TSN Football Analyst Chris Schultz takes a pre-season look at all eight divisions, with the AFC North on tap. Tomorrow - the AFC South.
The AFC North had three playoff teams last year and may have three playoff teams again this year. Pittsburgh and Baltimore will compete for the division crown, with the wild card being the Bengals. You could make the argument that they were the surprise of the NFL last year, but they were 0-4 against the Ravens and Steelers, and they must break that cycle this year if they want to reach the next level. It's a tough and aggressive division, and to me, the Ravens are still the toughest and most aggressive team – they are a true Super Bowl contender.
Baltimore Ravens: One more completed pass or one more field goal and it would have been a Ravens-Giants Super Bowl in Lucas Oil Stadium last February. It will be hard for the Ravens to duplicate 12 wins again this year after the amazing string they put together in 2011 - winning all eight at home and all six in their division against Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Cleveland.
In order to come close, this has to be another year of improvement for Joe Flacco at QB. He has made four consecutive playoff appearances and has been to the AFC championship twice, which is pretty good for any QB, but the expectations are high in Baltimore that he will take the next step. That means being a "winner" is not enough - he has to be the ultimate winner to receive the respect he deserves. Flacco will be running the same offense again with Cam Cameron, but his receivers have never been as good as they are now. Any QB would love to have Anquan Bolden, Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones .
The big questions for the Ravens, for a change, are on defence. How do you adapt to the absence of Terrell Suggs and his guaranteed pass rush production and intimidation? Can first round pick Courtney Upshaw be an impact player as an individual pass rush threat? And then there is Ray Lewis, with 16 years of experience, and Ed Reed with 10. Are they as good now as they once were? The truth is, probably not, but their leadership and personal standards of excellence off-sets any issues of age. To me, Ray Lewis is the greatest leader in team sports as he takes responsibility for the emotional intensity of the entire team. But Ray is running out of time and everyone in the Ravens organization knows this might be his last kick at the can. They will kick hard. I predict Baltimore will win the AFC North.
Pittsburgh Steelers: They are good, but there are some things that concern me about the Steelers.
First, there is Troy Polamalu's health. His ability is not in question, but the way he talked about concussions so openly in the off-season, saying he had many more than anyone would think possible to manage, has to create concern for his ability to stay on the field and compete at a high level. Troy has made a ton of money and may be the nicest mean guy in all of sports, but his health is clearly on his mind, and that's not a good thing for any football player.
Second, Ben Roethlisberger has already talked about a rotator cuff injury in his throwing shoulder. The Steelers say it's nothing to worry about, but to me, this is BIG news. His durability and throwing ability will be challenged and evaluated like never before. Especially behind a suspect line.
And finally, seven of the 11 defensive starters are 30+ in age. I know the Steelers were No. 1 in total defense and No. 1 in points allowed last year, so why is this an issue one season later? Well, age hits a football player fast and if even a few of the seven hit the wall together, the Steelers will have problems. It's unlikely, but certainly possible.
The priority this year for Pittsburgh is to force turnovers. Nothing is more important in defensive football and the Steelers finished - 13 in the takeaway: giveaway ratio. The other priority, part B so to speak, is the health of the offensive line. Not ability, but durability. The Steelers used 25 different offensive line combinations last year, an extremely high number. Perhaps that is why their first two draft picks were Stanford guard David DeCastro and Mike Adams, a tackle out of Ohio State. You add Maurkice Pouncey and Marcus Gilbert, and what was old is brand new again. But the rookies have to play well and stay healthy.
Dick LeBeau will get the best out of his players on defence, but will Todd Haley get the best out of Ben Roethlisberger and the offence? The Steelers have won six Super Bowls - nobody has won more - but I am not sure they can even move past the Ravens for best in the AFC North this year. I pick the Steelers to finish second.
Cincinnati Bengals: The 2012 Bengals could finish anywhere from first in the AFC North to fourth - it all depends on how they handle the success they had in 2011. Does it re-juvenate, regenerate and rekindle that desire to not only get back to the playoffs, but to get to the Super Bowl? Or does it create an attitude of entitlement and dissolve the memory of the price required to achieve success?
Teams that win one year are often not as good the next year for various hidden reasons. It happened to Atlanta Falcons, among others, in 2011. The fact is that it is harder to maintain success than to actually create it the first time. That is challenge number one in Cincinnati.
Offensive co-ordinator Jay Gruden has done excellent work with Andy Dalton and A.J. Green. Now with a 'true' training camp, both should play at the same high level all year long and take a step up. And defensive co-ordinator Mike Zimmer has a young defence that will continue to improve. Depth on defence is also a strength, as the Bengals use eight different defensive lineman throughout a game.
But the Bengals were 0-4 against Pittsburgh and Balitmore and went 1-8 against winning teams last year. So they basically beat the teams they should have beaten, and lost the games they should have lost. To take the next step, they need to start beating the other good teams in the NFL.
Maybe sticking with one head coach is finally paying off. Marvin Lewis has 69 wins, 74 losses and 1 tie, and he is 0-3 in the playoffs, but consistency at the top has its rewards. With the extra picks from the Carson Palmer deal with Oakland, the Bengals look good, but I just don't think they are as good as the Ravens or the Steelers – yet. I see the Bengals finishing third.
Cleveland Browns: Over the last four years, it seemed that no matter who they drafted or who they signed in free agency, the Cleveland Browns just couldn't put a respectable NFL offence together. Over the last four years, their offence has ranked 29th, 29th, 31st and 32nd. Last year the Browns averaged 13.6 points per game, so the organization knows what needs to improve. Enter rookies Brandon Weeden (QB) Trent Richardson (RB) and Josh Gordon (WR). Add rookie Mitchell Schwartz at right tackle to bookend with All Pro Joe Thomas, and maybe the Browns can move the ball as well as they did in 2007 when they won 10 games. Maybe.
Run defence continues to be a problem the Browns have had for many years. Last year they allowed 147 yards per game, but did finish with the 10th best overall defence in the NFL. Losing DT Phil Taylor LB Chris Gocong to injury before the season even started will not help Cleveland improve this year.
Against St. Louis, at Cincinnati, and at Arizona, the Browns lost by three points or fewer, and they lost one game to the rival Steelers by four. Instead of 4-12, Cleveland had a chance at 8-8 if only they could have scored a few more points. Which brings us back to Weeden, Richardson and Gordon. Last year Andy Dalton and A.J. Green came out of nowhere to dominate in the AFC North for the Bengals. The Browns are hoping that their trio of rookies can do the same. That might be a stretch, but it is their only hope for possible improvement and future playoff appearances.
If Steven Jackson of the Rams is the best player on a bad team, then Josh Cribbs is next on the list with the Browns, but Cleveland plans on reducing his role on offence so he can concentrate on special teams. Good field position will help the young offence.
Finally, it looks like the Cleveland Browns will be officially sold by October. This can be good as a new owner can bring a new energy, but it can be bad in the short term if the new owner has a new vision and decides to tear everything down and start from scratch.
Overall, the Browns should be better, but not good enough to escape fourth place in the AFC North.