The AFC North is undoubtedly the toughest division in the conference. The division sends two teams to the playoffs nearly every year, even sending three last year. The lowest seed of those three, the Cincinnati Bengals, have a great chance to rise up and clinch the division title in 2012.
This opportunity is due to the aging of the Steelers and their stage of transitional flux, the Ravens aging and the instability of their offense, and then the young, surging Bengals and their prevalence of draft picks.
You may have noticed that the remaining AFC North team, the Cleveland Browns, is left out. This is because the Browns simply don’t have a chance. They may steal a game or two from divisional foes, but Cleveland is light years from competing for a title. So onto the competitors.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have been embroiled in controversy over the offseason. First by firing offensive coordinator Bruce Arians despite QB Ben Roethlisberger’s vehement, public request not to.
Then, newly hired OC Todd Haley infamously did not even meet with his QB for almost two weeks in a bizarre combination of a pissing contest and a juvenile ‘you have to call me first’ type relationship to try and gain the proverbial upper hand.
This tumultuous offseason alone doesn’t take a fortune teller to prognosticate difficulties in 2012. But the troubles do not end there for the Steel City. Their star RB, Rashard Mendenhall, tore his ACL in the last week of the season and will probably not be ready for the 2012 season.
In fact, he could miss a lot of the upcoming season, and it isn’t far-fetched to think he won’t be the same RB after this devastating injury.
Not only do the Steelers have to deal with Mendenhall’s injury, they have to contend with their aging roster. As of Sept. 4, 2011, the Steelers have the oldest roster in the entire NFL, and they’re not getting any younger.
Their star players, Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, Casey Hampton, Brett Keisel and Ryan Clark have eight, nine, eight, 11, 10 and 10 years of experience, respectively.
Their two brightest young stars, Rashard Mendenhall and Mike Wallace, are coming off an ACL tear, and the other may not even be with the team next year. While they do have emerging stars like Maurkice Pouncey and Ziggy Hood, the Steelers remain the oldest team in the league.
With that comes the highest risk of injury, especially to the irreplaceable positions. Last year we saw how awful Pittsburgh could be without Roethlisberger or Polamalu, not to mention it could be argued Clark’s absence in the playoffs doomed them to Tim Tebow’s ultimate game-winning highlight. The point is the Steelers are an old team without depth.
When you mix equal parts offseason coaching changes, turmoil, injury, old players and a lack of depth, you have the recipe for an unsuccessful team. The Pittsburgh Steelers are that team, bound to take a big step back in 2012 and, for the first time in a long time, not be in a heated competition for the AFC North Division title.
On the other hand, the Baltimore Ravens will be in competition for the AFC North crown. The Ravens are coming off a tremendous season that was one dropped pass away from the Super Bowl.
Baltimore went through the offseason relatively unscathed, only losing Chuck Pagano, the man that had run their very successful defense the past few years, to the Colts. While they still have yet to sign their star RB Ray Rice to a long-term deal, most expect that deal to eventually get done.
Having said all that, they share the problem of elderly star players at key positions. Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Matt Birk and Anquan Boldin have 16, 10, 14 and nine years of experience, respectively.
Lewis and Reed are the stalwarts of the Raven defense, but both missed time due to injury last year, and their presence was sorely missed. If they were to miss time this year, the Ravens chances would be severely diminished.
Although I am one to usually reject history as an indicator of the future, it is unlikely for the Ravens to repeat simply because the division is so competitive and volatile. In the past 10 years, the Steelers are the only team to repeat as division champs, and they’ve only done it once. The Ravens will not duplicate this feat because their offense will become stagnant at the wrong times.
The biggest knock on the Ravens has been their sluggish offense. Although they sometimes have flashes of brilliance from Ray Rice’s elusiveness or Torrey Smith’s speed, the majority of the time the Ravens look lost on offense.
Many cite the lack of an offensive identity (although it clearly should be Ray Rice) as the setback. It’s honestly unclear how OC Cam Cameron has kept his job so long, but if the offensive sluggishness continues this year, he may finally get fired.
If he can keep the Ravens offense running smoothly, then the Ravens have a great chance of becoming only the second AFC North team to repeat as division champions. If not, the Bengals are ready to pounce on the crown.
The Bengals were by far the most surprising team of 2011. Picked nearly unanimously to finish dead last in the NFL, the Bengals miraculously went to the playoffs, and now they’re back for more.
After pulling off an unbelievable trade for Carson Palmer that was almost as astounding as their playoff run, they now have an extra first-round pick in the upcoming draft (with a conditional first- or second-rounder in 2013).
They also dealt the injury-plagued Keith Rivers to the Giants for a fifth-round pick, adding to the fifth-round pick they got from the Patriots for the services of one Chad Ochocinco. With a total of nine draft picks in the upcoming draft, the Bengals are poised to dramatically upgrade their roster. If you want a look at exactly what I think they should do, check out my Bengals draft scenarios.
Any way you slice it, the Bengals will be a lot better after the draft. Of course all teams will be better after the draft, but the Bengals have an extra first-rounder, two extra fifth-rounders and a recent history of having excellent drafts.
Cincinnati also has a ton of room in cap space and could still pursue these free agents. After inking a lot of depth, the Bengals could make a splash with another move or two. Whether they do, "The Law Firm" will prove to be a valuable signing. BJE has never truly been given the chance to be a featured back, and will shine in Cincy.
But I digress. Let’s get back to why the Bengals can win the division. In contrast with the two other contenders, the Bengals are the fourth youngest team in the league, with all of their star players extremely early in their careers.
Andy Dalton shined in his rookie season without the benefit of any offseason workouts, and a total lack of offensive weapons after A.J. Green and Jermaine Gresham.
This season, Dalton will be graced with offseason workouts, an early-round draft pick for a No. 2 receiver, another early-round draft pick on a guard to protect him and another RB for a three-headed monster approach.
Many experts anticipate Dalton following in the footsteps of Josh Freeman and having a sophomore slump. Those pundits are wrong. Dalton is too focused and too much of a winner to be bothered by such. He will have another Pro Bowl-caliber season, mostly due to his good friend A.J. Green.
In my 10 Bold Predictions for the Bengals article, I said that A.J. Green will be a starter in the Pro Bowl. I am not backing down from that statement. Green has the chance to be the best receiver to wear a Bengals uniform, and that’s saying something considering players like Collinsworth, Pickens, Ochocinco and yes, Terrell Owens also donned the orange and black.
But Green has everything you’d want in a WR. If you look at these aforementioned wideouts, Green has the determination of Collinsworth, the hands of Pickens, the route-running of Ochocinco and the skill of Owens. All without an ounce of diva. But it’s not just the two offensive stars that will align for the Bengals; it will be the defense too.
Mike Zimmer coordinates one of the most unheralded defenses in the league. Never getting the respect they deserve, they love playing with that chip on their shoulder and proving time after time their grittiness. This year, Zimmer didn’t really lose anything replaceable and gained Terence Newman among others.
One of the first-round picks is bound to go to corner, and two more later picks to a pass-rushing DE and a strong safety. It is tough to say exactly how the Bengals will go about it, but a vastly improved defense is to be expected after filling the holes in last year’s D along with getting CB Leon Hall back.
This was a no-name Top 10 defense last year, but expect both to change this year. Some players will make themselves household names en route to becoming a stingy top 5 defense and shutting down Baltimore in a critical game to help win the division.
All in all, the Bengals have a lot to look forward to. Cincinnati is virtually lapping their rivals in Cleveland, and Father Time has all but put the Queen City ahead of the Steel City and is encroaching on Baltimore.
Pittsburgh has gone through turmoil off the field and is in a rebuilding stage of getting younger. Although it’s Baltimore’s division to lose, they still have to deal with the loss of DC Pagano and the unlikelihood of repeating, as well as a team that can sputter on offense and that is one injury away from losing its swagger on defense.
Meanwhile, the Bengals have the youngest and arguably the deepest team in the division with the most draft picks in the upcoming draft. They have experienced no offseason turmoil, no offseason coaching changes and have vastly improved their roster in free agency. The Bengals are ready to pounce and win the AFC North Division crown in 2012 and become the new team to beat in the division this decade.