Make no mistake about it, the AFC North is one of the toughest divisions in the NFL. Last season, the AFC North sent three teams to the playoffs—the Baltimore Ravens, the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Cincinnati Bengals. Although the Cleveland Browns had a very disappointing season last year, they did not wind up in the basement of the AFC North without a fight, nearly defeating each of their AFC North rivals at least once during the regular season.
Immediately the loss of Terrell Suggs becomes an issue when thinking about the Ravens. T Sizzle may come back and play some but at what level. The Ravens also have issues on closing the money gap with Ed Reed. Without Reed that defense isn’t the same. Ray Lewis is also getting a little longer in the tooth. Despite his age, Ray still plays with wreck less abandon and often times plays much younger than he is.
Running back Ray Rice is disgruntled with his contract and is holding out of offseason work outs. The Ravens also have question marks surrounding their offensive line, with Pro Bowl guard Ben Grubbs having departed for the New Orleans Saints. Additionally, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and the much-maligned Ravens’ passing attack will continue to face questions about their inability to produce in spite of the fact that the Ravens have upgraded the talent at the wide receiver position. Although Ricky Williams was only a backup, he played a vital role in spelling Rice, and the Ravens will need to identify a capable backup to ensure that Rice does not wear down throughout the course of the season.
You can’t finish without talking about Joe Flacco and the receiving corp. If they improve on last year’s numbers it will make for a more interesting team in Baltimore.
Prediction – 1st Place
Although the Bengals will improve upon last season’s surprising performance, they will not be able to improve upon last season’s finish. Barring a major injury to a key player, the Steelers and Ravens are far too talented and experienced to fall any lower than second place. Nevertheless, the Bengals should once again contend for a playoff spot. Quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green should take a big step forward during their second season together. If the Bengals are able to add additional receiving talent, the offense should improve.
The biggest loss will be replacing Cedrick Benson. The Bengals have made drastic strides to sure up the defense by adding Terrance Newman to their secondary. Even though they live and die by defensive performance and running the ball, opening up the offense a little may be just what the doctor ordered for the Bengals.
Prediction – 3rd Place
Having had a full offseason to learn the West Coast offense, the Browns’ offense should be better in 2012. The Browns will almost assuredly use some of their multiple high-round draft picks to improve their anemic offensive attack. Unfortunately, repeating their stellar performance in the 2011 season will be a tougher task for a Browns defense that will face several high-powered passing attacks during the upcoming season.
The Browns have added Trent Richardson and also drafted a quarterback in the first round to improve their offense. Defensively they will be solid again but they will not be as deep as in years past. If the Browns can find any offensive success this year will be pretty interesting for them in the AFC North.
Prediction – Last Place
The Steelers have a contract dispute of their own with the disgruntled Mike Wallace, who has refused to sign his tender. Wallace’s game-breaking speed has been a major asset to the Steelers’ offense and attitude problems on Wallace’s part could lead to dysfunction on offense. Problems on offense could also come as a result of changes in the coaching staff. In the offseason, offensive coordinator Bruce Arians was replaced with the controversial Todd Haley.
Ben Roethlisberger openly voiced his disapproval with the change, and although the true effect of Arians’ departure won’t be known until the regular season kicks off in September, it’s safe to say that Roethlisberger and Haley will need to work out their relationship behind the scenes in order for the Steelers’ offense to live up to its full potential next season. Additionally, the health status of running back Rashard Mendenhall, who suffered a torn ACL in the last game of the season against the Browns in January, is still unknown.
Prediction – 2nd Place
The team that successfully works out its issues will be the team atop the AFC North in January.
1st – Baltimore Ravens
2nd – Pittsburgh Steelers
3rd – Cincinnati Bengals
4th – Cleveland Browns