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Football.com's Big, Bad NFL Preview Series: AFC North

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Terrell Suggs returned from a torn Achilles tendon to help lead the Ravens to a Super Bowl victory, but even winning the AFC North in 2013 will be a tough task thanks to improvements in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. Photo by Harry How/Getty Images.
Terrell Suggs returned from a torn Achilles tendon to help lead the Ravens to a Super Bowl victory, but even winning the AFC North in 2013 will be a tough task thanks to improvements in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. Photo by Harry How/Getty Images.

For over a decade, the AFC North has ran through the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens. The two perennial powers have combined to win four Super Bowls since the turn of the century and have developed one of the game's fiercest rivalries, but only one of them – the Ravens – managed to make it to the postseason last year. Baltimore limped into the playoffs, but with now-retired LB Ray Lewis returning from injury and QB Joe Flacco playing at an elite level, the team managed to take down the San Francisco 49ers in New Orleans to capture the Lombardi Trophy. Now armed with a huge new contract, Flacco will be expected to carry a team that has endured incredible roster turnover since that historic win, and repeating as AFC North champions could be a major challenge.

The Steelers worked hard to get younger this offseason, investing high draft choices in LB Jarvis Jones and RB Le'Veon Bell to upgrade key positions. Bell could miss significant time due to a Lisfranc injury, but the team remains optimistic they can return to the playoffs after a disappointing 2012 season. Meanwhile, coach Marvin Lewis and the Cincinnati Bengals have quietly built a talented team that could contend for the Super Bowl this season. After making the playoffs two straight seasons as a wild-card team behind young QB Andy Dalton, Lewis thinks this Bengals squad will be ready to take the next step and contend for the AFC crown. As for the Cleveland Browns, the team will once again be breaking in a new head coach, but young talents like RB Trent Richardson and WR Josh Gordon could lead to a bright future for a franchise that has enjoyed very little success since returning to the NFL in 1999.