2012 NFL Preview: AFC North

Always regarded as one of the best divisions due to the tough defenses, the AFC North got even tougher last year with the emergence of the young Bengals. Three teams made the playoffs from the AFC North in 2011, and they have the potential to do that again in 2012.

1. Pittsburgh Steelers, Predicted Record: 10-6

In the past three years, a different team has won the AFC North. This year, the Steelers return to the top of the division. When Mike Wallace decides to snap out of his contract dispute, the Steelers will have a great set of young, fast WR’s for Ben Roethlisberger to throw to. They also spent their first two picks in the draft to make their line better, and there should be some improvement in the first year. Rashard Mendenhall is going to miss the first month or so of the season, but his absence won’t make a big difference. Isaac Redman is a very capable backup for Mendenhall.

Their defense is still getting older, but they are still a really good defense. As long as James Harrison and Troy Polamalu are there, the defense is going to be a good one. Expect this defense to be one of the best once again in 2012.

2. Baltimore Ravens, Predicted Record: 9-7

It seems like the Baltimore Ravens are always stuck as the same recurring team, year after year. Average QB, good running game, average WR’s and a defense that makes up for everything else. Then the season ends with a dissapointing playoff loss. It’s been that way for a lot of the existence of this team, and it’s not changing this year. Joe Flacco isn’t much more than an average QB, and I pretty much agree with LaMarr Woodley. The Ravens probably won’t win a Super Bowl as long as Flacco is QB. It’s a passing league, and you need an elite QB. The Ravens enter 2012 with one of the best RB’s in the league, Ray Rice. Rice is a fast, powerful backup who is also very dangerous catching the ball out of the backfield. The Ravens also hope for a big year from Torrey Smith, which I could see happening. Anquan Boldin is starting to decline and Flacco loves throwing the ball deep to Smith, which became obvious in his first year in the league.

The Ravens defense could take a big step back this year, mostly due to the injury to Terrell Suggs. Suggs was the best player on that defense, coming off a defensive player of the year award. They needed him, because the rest of this defense is getting very old. Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are both declining, and the LB’ers aren’t very experienced outside of Lewis. They gave LaDarius Webb a contract and hope he can keep up the production that he achieved in his breakout 2011 season. This defense will still be good, but don’t expect it to be the dominant force that it’s been in the past years.

3. Cincinatti Bengals, Predicted Record: 7-9

The Bengals surprised a lot of people with the Dalton-Green combo in 2011. AJ Green emerged as one of the league’s best WR’s, despite only playing one year. They may have overachieved a bit last year, and I see them taking a slight step backward this year. They have a pretty tough schedule, including games against San Diego, Dallas, Philly, Pittsburgh and Baltimore in the last month of the year. They have a young group of players with a bright future, but the Bengals won’t return to the playoffs for the second straight year. In fact, only once in the history of the Bengals franchise have they made the playoffs two straight seasons.

4. Cleveland Browns, Predicted Record: 2-14

The Browns are a mess. Possibly the biggest mess in the whole NFL. They drafted Trent Richardson, who should be a quality NFL player but besides him what do they have on that offense? Brandon Weeden isn’t a good QB, and I don’t understand why the Browns didn’t just stick it out with Colt McCoy. Neither is good, and the Browns will have one of the worst records in 2012 which could lead to the drafting of another quarterback like Matt Barkley. It doesn’t really matter who the QB is, because this team is destined for an awful year.

The defense isn’t much better. The best player on their defense, Joe Haden, could miss the first 4 games of the season after being suspended by the league. The Browns are a mess, and it’s going to take years to fix.

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