The AFC North has had plenty of parity. Since being renamed, the Steelers, Ravens and Bengals all have multiple division titles. Each team has won it at least once in the past four years. The only outlier? Cleveland, again the long shot on NFL odds.
1. Cincinnati Bengals (+200 on NFL odds to win)
The Bengals have made the postseason three years in a row for the first time in franchise history, yet the two guys given much of the credit for that, Coach Marvin Lewis and quarterback Andy Dalton, are on the hot seat this season. Why? Cincinnati, and especially Dalton, has flopped in each of those postseasons. Last year's home loss to heavy underdog San Diego was the worst of the three. If the Bengals don't win at least one playoff game this season, Lewis might be a goner. Dalton wants to be paid like a franchise quarterback with his deal expiring, but the notoriously thrifty Bengals haven't be exactly been sprinting to the negotiating table to do that. They also drafted Alabama's A.J. McCarron in this year's draft.
That said, the Bengals still are the most well-rounded team in the division. I'd take Dalton, the regular-season version, over Joe Flacco if not Ben Roethlisberger. A.J. Green is perhaps the most unguardable receiver in the NFL other than Calvin Johnson. Cincinnati has nice running back depth with Giovani Bernard, BenJarvus Green-Ellis and new draftee Jeremy Hill. The Bengals were No. 3 in total defense last year despite a few key injuries on that side of the ball. Lewis does have the unenviable job of replacing both coordinators, with Jay Gruden (offense) now the head coach in Washington and Mike Zimmer (defense) in Minnesota.
2. Baltimore Ravens (+250 on NFL odds to win)
The Ravens clearly suffered from a Super Bowl hangover last year, but that's certainly been known to happen. Flacco got his huge new contract, which forced the Ravens to cut several key players, and he totally regressed. Flacco completed only 59 percent of his passes for 19 touchdowns and 22 picks, a rating of 32nd that was worse than the likes of Chad Henne, Jason Campbell, Christian Ponder, Case Keenum and Kellen Clemens. Those five probably didn't make as much combined as Flacco last year. The running game also was disaster with Ray Rice having his worst season. He's potentially facing a suspension to start 2014 after being arrested for an incident with his fiancée. He has been charged with aggravated assault. You have to think he gets at least two games. Baltimore held on to most of its key free agents this offseason and added former Panthers receiver Steve Smith, who still appears to have plenty left in the tank.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers (+240 on NFL odds to win)
It's hard to get a read on this team, and I wonder if Mike Tomlin is in trouble should Pittsburgh have a third straight non-winning season for the first time since 1969-71. The Steelers are very loyal to their coaches, but they also have a standard for excellence. If Roethlisberger plays all 16 games again, which he did last year for the first time since 2008, this team should contend for the division. However, the skill position talent around him is probably no better than average and you don't even want to know who the backup quarterback is should Big Ben miss multiple games. In some respects the schedule was kind because the Steelers should open with a win as they host Cleveland (as 6-point favorites on NFL odds), and close with a home game against the Bengals that could be for the division.
4. Cleveland Browns (+600 on NFL odds to win)
This is a major transition year. There's a new coach in Mike Pettine, a hire that didn't exactly fire up the fan base, a new running back in Ben Tate and, most important, a new franchise quarterback, the team hopes, in Johnny Manziel. The only question is when he takes over for projected starter Brian Hoyer. Manziel/Hoyer has the worst group of receivers in the NFL with the suspension of Josh Gordon, who led the league in receiving yards in 2013. But the Browns are getting there. The offensive line is very good, and the secondary should be too with the drafting of Justin Gilbert.
Free NFL Picks: No team has ever won the AFC North with just nine victories, but that quite possible this year. One key injury to the Bengals, Ravens or Steelers could change everything. They are all bunched together fairly close. Cincinnati is the choice for now.