With three teams making the playoffs and two winning 12 games during the regular season, the AFC North was arguably the NFL’s most competitive division last season. Unfortunately for the Ravens, it figures to be hyper-competitive again in 2012 -- well, except for anything involving the ever-rebuilding Cleveland Browns.
The Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers both experienced some losses during the offseason, but they don’t appear to be heading for a huge drop-off this season and both teams are popular picks to win the AFC North. Meanwhile, the Cincinnati Bengals, who snuck into the playoffs last season as the AFC’s final wild-card team, bolstered their young corps with a strong draft class in April. The Browns? Hey, there is always 2013 or 2023.
I’m not going to make any predictions, at least not today, because they will probably end up being wrong, and I just wouldn’t be able to handle you ridiculing me for it in the comments section. But I will look ahead to the season, which starts tomorrow night, by giving you the three burning questions for each AFC North team.
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Baltimore Ravens (12-4 in 2011)
1. How will the Ravens replace Terrell Suggs? The easy answer is they won’t; no one player will likely come close to the 14 sacks he had in 2011, and he was also one of the team’s best run defenders. Making matters worse, fellow outside linebacker Jarret Johnson was not retained. Paul Kruger and Albert McClellan are slated to start in the season opener, but big things are expected for Courtney Upshaw, a 2012 second-round pick.
2. Will the offensive line hold up? The Ravens pledged to improve their offensive line this offseason, but the only definite change in their starting five will be Bobbie Williams, a 35-year-old with a wonky ankle, or Kelechi Osemele, the other 2012 second-round pick, replacing Pro Bowl guard Ben Grubbs at left guard. There is a lot of buzz about the offense going up-tempo, but the line needs to hold up its end of the bargain.
3. Will Joe Flacco get his contract? There was a lot of chatter at the start of training camp about the Ravens closing in on a deal with the fifth-year quarterback, but several weeks later, there is still no deal. It still could happen in-season, but if it doesn’t, Flacco insists he won’t be playing with the weight of the contract situation on his shoulders. If he takes the proverbial next step this year, he will earn himself a lot of cash here or elsewhere.
Cincinnati Bengals (9-7 in 2011)
1. What will Andy Dalton and A.J. Green do for an encore? In 2011, Dalton, their second-round draft pick, and Green, the fourth overall pick in that draft, became the first rookie quarterback-wide receiver duo to make the Pro Bowl. They were also the first rookie tandem with 3,000 passing yards and 1,000 receiving yards. We will see how Dalton adjusts in Year Two, but I believe Green is too talented to fall victim to a sophomore slump.
2. Will the cornerbacks be better this season? The Bengals ranked ninth in pass defense last season, in part due to an improved pass rush, but the secondary got picked on after Leon Hall suffered a season-ending tear of his Achilles tendon in November. The Bengals used a first-round draft pick on Alabama’s Dre Kirkpatrick, and veterans Nate Clements, Jason Allen and Terence Newman are in the mix, too. It's an interesting group.
3. Can the bumbling Bengals finally put two quality seasons together? Cincinnati hasn’t made back-to-back playoff appearances in 30 years, and Ken Anderson and Cris Collinsworth aren't walking out of that tunnel. Like I said earlier, the Bengals had another strong draft after dealing Carson Palmer to the Oakland Raiders for a nice package of picks. But, like I also said earlier, it’s a really tough division. This ugly trend could continue.
Cleveland Browns (4-12 in 2011)
1. Can Brandon Weeden play well right away? Weeden was not a top-10 pick in the draft, but you can argue that he is under much greater pressure to perform right away than Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III. The guy turns 29 next month, so the Browns may not be willing to endure a couple years of growing pains. Weeden struggled this preseason, completing just 49 percent of his throws, throwing a pick and fumbling three times.
2. Can Trent Richardson stay healthy? Since winning the national championship at Alabama, Richardson, the third overall pick in April’s draft, has had two procedures done on his left knee, including one performed by Dr. James Andrews four weeks ago. The running back returned to practice this week and will likely play in Week 1. The Browns are counting on Richardson to carry a heavy load this season. We’ll see if that knee buckles.
3. Will the new owner shake things up if they struggle? The Browns are in the middle of an ownership change, with a Steelers fan named Jimmy Haslam buying the franchise. So what will that mean for team president Mike Holmgren, general manager Tom Heckert and coach Pat Shurmur? There were rumblings that their jobs are already in jeopardy. Another 4-12 season isn't going to help convince Haslam to keep them around.
Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4 in 2011)
1. Will Mike Wallace continue to be a distraction? The speedy wide receiver has signed his restricted tag and is back with the team after missing most of the offseason and preseason due to a contract stalemate. While he was gone, the Steelers gave a lucrative extension to fellow wide receiver Antonio Brown, and his signature may serve as the writing on the wall for Wallace, who will become an unrestricted free agent at season’s end.
2. Can an aging defense hold the championship window open? According to ESPN, the Steelers will have the NFL’s oldest defense entering the season (if you’re wondering, the Ravens rank in the middle of the pack). Four starters, including James Harrison and Casey Hampton, are over 31 years old and safety Troy Polamalu is 31 on the dot. But let’s not forget that the Steelers ranked first in scoring defense and total defense in 2011.
3. Will the offensive line again be a liability? A lot of people, myself included, praised the Steelers when they took Stanford guard David DeCastro and Ohio State tackle Mike Adams in the first two rounds of the draft. But any enthusiasm should now be significantly curbed for now. DeCastro is out indefinitely with a knee injury and Adams struggled during the preseason, meaning Max Starks and Ramon Foster will be forced to start.