The AFC North is one of the stronger divisions in the NFL, Cleveland aside. Baltimore has the tools to go a long way, Cincinnati has become more dynamic on and off the field while Pittsburgh has issues to address. This will be an interesting division to keep an eye on as the season progresses.
Baltimore Ravens [Last season: 9-7, 2nd (WC); lost to IND in DIV RD]
Under third-year head coach John Harbaugh and Delaware QB Joe Flacco, the Ravens have been one of the stronger teams in the AFC the past couple of years, reaching the playoffs twice and notching several wins in those two runs. Their rushing attack was one of the strongest in the league last season, thanks in part to the surprising play of Rutgers stud Ray Rice. The relatively tiny Rice amazed with his speed and agility, and working in tandem with the oft-forgotten but still reliable Willis McGahee, Baltimore has a strong method of controlling the clock and the field.
However, their passing game should not be forgotten either, especially after trading for Arizona’s standout receiver Anquan Boldin this offseason. Boldin, who had been unhappy in Arizona for the two years they had been successful, will complement Derrick Mason very well and gives Flacco a variety of options to give the ball to. Baltimore’s offense hasn’t been this dynamic since moving to Baltimore.
Baltimore has never been known for its offense, but rather its defense, which was near the top of many major categories last season. Dynamic playmaker Ed Reed, however, will not start the season on time due to injury. That said, their front seven is very fearsome. Ray Lewis remains one of the top linebackers in the league despite his age, Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata are excellent in their own right and Terrance Cody out of Alabama will be trying to add his talents to an already powerful defensive line.
Baltimore has all the tools to succeed in the NFL this season: a strong running game, an explosive passing game and a shutdown defense. Is this the year these Ravens get over the hump and make a second Super Bowl appearance in their short time in Baltimore?
Cincinnati Bengals [Last season: 10-6, 1st; lost to NYJ in WC RD]
Cincinnati surprised many by winning the AFC North last season, though two painful losses to the Jets at the very end left a rather sour taste in many Bengal fans’ mouths. Cedric Benson had a career revival with the team, while Carson Palmer had a strong season following an injury filled 2008, though he has yet to return to the elite quarterback that led the Bengals to the postseason in 2005. The big story over at Cincinnati recently was the signing of Terrell Owens. Alongside Chad Ochocinco, the two will surely create the most outspoken duo in the league, however Owens has reached the twilight of his career and Ochocinco’s success fluctuates as Palmer’s does, it seems.
The defense has its share of colorful characters. Roy L. Williams has a penalty fashioned after his now-illegal horsecollar tackling move. Adam Jones has become suspension incarnate with his off the field behavior. Other players have had problems with the law. Despite that, Cincinnati had one of the best defenses in the NFL last season, being near the top of the league in scoring, total, pass and rush defense. Rey Maualuga and Leon Hall are both young studs in this defense, which rivals Baltimore and Pittsburgh in a very defensively-minded AFC North.
With Baltimore improved, Cincinnati has a tough task ahead of them in trying to win a second straight divisional title. With a group of players that could be cast in a mildly entertaining sitcom, and I use “mildly” loosely, the Bengals must continue to commit to their underrated defense and their rejuvenated running game. Hopefully those guys at the receiver slots won’t complain too much if the Bengals can continue to succeed in that fashion.
Cleveland Browns [Last season: 5-11, 4th]
In another edition of “Here we go again”: Cleveland looks toward the future, again. Mike Holmgren now has his firm grip in the Browns front office, and once-highly regarded coach Eric Mangini must produce results with this teams if he wants to keep his job. The Browns are in full overhaul mode, again, and this year seems to be another rebuilding year in that regard.
The quarterback situation has been completely turned around. Holmgren cared not for the painful struggles between Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn for the starting QB job, so he released Anderson and traded Quinn to Denver. In their place are Jake Delhomme, who hadn’t recovered from a terrible 2009 playoff game against Arizona, career backup Seneca Wallace, and Colt McCoy whose busted shoulder dropped him all the way down to the third round of the 2010 Draft. Its unlikely McCoy will play a down this season, instead opting to have him learn the NFL game while giving his shoulder more than enough time to recover for next season and beyond.
The best player on the team is unquestionably Josh Cribbs, the dynamic return man for the past two seasons. Like Devin Hester and Dante Hall before him, however, the Browns will attempt to convert the man into a wide receiver. Hall never cound make the transition. Hester is still trying but he has been far less effective as a returner as a result. This lack of successful transition is not difficult to figure out: catching a hard pass from a quarterback while fending off defensemen is far more difficult than receiving a high kick or punt while the defense has to let you catch the ball before they can do anything. Added to the difference is that kickoffs give returners 10 guys worth of blocking protection while receivers only have 1 or 2 guys if they’re lucky. As such, it is difficult to translate skills from a position where your advantages are given to one where you have to make your own. Having Mohamed Massaquoi on the other side will help, but Cribbs will have a tough time being as effective a receiver as he was a returner.
Although Scott Fujita should improve Cleveland’s defense, it will likely be pretty lousy again, last year 2nd only to Detroit in yards allowed. In a division centered around defense, Cleveland will likely struggle again to stop opponents or get anything going on offense. So essentially, here we go again.
Pittsburgh Steelers [Last season: 9-7, 3rd]
Many would like to think the Pittsburgh Steelers have been as successful as they have been in recent years despite the play of their quarterbacks. With a steel curtain of a defense and a strong running game, that mantra has earned the Steelers two Super Bowls in the last five years. As such, it would be commonplace to think it doesn’t really matter who the Steelers’ quarterback is just as long as that guy doesn’t screw up.
That theory will be put to the test this season. The quarterback that started both of those Super Bowl victories, Ben Roethlisberger, will be out for at most six games this season following sexual assault allegations. Pegged to replace him for those games are Byron Leftwich, looking to revive his career after falling in Jacksonville, and Dennis Dixon, the former Oregon QB looking to make his name known. If either one does well, the decision to replace either one with Roethlisberger will be a difficult one, even though Ben was the quarterback for those two Super Bowl teams he wasn’t the main reason why they won either one, and who knows how well he’ll play following the suspension. He’s been saying all the right things and doing all the right things, but how his play will be affected is still unknown.
However, the Steelers do have a lot of positives going into the year. Leftwich and Dixon have Hines Ward at receiver still, and Heath Miller at Tight End. Well, that’s actually it in the receiving corps, as Santonio Holmes got himself traded to the Jets for poor behavior on his end as well. The Steeler defense looks to rebound from an injury plagued 2009 campaign, particular in regards to Troy Polamalu who missed a majority of 2009 from a knee injury. LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison form a solid linebacking crew, while Aaron Smith and Casey Hampton will continue to bolster one of the better run defenses in the league.
If they stay healthy, the Steelers should be in the running for another playoff spot despite who their quarterback may be. Hopefully for them a controversy doesn’t form regarding the position, though if Leftwich and Dixon struggles as some people believe will occur, then Roethlisberger will be welcomed back, unless he struggles as well.
Division Prediction: Baltimore will win this division though I can’t say they’ll run away with it. Cincinnati and Pittsburgh will be tailing them right down to the end, with the Bengals coming up just short and Pittsburgh even shorter. The Bengals will end up with a Wild Card spot, however. The Browns will pick up a few wins, but that’s about it.