2013 Packers Schedule Preview: AFC North

Al Bello

The Packers will be playing the teams of the AFC North in 2013. Much has happened since the last time Green Bay faced that division in 2009 or the Steelers in the Super Bowl in 2010. Here is where we make sense of those changes and preview the Packers' four games against that division.

Owing to the current NFL schedule rotations, the Green Bay Packers draw one AFC division every year. This upcoming year, 2013, Green Bay will draw and play the AFC North. The venues for the games will be reversed from the 2009 season and will be the same as in 2005.

Baltimore Ravens

2012 record: 10-6 (won Super Bowl).
2009 result (@ Lambeau Field): Packers 27, Ravens 14

Of course, going to face the defending Super Bowl champions, in their back yard no less, is no easy task. The Packers will have to deal with that in the 2013 season, as they will be making their first trip to Baltimore since 2005.

The last time the Packers saw the Baltimore Ravens, it was at Lambeau Field, and the teams combined for over 300 yards in penalties. Flacco and Ray Rice are holdovers from the 2009 game, but that's where the similarities end. In 2009, the Ravens rotated Rice and Le'Ron McClain in the backfield and had Mark Clayton, Derrick Mason, and Todd Heap catching passes. They have since added former Packer Vonta Leach as fullback to complement Rice and switched to Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin at wide receiver, and Ed Dickson at tight end. However, Boldin left the Ravens and signed a contract with the 49ers just a few weeks ago, after refusing to take a pay cut. Dickson is also a restricted free agent this offseason.

On defense, the Ravens were led until the Super Bowl by Ray Lewis. His departure will leave Terrell Suggs as the de facto captain of their defense. Lewis played in only six games last year, turning much of the defensive chores over to Jameel McClain. The Ravens' defense will also be hurt by the loss of longtime free safety Ed Reed as well. In his place right now is Omar Brown, but Brown was credited with only two tackles last season.

In short, this will be a very tough game despite the fact that several of the Ravens' top playmakers have left due to free agency.

Cincinnati Bengals

2012 record: 10-6 (lost AFC Wild-Card to Houston Texans)
2009 result (@ Lambeau Field): Bengals 31, Packers 24

Ordinarily, the Bengals would be a pushover, but last year, they improved to 10-6 and made the playoffs for the second straight year. They also made the playoffs in 2009, the last time they faced the Packers. They have undergone massive changes on both sides of the ball since that game. Despite these changes, the Packers' trip to Cincinnati in 2013 will nevertheless be a tough one, although probably not as tough as the trip to Baltimore.

The Bengals in 2009 offered a roster that featured Carson Palmer at quarterback, Chad Johnson and Laveranues Coles at wide receiver, and Daniel Coats and John Paul Faschi at tight end. Cedric Benson was their main running back threat that year (whatever happened to Benson, anyway?). Unlike the Ravens, the Bengals' offense retains none of those players.

Andy Dalton is now at quarterback, entering his third year as a starter. Their receiver position in 2012 was unsettled. A. J. Green is unquestionably their top receiver, but the other wideout position was a mess as no one else started more than five games at wide receiver last year. Jermaine Gresham, at tight end, is coming off a Pro Bowl appearance and the Bengals made a splash a few years ago when they took Ben-Jarvus Green-Ellis from the New England Patriots.

Defensively, the Bengals' defense lacked major names in 2009 as well as 2012. Dhani Jones is gone, their leading tackler from the 2009 season. The main name that has been retained through the years is Chris Crocker, despite his being released and then re-signed with the Bengals in the 2011-2012 offseason.

To summarize, this will also be a difficult game, especially given that it will be in Ohio. The Bengals are stocked with young talent, and keeping up with their speed will be a must in this game.

Cleveland Browns

2012 record: 5-11
2009 result (@ Cleveland): Packers 31, Browns 3

The Cleveland Browns have struggled in all phases since their 10-6 season in 2007, and they capped their fifth straight season with five wins or fewer in 2012. Making matters worse for Browns fans is the fact that they have to go to Lambeau Field in this game. The Packers blew out the Browns in Cleveland in 2009.

The Browns' situation in 2009 was a disaster. Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson rotated the job as starting quarterback and threw to Joshua Cribbs and Mohamed Massaquoi. Jerome Harrison was their running back and their tight end was Robert Royal. How bad were the Browns in 2009? Their leading receiver caught only 34 passes all season and they didn't even have a receiver with 650 yards in receptions. Yes, both are true. Amazingly, no one skill player started more than 12 games on offense for Cleveland that year (Joshua Cribbs led the way with those 12 starts).

Since then, the Browns have done a complete overhaul with Brandon Weeden throwing to Greg Little and Josh Gordon. Ben Watson was their tight end and Brandon Richardson was their leading rusher. Unlike 2009, the Browns finally had stability on offense despite their 5-11 record. It is tempting to see the name Gronkowski on their roster, but it is Dan Gronkowski, not Rob.

On defense, like the Bengals, the Browns have undergone a complete overhaul. This apparently did not help as they still ranked 23rd overall in defense in 2012. The Browns are also undergoing a coaching change, hiring former Carolina Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski as head coach to replace the fired Pat Shurmur.

In summary, this could very well be a repeat of the 2009 game, just with different players in the Cleveland uniforms and it will be in Green Bay instead of Cleveland.

Pittsburgh Steelers

2012 record: 8-8
2009 result (@ Pittsburgh): Steelers 37, Packers 36
2010 result (@ Dallas): Packers 31, Steelers 25

The 2009 game is unnecessary when talking about the Steelers, where instead everyone will be thinking back to Super Bowl XLV in Dallas. In that game, the Packers defeated Pittsburgh 31-25, for Aaron Rodgers' first Super Bowl title. The Steelers will be returning to Lambeau Field in 2013.

In 2010, for the Super Bowl, the Steelers had Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback throwing to Hines Ward, Mike Wallace (both wide receivers) and Heath Miller at tight end. They also had a 1,000-yard rusher in Rashard Mendenhall. Ward retired a few years ago, and Mike Wallace left via free agency after the 2012 season to sign with the Miami Dolphins. Antonio Brown was thrust into the top wide receiver role, with Emmanuel Sanders likely to become Pittsburgh's second wideout. Roethlisberger and Miller are still there. However, Rashard Mendenhall did not play much in 2012 and signed with the Arizona Cardinals in the offseason. Mendenhall also ran into trouble as he was suspended by the Steelers after he refused to show up for a game against San Diego after being deactivated. The Steelers suffered in 2012 from not having a consistent running game as well, ranking 26th on offsense in rushing.

On defense, much is the same for the Steelers. James Farrior is retired, but the mainstays of the Steelers' defense (Ryan Clark, Larry Foote, Lawrence Timmons) are all still there. It is worth noting that James Harrison is currently a free agent, and it remains to be seen who will pick him up. Harrison was notorious for jarring hits that often left players injured, being levied $120,000 in fines in the 2010 season alone.

In summary, this might be a slightly difficult game. The Steelers are somewhat of a mystery to me this offseason and a lot depends on how they look when the season begins. They are also the oldest team in the AFC North, and this may wind up being a disadvantage to them. Cracks started to show in the Steel Curtain last year and it remains to be seen how well the Steelers will rebound from (what is for them) a disappointing 8-8 record last year.

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