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Cincinnati Bengals Have Become the Team to Beat in the AFC North

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COMMENTARY | Over the offseason, the balance of power in the AFC North began to shift in favor of the Cincinnati Bengals. This occurrence was partly due to the Bengals maintaining their nucleus of core players -- it was also due to the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens losing theirs.

The Bengals entered 2013 with a great plan to keep their team intact as well as build toward the future. They re-signed their most important free agents instead of making the decision to spend big money on marquee players.

This strategy allowed the Bengals to not only keep the core of their team together, but also allowed them to save crucial cap dollars which will be used toward the re-signings of the likes of A.J. Green, Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap and Andy Dalton.

On the flip side, the Steelers and Ravens lost many crucial players that were integral components of their schemes for a long time.

The Steelers lost key players on both sides of the ball. Losing Mike Wallace, Rashard Mendenall and Willie Colon on offense along with Keenan Lewis, Casey Hampton and James Harrison on defense made for a rough start to the offseason.

Granted, the Steelers did draft very well and acquired players to fill these needs, but relying on first-year players to fill these voids is not the way to go.

The largest thing that the Steelers are now missing is players that will take on leadership roles. Harrison was that guy for this defense for a long time. Losing a player -- especially to a division rival -- with those qualities is rather difficult to replace.

Also factoring in their quarterback's injury concerns, an unstable offensive line and a very thin wide receiver corps, it could be a rocky road ahead for this team.

The Ravens fared slightly better over the offseason due to their ability to fill holes with proven players. However, we have seen before that filling holes with too many veterans unfamiliar to the team's system could be dangerous (i.e. 2011 Philadelphia Eagles).

Baltimore's offseason started with a mass exodus on the defensive side of the ball. Ray Lewis retired and Ed Reed was lost in free agency. Those were the two most valuable players to this team from a leadership standpoint.

Along with the departures of those future Hall of Famers, the Ravens also lost Bernard Pollard, Dannell Ellerbe, Paul Kruger and Cary Williams.

On the offensive side of the ball, they lost the centerpiece of their offensive line, Matt Birk to retirement. They also made a baffling trade of Anquan Boldin to the San Francisco 49ers -- a move that still does not make much sense.

The Ravens did, however, make some key signings of Chris Canty, Elvis Dumervil, Michael Huff and Marcus Spears. But they have still taken a huge step backward from their Super Bowl team that was together only months ago.

Currently, Baltimore does not have a suitable replacement for Boldin -- Joe Flacco's security blanket during the team's stellar postseason run. Their inability to find a complement to Torrey Smith could hurt the offense in a big way in 2013.

The net losses that the Ravens suffered far outweigh their gains which puts them in the same situation as the Steelers -- they must fill the remaining holes with rookies and unproven players.

A second consecutive run to the Super Bowl for this team seems very highly unlikely as we head into OTAs.

The Cleveland Browns have actually maintained a particularly nice offseason -- they have signed some solid players and have drafted very well. However, this team is still in the rebuilding mode and seem to be a quarterback short of contention.

They should be vastly improved this season, but they may have another year or two to go before they are ready to compete for the AFC North title.

With the Ravens and Steelers taking significant steps backward and the Bengals maintaining the core of its team that finished 10-6 last season, it seems rather plausible that the team from Cincinnati is the initial front runner to take the division in 2013.

Sean O'Donnell is a contributor for Yahoo! Sports and a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. He is also the co-host of the Bengals Central Podcast on the Pro Football Central radio network. You can follow him on Twitter: @SeanODonnellNFL

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