The AFC North is in the top two or three toughest divisions in the league. The Ravens and Steelers are two of the toughest teams in the NFL and the Bengals, having gone to the playoffs three of the last four years, are an up and coming team that can no longer be overlooked. Even the Browns have improved, even though it hasn't been reflected in their record.
Heading into the 2013 season, though, the Bengals, and to a lesser extent, the Browns, have a very distinct advantage that they need to take advantage of. That advantage is, of course, money.
The Steelers and the Ravens are both in a position where they will not only be unable to sign free agents, but they have had to hemorrhage some of their better players to get under the salary cap. The Steelers lost James Harrison and the Ravens lost Anquan Boldin, both of whom have a few years left of high-level football in the NFL.
The Bengals don't have to do that. They have more money than any other team in the league when it comes to the salary cap and the only thing they have to worry about is re-signing their own players. The idea of shedding players to get under the cap won't have to cross their minds. The only reason they'll cut players is because a better player has been signed.
The Browns are in the same position when it comes to the salary cap, but the difference between Cleveland and the Bengals is the Bengals are already established. The Browns will likely make some strides in 2013 and they could even push for a playoff spot, but the Bengals are a couple years ahead of them right now.
The Bengals have a much tougher schedule in 2013 than they did in 2012. They not only play the Steelers and Ravens, but they face the Patriots, Packers, Vikings, Colts, Bears, Lions and Chargers. The only way they'll make it to the playoffs for a third year in a row is if they make some major strides in the offseason. There's no excuse why they can't. They have the money and the draft picks to improve greatly.
Another thing that should help them get to the playoffs, though, is being able to dominate the division. The young Bengals made major strides in 2012 by defeating the Steelers and the Ravens. Each team will likely be in the same position, or weaker, in the upcoming season and there's no reason the Bengals can't build on what they did within the AFC North in 2013.
The Ravens lost a lot of their best players after the 2012 season and the Steelers, who struggled in 2012, don't have the money to go out and grab a bunch of free agents to improve. The Bengals are in the opposite situation. Hopefully they can take advantage of it.