Good News/Bad News (2013 AFC North)

By Russell S. Baxter

Pro Football Guru

And down the stretch we come.

It may technically still be the offseason, but there’s never a bad time when it comes to reminiscing NFL-style.

Here’s the sixth of our eight divisional reviews of the 2013 season, in which we look at the positives and negatives for all 32 teams, with a twinge of recent history and trends as well. We’ve already taken a look at the NFC West, the AFC West, the NFC South, the AFC South and the NFC North.

Next up on the list is the division that has produced an NFL-high three Super Bowl titles since realignment in 2002: the AFC North.

Cincinnati Bengals (11-5)

Good News: While the team’s postseason losses continue to take center stage in some circles, the fact is that Bengals’ head coach Marvin Lewis has done a pretty solid job with a franchise that had once hit near rock bottom.

Only New England’s Bill Belichick (2000) has a longer active tenure as head coach with one team than Lewis, who was hired by the Bengals in 2003. Including playoffs, Lewis now owns a 90-90-1 overall record with the team in 11 seasons and taken the club to the postseason five times, including a team-record three straight years. From 1992-02, Cincinnati was a combined 52-124 under head coaches David Shula (19-52), Bruce Coslet (21-39) and Dick LeBeau (12-33)…

Only the Seattle Seahawks (1st) and Carolina Panthers (2nd) gave up fewer total yards than the Bengals this past season. In fact, Cincinnati (3rd) was the only AFC team to rank in the Top 6 in total defense in 2013, ranking just ahead of the New Orleans Saints (4th), San Francisco 49ers (5th) and Arizona Cardinals (6th). Lewis and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer saw their unit finish fifth versus both the run and the pass this past season, the only team in the NFL to finish in the Top 5 in each category this past season…

Bad News: It’s a case of déjà vu that the organization would care to do without. For the third straight season, the Bengals reached the playoffs but fell in the Wild Card round, this time at home to the 9-7 San Diego Chargers.  That means the franchise still hasn’t won a playoff game since beating Houston--as in the Oilers and as in the 1990 Wild Card Playoffs at since-demolished Riverfront Stadium/Cinergy Field. The Bengals still own the longest current drought in the league when it comes to not winning a postseason contest…

Although they finished with a plus-1 turnover differential in 2013, Cincinnati committed 30 turnovers during the regular season, the most amongst the 12 playoff teams. A year earlier, the Bengals coughed up the ball 26 times, second-most among the dozen playoff participants that season…

Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8)

Good News:

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger completed his 10th NFL season by throwing for 4,261 yards and twice as many touchdown passes (28) as interceptions (14). During the team’s 2-6 start, the veteran signal-caller was under duress, throwing for a dozen scores while serving up nine interceptions and being sacked 31 times. But Mike Tomlin’s club would rebound to win six of its final eight games and Big Ben came up big, as did the offensive line. The savvy quarterback threw for 16 scores while being sacked just 11 times and being picked off on just five occasions…

It was a banner year for emerging wide receiver Antonio Brown, who finished second in the NFL in both catches (110) and receiving yards (1,499) and catching eight touchdown passes. The four-year pro caught at least five passes in each of this 16 outings and totaled 100 or more receiving yards in five contests…

Bad News: While the Steelers continue to rank amongst the best teams in the league in terms of teams moving the ball against them, the lack of big plays by the defense has begun to catch up with them. Over the last two years, Mike Tomlin’s team has totaled just 55 takeaways in 48 regular-season contests (15 in 2011, 20 in both 2012 and ‘13). During the team’s Super Bowl XLV season, the Steelers forced 35 turnovers in 16 regular-season tilts…

While the Steelers won six of their last eight games and the defense played somewhat better, the team finished 13th in the NFL in total yards allowed, the first time since 1999 that Pittsburgh was not ranked in the Top 10 in the league in fewest yards allowed. From 2000-12, the franchise had allowed the first yards in the NFL six times in 13 seasons…

Baltimore Ravens (8-8)

Good News: After a 49-27 opening-night loss to the Denver Broncos and quarterback Peyton Manning, it figured to be a very long year for the once-proud Baltimore defense. That night in the Mile High City, the prolific signal-caller tied an NFL record with seven touchdown passes in the thrashing of the then-defending Super Bowl champions. But Harbaugh’s defensive unit would rebound and play pretty respectable football (with an occasional glitch) for the majority of the season. The Ravens’ defensive unit allowed only 25 offensive touchdowns in its final 15 outings and limited eight of those opponents to 20 points or less…

Bad News: Harbaugh’s team fell off the map in terms of the offense that helped propel the team to a win in Super Bowl XLVII. During the club’s four-game postseason run in 2012, the Ravens ran for a total of 539 yards, a healthy average of 134.8 yards per game. But Baltimore managed a mere 1,328 rushing yards (83.0 YPG) in 16 games this past season. The lack of balance and support was just one reason quarterback Joe Flacco threw a career-high 22 interceptions in 2013. The previous year, the six-year pro was picked off just 10 times in 20 total outings, including zero interceptions during the team’s Super postseason run…

The hits and misses continued for the Ravens the past season when it came to success at home and struggles on the road. Baltimore was 6-2 at home, allowing 141 points and eight total touchdowns in those contests. But in an equal amount of road games, the Ravens won just twice, giving up 211 points and 23 touchdowns in those eight contests. Dating back to 2011, Baltimore is 22-4 at home, 12-15 on the road and a memorable 1-0 at a neutral site, the latter being the team’s Super Bowl XLVII win at New Orleans in 2012…

Cleveland Browns (4-12)

The Good News: It was another disappointing year in Cleveland but one of the truly bright spots was second-year wide receiver Josh Gordon, who went from being suspended for the first two games of the season to leading the league with 1,646 receiving yards on 2013. Gordon totaled 147 more yards than second-place finisher Antonio Brown (1,499) of the Steelers and set an NFL record during the season by becoming the first player in league annals to total at least 200 receiving yards in back-to-back games. In the team’s final seven games of the season, the young wideout totaled 52 receptions for 1,020 yards and six touchdowns. Unfortunately for the Browns, they lost each of those contests…

More baby steps: Cleveland finished 18th in the league vs. the run a year after ranking 19th in the NFL in rushing defense in 2012; in 12 of the previous 13 seasons from 1999-2011, the team finished in the Bottom 6 of the league in this statistic…

The Bad News: It wasn’t that long ago that the Browns appeared headed in the right direction. But since posting a 10-6 mark and missing the playoffs in 2007, the team has lost at least 11 games in six straight seasons and is a woeful 27-69 dating back to 2008. That means since their return to the NFL in 1999, the franchise owns a dismal 77-163 record (.321), made one playoff appearance (‘02) and has finished above .500 just twice in 15 seasons…

Despite showing some improvement in terms of scoring points, the Browns continue to have their issues in this department. Cleveland totaled 308 points in 2013, slightly up from the previous season (302). Still, the Browns have been limited to 17 points or less in 31-of-48 games dating back to 2011…