TDdaily is previewing each NFL division, one by one, leading up to Week 1. An asterisk after a team’s projected record means we’ve projected them to win a tiebreaker, and “Sunday Ticket Scale” rates each team on a 0-10 scale, from unwatchable to roller coaster excitement, designed to help you shape your Sunday afternoon viewing choices. Today, we’re breaking down the AFC North.
Since the NFL realigned its divisions in 2002, the AFC North has been dominated by two teams: the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens. Last year was Baltimore’s turn to win the division, which it was able to do by winning all six of its divisional games. The Ravens eventually made it to the AFC Championship Game, where they came this close to beating New England and taking on the Giants in the Super Bowl.
Overall, last season was a strong one for the AFC North as both the Steelers and Bengals joined the Ravens in the playoffs. Both teams, however, got failed to win a playoff game.
As seems to be the case every year, this year’s Ravens-Steelers matchups—the first of which isn’t until week 11, a Sunday night game in Pittsburg—could very well determine the winner of the AFC North. That is, unless Cincinnati can do something it hasn’t since ’75-’76: put together back-to-back winning seasons. If the Bengals young core continues to improve, it’s very possible that either the Ravens or Steelers find themselves sitting at home come January.
Baltimore Ravens — Projected Record: 12-4, 1st place in division
Last Year: The Ravens took the AFC North title and swept their rival Steelers in 2011, both feats which they hadn’t accomplished since 2006. Despite reaching those highs, Baltimore ended its season in heartbreaking fashion. After Lee Evans dropped pass with under a minute to go in the AFC Championship game, Billy Cundiff missed wide-right on a game winning field goal attempt as the clock hit 0:00. Game over. Season over.
On the positive side, Ray Rice continued his ascension to the top of the running back ranks with 1,364 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns while finishing first in the league in yards from scrimmage. Outside of Rice, the rest of the Ravens’ offense continued to evolve. Maligned QB Joe Flacco actually took a step back stats-wise, but once again led the Ravens deep in the playoffs. Rookie wide receiver Torrey Smith was added to the arsenal, and proved his value with a handful of huge games as he added a much-needed deep threat to Baltimore’s offense, something the team has lacked for years.
Key Additions: S Sean Considine, WR Jacoby Ford, G Bobbie Williams, LB Courtney Upshaw
Key Losses: G Ben Grubbs, LB Terrell Suggs (indefinite injury), RB Ricky Williams
Strengths: Can one player be considered a strength? When they provide as much offense as Ray Rice, the answer is a resounding yes. Rice’s pass-catching ability out of the backfield along with his dynamic running style make Baltimore’s somewhat pass-deficient offense as tough to stop as any. Of course, the Ravens’ greatest strength lies in their defense, as it has since the franchise moved to Baltimore in ’96.
Weaknesses: For the first time since Terrell Suggs joined the team, the Ravens are going to have to worry about where their pass rush will come from as the pro-bowler recovers from an ACL tear; Suggs was the only Ravens with more than six sacks last season. Questions about the passing game persist as well. Flacco will have to take a few more steps toward becoming a top flight quarterback if the Ravens want to repeat their performance from a year ago.
X-Factor: The Old Guys. You can’t get through any conversation about the Ravens without bringing up the Hall of Fame defensive pair of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. With Suggs out indefinitely after tearing his ACL in the offseason (playing hoops, nonetheless), the two vets from The U will have to hold down the fort for at least another year. While both played at a high level last year, they’re nowhere near what they were earlier in their careers. Lewis missed four games, the first time he’d sat out since ’07, and Reed snagged only three interceptions, five fewer than his injury-shortened ’10 campaign. Baltimore will be counting on both to keep their defense as nasty on the field as it is in reputation.
Sunday Ticket Status: 7. The Ravens don’t usually score a ton of points, but they have playmakers on both sides of the ball to keep things exciting.
Bottom Line: Flacco’s continued development and Rice’s excellence will be enough to complement the Ravens’ fearsome D, helping them to repeat as division champs.
Pittsburgh Steelers — Projected Record: 10-6, 2nd place in division*
Last Year: After another strong 12-4 regular season, their second in a row, the Steelers fell short of their annual Super Bowl aspirations. Pittsburg’s season came to an abrupt end in Denver last year when Tim Tebow knocked them out in the wild card round. Once again, the Steelers had one of the best defenses in the NFL, despite their aging core. Safety Troy Polamalu, long the heart of the Steelers’ D, managed to play all 16 games for the first time since ’08. Probably not a coincidence, Pittsburgh allowed the fewest yards and points per game in the league. On the offensive side of the ball, wide receiver Mike Wallace proved himself to be among the best receivers in the game, and fellow receiver Antonio Brown turned in a breakout season, giving the Steelers one of the best receiving duos in the league. The Steelers, however, again failed to keep quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on his feet, as their offensive line gave up 42 sacks, placing them in the bottom third of the league.
Key Additions: T Mike Adams, G David DeCastro (injured), LB Sean Spence
Key Losses: WR Hines Ward, LB James Farrior, DE Aaron Smith
Strengths: As per their tradition, the Steelers can expect to once again have one of the best defenses in the league. While most of their top players are on the wrong side of 30, they’re still playing at a high level. Safeties Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark wreak havoc on opponents’ passing games, while James Harrison and the rest of the linebacking corps hassle quarterbacks.
Weaknesses: For the last several years, the Steelers have had a hard time protecting Big Ben. They addressed this problem by taking two offensive linemen (DeCastro and Adams) with their first two draft picks. If the Steelers can’t improve their dismal blocking, it’s going to be tough to keep the perpetually banged up Roethlisberger on the field.
X-Factor: Mike Wallace. The explosive receiver (16.6 YPC in ’11) finally ended his standoff with Steelers management over a new contract. As his teammates learned a brand new offense under new offensive coordinator Todd Haley, Wallace fell behind his teammates in learning the playbook every day he sat out, but if he can catch up to the new scheme, he’ll strike fear in opposing defenses and open up lanes for Brown.
Sunday Ticket Status: 7. The Steelers have the potential for big plays on both sides of the ball. Roethlisberger can scramble to extend plays, while Brown, Wallace (holdout pending) and Emmanuel Sanders can turn any catch into a big gain. On the other side of the ball, vets like Polamalu and Harrison have a penchant for big hits and forcing turnovers. Keep an eye out for rookie running back Chris Rainey, who could provide the Steelers with a Darren Sproles-like option.
Bottom Line: If the Steelers stay healthy and Wallace plays well when he ends his holdout, they can be a dangerous team, but having a handful of question marks tempers expectations.
Cincinnati Bengals — Projected Record: 10-6, 3rd place in division
Last Year: Nobody expected much out of the Bengals in ’11, not after they cleaned house following a miserable ’10 campaign. Cincinnati cut ties with receivers Chad Johnson (Ochocinco at the time) and Terrell Owens. Quarterback Carson Palmer “retired” in an attempt to get the franchise would trade him. He eventually got what he wanted and was dealt to Oakland for a haul of draft picks.
To replace those big names, Cincy plugged in rookies Andy Dalton and AJ Green at quarterback and wide receiver and got better-than-anticipated results. Green made the Pro Bowl after hauling in 65 catches for over 1,000 yards and seven touchdows, while Dalton, the team’s second-round pick, exceeded everyone’s expectations by throwing for twenty TDs and nearly 3,500 yards. The two hooked up for the most yards of any rookie QB/WR tandem in history. They led the Bengals to a surprise playoff appearance, where they were bounced by the Texans in the wild card round.
Key Additions: RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis, CB Dre Kirkpatrick
Key Losses: RB Cedric Benson, WR Jerome Simpson, DE Frostee Rucker, LB Keith Rivers
Strengths: Without any big-name performers, the Bengals had one of the best defensive lines in the league last season. The defense totaled 45 sacks, with 15 different players getting to opposing quarterbacks. The offensive line was a key to the team’s success as well. They gave up only 22 sacks on the year, crucial in allowing Dalton time to find receivers.
Weaknesses: The Bengals are thin at some key positions. Several members of the defensive backfield, including first round pick Dre Kirkpatrick, were already banged up before preseason games even began. The guys behind new addition Green-Ellis at running back are either inexperienced or injury-prone.
X-Factor: The Receivers. Dalton and Green were phenomenal for a rookie duo last year. For the Bengals to repeat ’11’s success, they’ll need to have someone step up opposite of Green to take some of the pressure off of him. Whether it’s one of the receivers, like Brandon Tate or rookie Mohamed Sanu, or a tight end like Jermaine Gresham or rookie Orson Charles, someone is going to have to take on a larger role to prevent Green from facing constant double teams.
Sunday Ticket Status: 5. As exciting as the Dalton-Green combo is, the offense is otherwise lacking guys with big-play potential. The defense gets to the quarterback often enough, but they’re more workmanlike than spectacular.
Bottom Line: The Bengals have a fairly easy schedule to start the season, but close with a tough stretch, playing three of their last five games on the road. Having to play the both the Ravens and Steelers twice obviously doesn’t help matters, but look for the Bengals to repeat last year’s surprise performance and make another run at the playoffs.
Cleveland Browns — Projected Record: 3-13, 4th place in division
Last Year: The Browns were not very good in ’11, and that’s being kind. They were one of only four teams to average less than 300 total yards a game. In 10 of their games, they scored fewer than 14 points, and averaged only 13.6 points per game. Luckily for Cleveland (and unlucky for anyone watching) their defense kept them in a lot of low-scoring games. Coming off of a huge year (and the Madden cover) in ’10, running back Peyton Hillis was banged up for much of ’11, an injury which took away any pop that the Browns offense wished to have. Combined with the lack of threats the Browns had catching the ball, the season was all but doomed once Hillis went down. After a 2-1 start to the season, Cleveland went on to lose 11 of its next 13 games and finished the season 4-12.
Key Additions: RB Trent Richardson, QB Brandon Weeden, DE Juqua Parker, DE Frostee Rucker
Key Losses: RB Peyton Hillis, G Eric Steinbach, T Artis Hicks
Strengths: The Browns actually gave up the second fewest passing yards per game last season. Some of that can probably be attributed to opponents getting leads and running the ball more often, as the Browns were 30th in rushing yards allowed, and teams ran the ball 53 percent of the time against them. Still, teams only completed 56.5 percent of their passes against Cleveland, who, between cornerbacks Joe Haden and Sheldon Brown, have one of the better defensive backfield in the league.
Weaknesses: The Browns likely won’t be any better at throwing the ball downfield this season. Teams will pack the box to stop Richardson and dare rookie quarterback Weeden to beat them with his arm. While he might find single coverage, Cleveland’s receivers struggled to get open all of last year.
X-Factor: Greg Little. The Browns are going to lean heavily on Richardson (as long as he’s healthy), but whether or not he ever sees an honest defense will depend on Cleveland’s receivers being able to open the field up. Little is a physically talented receiver, but led the NFL in drops last season. If he can turn a few more of those into catches and tap into his potential, the Browns’ offense might have a chance.
Sunday Ticket Status: 2. If you’re into ugly, low-scoring football games, the Browns will be your team in 2012. Expect some spectacular plays by Richardson along the way, but otherwise, there’s not a whole lot to see here.
Bottom Line: With a rookie quarterback in Weeden, and no real offensive firepower outside of Richardson (who, by the way, had to have an arthroscopic procedure done to his knee in training camp), you have to imagine the Browns are going to struggle mightily this year. The defense will keep them in games as they did last year, but, as I imagine Herman Edwards would say, you’ve got to score points to win.