It’s no secret that the AFC North is the bully of all divisions in the NFL. Whether it’s the weather, the prestige or the plain out hitting each team brings weekly, there’s not much fun about divisional showdowns here recently. Once again, two of the most notorious defenses in the game, and perennial Super Bowl challengers, headline this mix in Pittsburgh and Baltimore. Even Cleveland’s group showed some potential at being a headache a year ago, but there’s still a big divide between the cream and the rest of the crop up top in the North.
Can the Ravens finally push themselves into the driver’s seat in the division, or will the AFC Champs two of the last three years continue to hold them off? In Cleveland, can a gritty club with a new coach begin to make a long await breakthrough. As for the new look Bengals…will they find the long-awaited big name departures from the team to actually be a good thing? Here’s how it will shake out from the gully parts of the conference this fall…
QB: Ben Roethlisberger RB: Ray Rice, Rashard Mendenhall FB: Vonta Leach WR: Mike Wallace, Anquan Boldin, Hines Ward TE: Heath Miller OT: Joe Thomas, Bryant McKinnie OG: Ben Grubbs, Bobbie Williams C: Mike Pouncey
DE: Haloti Ngata, Aaron Smith DT: Casey Hampton, Geno Atkins OLB: James Harrison, Terrell Suggs MLB: Ray Lewis, Lawrence Timmons CB: Joe Haden, Leon Hall S: Troy Polamalu, Ed Reed
K: Phil Dawson P: Sam Koch Returner: Josh Cribbs
BALTIMORE RAVENS (12-4 in 2010; Wild Card)
Offense: R. Rice-RB, J. Flacco-QB, A. Boldin-WR, L. Evans-WR (B)
Defense: R. Lewis-MLB, E. Reed-S, H. Ngata-DE, T. Suggs-OLB (A-)
The Good: The offense should have more punch to it via a few new additions. Lee Evans and Torrey Smith will finally give Joe Flacco fast downfield targets to open up their previously slow and methodical passing game. All-Pro fullback Vonta Leach, who led the way to Arian Foster’s breakout in Houston, will now be breaking open holes for the already established Ray Rice. This could become one of the most productive backfield combos in the league, to compliment the improving pass game. But…
The Bad: How the line performs will tell the story of if the offense truly lives up to its potential. Flacco is one of the slowest QBs in the league, so getting him more time to plant and throw is essential. Bryant McKinnie and Andre Gurode were picked up as All-Pro cast offs to improve the shaky unit from a year ago. Each has had conditioning issues, and will be asked to work through them on the run.
In the midst of all the additions around him, Rice could be on the verge of his biggest year yet.
X-Factor-Jimmy Smith: For years, the Ravens secondary consisted of Ed Reed making superhuman plays singlehandedly. However, they were dreadfully thin at cornerback, and they were beaten up on the outside because of it. This season’s first round pick Smith will be counted on to change those fortunes, and to be a youthful push to an aging unit.
Fearless Prediction: PIT (L), @TEN (W), @STL (L), NYJ (W), HOU (W), @JAX (W), ARI (W), @PIT (L), @SEA (W), CIN (W), SF (W), @CLE (L), IND (W), @SD (L), CLE (W), @CIN
In The End: The Ravens have been the runners up in the North for the last 3 years. Despite the potential of improvement at many of their long standing trouble spots, they still have to find the consistency that has eluded them offensively. In the end, another solid, Playoff-bound season will still leave them in their customary position. Record: 11-5
CINCINNATI BENGALS (4-12 in 2010)
Offense: C. Benson-RB, A.J. Green-WR, J. Gresham-TE, A. Dalton-QB (D+)
Defense: L. Hall-CB, R. Maualuga-MLB, C. Dunlap-DE, Antwan Odom-DE (C)
The Good: There’s not a lot of it, but at least of they’ll be able to move the ball on the ground. Cedric Benson provides an experienced ground presence in the midst of a very young team otherwise. Being careful how much of a load they place on their young skill position players to carry will be important in controlling the season. Benson has back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons to his credit; he’ll get plenty of opportunities to have a big year.
The Bad: They are the wrong types of young on offense, at once. The team’s first two draft picks, Andy Dalton and AJ Green are talented, but having a rookie pass and catch combo as the big play element for the team is bound to struggle as they adjust. Also, a defense that was often terrible in coverage a year ago replaced its best defensive back, Jonathan Joseph, with an aging Nate Clements.
Green is an amazing talent, but how often he'll be able to showcase those skills this year is uncertain.
X-Factor-Jermaine Gresham: Having a solid close range option for a rookie QB to bail him out is important. The team’s first rounder from a year ago is the perfect fit for this situation, and offers a potential big play option from the tight end spot. That could make him an often used target and have a big second year in the midst of a rebuilding offense.
Fearless Prediction: @CLE (L), @DEN (L), SF (L), BUF (L), @JAX (L), IND (L), @SEA (L), @TEN (L), PIT (L), @BAL (L), CLE (W), @PIT (L), HOU (L), @STL (L), ARI (L), BAL (L)
In The End: It’s not going to be a pretty year in Cincy. The defense got worse at its biggest problem spot: pass coverage and didn’t upgrade against the run either. The offense is almost completely new and there’s no worse division for a young signal caller to get adjusted in than the brutal AFC North. It’s going to be rough season across the board in year one of these rebuilding efforts, but at least it will land them with the prime position in the next Draft to work on it. Record: 1-15
CLEVELAND BROWNS (5-11 in 2010)
Offense: P. Hillis-RB, J. Thomas-OT, C. McCoy-QB, B. Watson-TE (C)
Defense: J. Haden-CB, D. Jackson-MLB, S. Brown-CB, P. Taylor-DT (C+)
The Good: Colt McCoy and Peyton Hillis bring balance to the offseason. While the Browns still aren’t an explosive unit, they are a tough one that can wear defenses down trying to get to them. McCoy showed he was ready to play much earlier than thought last season, and had an encouraging preseason this year as well. He’ll be active in the pocket and find ways to get the ball to where it needs to be.
The Bad: The secondary is good, but they’ll get challenged a lot due to the time QBs will have to pick at them. This is due to a defensive front that is very young and lacks the push needed to make a difference. This year they will start at least two rookies on the front line, and the linebackers don’t feature a rusher that can supplement this issue much either.
Despite playing with the "Madden" cover boy, McCoy is looking to make himself the face of the Browns.
X-Factor-Josh Cribbs: He has been Cleveland’s most dangerous weapon, but the changes to kickoffs will reduce is potential tremendously, as well as hurt an offense that will need good field placement due to a lack of big play potential. In order to keep his big play potential in the mix, he will have to make strides as a receiver, and be placed everywhere he can be in the offense to get the ball easily.
Fearless Prediction: CIN (W), @IND (L), MIA (W), TEN (L), @OAK (L), SEA (W), @SF (L), @HOU (L), STL (L), JAX (W), @CIN (L), BAL (W), @PIT (L), @ARI (L), @BAL (L), PIT
In The End: The Browns have steadily improved over the last few years. New Head Coach Pat Shemur inherits a team that while still flawed, has some pieces that can keep that trend going. They’ll compete hard every week, but still aren’t a team that’s built to come from behind, and in they’ll fall victim to that issue until they get a true downfield threat to bring out Colt’s best. Record: 6-10
PITTSBURGH STEELERS (12-4 in 2010; AFC Champions)
Offense: B. Roethlisberger-QB, R. Mendenhall-RB, M. Wallace-WR, M. Pouncey-C (B+)
Defense: T. Polamalu-S, J. Harrison-OLB, L. Woodley-OLB, L. Timmons-MLB (A)
The Good: For a long time, Big Ben has made ado with his grit and creativity, but now enters his prime with more weapons than ever. Led by Mike Wallace, the receiving corps has multiple explosive deep threats in Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown. Hines Ward and Jericho Cotchery are gritty vets that go over the middle with no qualms. On the ground, Rashard Mendenhall is a step away from becoming an elite running back. The offense has stepped up to the standard of the defense.
The Bad: The offensive line around Mike Pouncey is far from settled. Roethlisberger is the toughest QB in the game, but even at his size, the hits pile up and he takes too many of them. Many of the same questions marks from last year are back this year. Also, the defense was susceptible to being torched at cornerback; it was what undid them in the Super Bowl. They made no significant changes at the position, and got even less experience behind the incumbent starters than last year.
Big Ben has the best offense he has commanded at his disposal this year. Will it be enough for ring #3?
X-Factor-Antonio Brown: In each of the last two years, a speedster was added to the receiving mix in Pitt. This year it’s Brown’s turn to go from special team stud, to in-game playmaker. Mike Wallace will command much of the attention from defensive backs, and this will allow Brown to use his top end speed to roam for open lands in more than just punt return territory.
Fearless Prediction: @BAL (W), SEA (W), @IND (W), @HOU (L), TEN (W), JAX (W), @ARI (W), NE (W), BAL (W), @CIN (W), @KC (L), CIN (W), CLE (W), @SF (W), STL (W), @CLE (L)
In The End: When at full strength over the last three years, no team has played better than Pittsburgh’s defense. Now a unit that barely gave up 14 points a game will be joined by a high potential offense. This mixture will return them not only to the top of the AFC North, but will put them right back in the mix for a third Super Bowl trip in four years. Record: 13-3
To see how right, wrong or in-between this all works out, and me living with it, follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan and @STLSport360.