard to take them too seriously. That said, there is talent on both sides of the ball.
Cleveland is a team on the rise, but good quarterback play is a must to succeed in this era of football. Maybe Brandon Weeden can make a huge leap forward, but other than Joe Thomas and Trent Richardson, there is no talent on the offensive side of the ball. The defense looks very strong and will keep them in games, and the disparity in the division between the Browns and everyone else should continue to close this year.
Predicted Finish of AFC North: