Even though they won the AFC North last season, the Baltimore Ravens have to know that winning this division again will be an extremely difficult task. The fact that it took them literally three years to figure out the Pittsburgh Steelers to get out of the Wild Card spot is a testament to just how difficult winning this division really is.
Last year, the AFC North finally put itself in the conversation for best division in football as it was the only division to send three teams to the playoffs. The Ravens, the Steelers and the Cincinnati Bengals are all entering the 2012 season with playoff aspirations. And to be fair, the Cleveland Browns have made a lot of changes so it's uncertain what we'll see from them this year.
The Ravens 2011 season was a special one going 6-0 in this brutal division including a sweep of the hated Steelers. They also went 8-0 at home, not including a rare home playoff game and win in the divisional round of the AFC Playoffs. Yet despite all of this, the Ravens only went 12-4 and barely edged the Steelers for the AFC North title and the first-round bye that came with it.
All of these things are going to be exceedingly difficult for the Ravens to repeat in 2012. The schedule will be tricky for the entire AFC North as they go against the AFC West and the NFC East. Those divisions had a total of six teams finish with a record of 8-8 or better. The Ravens have it worse though because their finish in first place draws them games against the New England Patriots and the Houston Texans, arguably two of the three best teams in the entire AFC.
It's going to be hard for three AFC North teams to return to the playoffs. Most likely one of the three will be out next year. Which division rival should have the Ravens most scared? How close is the competition now, could the Steelers or Bengals have made the necessary improvements to be breathing down the Ravens' neck?
This is my breakdown of the AFC North going into the 2012 season. Believe it or not, the Ravens have reasons to be concerned with all of them. At the end of the breakdown I'll determine just how much of a threat the team is to the Ravens' hopes of repeating atop the division.
The main argument used against the Bengals is their inability to play consistently. After all, both of their previous AFC North titles were followed up with disappointing seasons where they finished with 8-8 and 4-12 records respectively. However, delving deep into NFL history reveals even more dubious records being held by the Bengals franchise.
The Bengals' only back-to-back playoff appearances occurred in 1981 and the strike-shortened 1982 season, which really shouldn't count since a different playoff system was used that year. This makes the Bengals the only franchise besides the Texans and the Carolina Panthers to never make consecutive playoff appearances. The Bengals also have another dubious record with a current four-game losing streak in the playoffs that dates all the way back to 1991.
Yet despite all the history working against them, I like the Bengals' chances in 2012. They have had a good offseason, particularly in the draft where they picked up great value in cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick and offensive lineman Kevin Zeitler who were both taken in the first round. While not making flashy moves in free agency, BenJarvus Green-Ellis is an improvement over Cedric Benson at running back and Travelle Wharton has to be an improvement over Nate Livings, who was Cincinnati's worst blocker last season.
The defense was quietly elite last season as their 47 sacks and ninth ranked pass defense were instrumental to the Bengals playoff run. The main questions right now is if Andy Dalton can make sure the offense holds up their share of the bargain and can any other playmaker emerge on offense besides Pro Bowler A.J. Green? If so, the Bengals will get back to the playoffs and shock the NFL by finishing ahead of both the Ravens and the Steelers.
As of now, I would rank the Bengals as the Ravens second biggest concern in the division. The Ravens should be very concerned about the Bengals in 2012.
As I said above, arguments can be made for every AFC North team to catch the Ravens. It's just with the Browns you have to be creative, very creative to even design an argument where they contend for the AFC North title.
Coming off a 4-12 season in 2011, one of the Browns' only bright spots is their pass defense. Joe Haden is arguably one of the five best cornerbacks in the AFC and he's making opposing quarterbacks question whether it's wise to throw the ball his way. Meanwhile linebacker D'Qwell Jackson is a tackling machine with more than 100 tackles in three of the past five seasons.
On defense they really need to worry about fixing their horrific rush defense which allowed 147.4 rushing yards a game. Defensive linemen John Hughes and Billy Winn were drafted with that need in mind. Although, with both players being drafted in later rounds it might be unfair to expect too much from them this season.
The main way the Browns can help their rush defense is by being competitive and not getting massively outscored by every team they play. That's on the offense's shoulders.
The offense this season will involve rookies Brandon Weeden and Trent Richardson who are essentially being thrown into the fire. If Weeden and Richardson can reignite the Browns offense the potential may exist for a surprisingly good season.
By surprisingly good season, I mean around 7-9 or 8-8. Barring injury, the Browns won't compete in the AFC North this season. So although I hate to count anyone out so early, I will say that the Ravens don't need to be concerned about the Browns in 2012.
The Steelers are the Ravens' arch-nemesis, a team that always has to be counted for every single season. The Steelers had only one losing season since 2000, and they have made the playoffs eight of the last twelve seasons. In three of those seasons the Steelers made it all the way to the Super Bowl coming away with two Lombardi trophies.
Make no mistake this team will be dangerous in 2012. I would be shocked if they aren't in the running for the AFC North title. Although the argument seems to be prevalent that there defense will suffer because it's getting old, I'm having trouble believing it. Players like James Harrison, Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor should still have productive seasons despite being in their 30s.
The Steelers main concern should be their offensive line. Ben Roethlisberger always takes too many sacks, and last year was no exception as he gave up 40, good for third-most in the NFL. Honestly, if Roethlisberger wasn't so good at escaping the pass rush he would probably be out of the NFL already.
David DeCastro and Mike Adams were great early pickups in the draft that should help to finally give Roethlisberger a decent offensive line. There are concerns in the running game with Rashard Mendenhall's injury but honestly he hasn't shown much in his four years with the Steelers. It's quite possible that Isaac Redman could actually be the better back going forward.
The Steelers will remain the Ravens top concern next season. Between them and the Bengals it's going to be a brutally difficult three team race for the division title. And like the Bengals, the Ravens should be very concerned about the Steelers in 2012.