For the first time in forever, the AFC North will be missing Ray Lewis, a future Hall of Famer who retired after an exciting Super Bowl win.  That is a good thing for all teams save the defending champion Baltimore Ravens.  How will this division play out?  Can the Ravens repeat?  Are the Bengals ready to contend?  Can the Steelers get back to the playoffs?  Will we pay attention to the Browns?  Here is an 2013 AFC North preview:

Player to watch:  Joe Flacco.  The Ravens' quarterback is now in the category of quarterbacks labeled "Super Bowl champion."  How he reacts to the pressure of being in that group is key in the Ravens' chances to repeat or at the very least make another run at it.  It will be difficult, however, because star receiver Anquan Boldin is in San Francisco and tight end Dennis Pitta is out for the year (dislocated hip).  Plus, Flacco has to live up to that new $120 million contract.

Best division in the NFL?  The AFC North can make the argument.  This division has sent at least two teams to the playoffs the last six seasons and has boasted the Super Bowl champ in three of the last eight seasons (two titles for Pittsburgh and one for Baltimore).

What Steelers team shows-up?  This team went 6-3 last season then lost five of the next six games.  Pittsburgh always starts and ends with three things, a great running game, physical, tough football and a strong offensive line.  Well, those things were missing last year, especially the offensive line.  Marcus Gilbert must be ready to protect Ben Roethlisberger’s blindside.  The best news for the Steelers is safety and defensive leader Troy Polamalu is reportedly in the best playing shape since his college days at USC.

Are the Bengals ready?  They have the talent and the physical play on defense and balance to challenge.  The key will be winning division games.  Andy Dalton at QB has to make all the right decisions against tough defenses for that to happen.  Throwing the ball to A.J. Green will make that easier.

Can the Browns contend?  Probably not.  But they are more talented than last year and have an innovative coaching staff willing to take chances.  Cleveland was in a lot of games last year and could have won a few more easily.

Projected records:  Ravens: 10-6 (division winner).  Bengals:  10-6.  Steelers:  7-9.  Browns:  6-10.

Who do you think will win the AFC North?  Vote here:

By:  Mike Lindsley, "Mid-Day with Mike," M-F 1-4, Yankees pre/post game host on 104.5 The Team ESPN Radio.  Follow The Team on Twitter at

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