In Part 3 of this NFL season preview, we investigate the Northern divisions. Both are traditional powerhouse conferences with the likes of Green Bay, Chicago, Pittsburgh and Baltimore. Last year, these two divisions provided five of the twelve playoff teams.
While they both have great histories of conference dominance, I find that one of the Norths may far surpass the other in 2012. Let's have a look.
Since the realignment of the divisions in 2002, Pittsburgh and Baltimore have won a combined eight division titles. Cincinnati owns the other two. If you are looking for a pretty consistent "have and have-not" division, look no further.
Most of the time, we see Baltimore and Pittsburgh, in some combination, at the top of the charts. And last year was no different. Both teams finished impressive 12-4 seasons, with Baltimore taking the top spot by virtue of sweeping the season series. The Steelers would settle for the first wild-card spot.
But that wasn't the end of the story. Little brother Cincinnati, led by the "Red Rifle" Andy Dalton, also sneaked into the playoffs at 9-7.
And with that, the AFC North had three teams, with a combined record of 33-15, vying for a spot in the Super Bowl. As we know, it didn't pan out for any of them, but it is still an impressive feat nonetheless.
As for lonely basement-dweller Cleveland, Colt McCoy didn't exactly translate well to the NFL. And Peyton Hillis became yet another victim of the Madden curse, registering just 587 yards and three TDs in 10 games.
Their season never really got off the ground, and they were probably lucky (or unlucky, depending on how you look at it) that they weren't the worst team in football.
It's hard to explain why I like Joe Flacco as much as I do.
Anyone else who watched the AFC Championship last year, and saw what I saw, understands that Flacco definitely has the ability. He did everything he could in that game. He outplayed Tom Brady (yes, you heard me correctly) and played one of the best games in his career, but his teammates let him down.
Joe Flacco is not often brought up in conversations about the best QBs in the league, but I know he has it in him. He has a chance this year, with the Steelers getting a little long in the tooth, to prove himself as a legitimate NFL quarterback.
Every year, I think Ray Rice might come back down to Earth, and every year, I'm wrong. It might just be time for me to admit that he is a really, really good running back.
At this point, barring injury, we can assume a solid 1,300 yards and 10 TDs out of Rice. And those are just his ground numbers. He will also be an asset in he passing game, probably garnering something like 70 receptions for 700 yards.
It's hard to get excited about Baltimore's receivers, but there are worse duos out there than Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith. Their defense is getting old, yes. But as long as you've got Haloti Ngata, Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, I think you're going to be okay.
Even though the Ravens won the division last year, I think people still view them as the sideshow to Pittsburgh. However, Baltimore could put some space between themselves and a slightly down Steelers team in 2012.
I can spot a couple of huge glaring problems for the 2012 Pittsburgh Steelers.
First, their running backs are an absolute mess. The best RB on the roster is Rashard Mendenhall, but he tore his ACL at the end of 2011 and does not appear to be ready for the first few weeks of the season.
Next you have a veritable hodge-podge of back-ups, none of whom can guarantee substantial production. Isaac Redman figures to be the starter, but he has been dealing with an ankle sprain the last few weeks. Jonathan Dwyer, who is also in line for some playing time, is returning from a broken foot last season.
Lastly, rookie Chris Rainey from Florida has impressed in training camp, but sits at the bottom of the depth chart. And of course, to top it all off, none of them have very much experience.
The other problem is the offensive line. They addressed that need in the draft, taking standout Stanford guard David DeCastro. However, DeCastro tore his MCL in the preseason and will miss most or all of the season. So we are right back where we started.
Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 42 times in 2011, which tied for the ninth most. And consider that Ben is a massive quarterback who has a knack for breaking away from defenders. That number could be a lot higher with a different QB behind the line.
But it is still the Steelers. They will still compete. I think they will fight for the wild card.
Just look at that pasty white throwing motion. Thing of beauty right there.
Dalton to Green was a pleasantly surprising combination in 2011, and I think their rapport will only strengthen as time goes on. However, the Bengals relied heavily on the running game last year (Dalton only threw for 300 yards in a game twice). I don't expect them to have quite as much success in that facet of their offense.
They got rid of veteran Cedric Benson in favor of ex-Patriot BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Although Green-Ellis has a nose for the end zone, and has never fumbled once in his career, he is not your stereotypical first-string RB.
He is a big bruiser who can run over a defender or two, but he's not going to break big runs or give you a high consistent average. I mean, he has the same number of names as he does career 100-yard rushing games.
They also have Bernard Scott. For years, we have been waiting for him to overtake Benson. But he just doesn't seem able to take the leap. He has been given plenty of opportunity over the last three years, but has only managed about 300 yards per season on average.
Lastly, their defense showed up in a big way last season, finishing in the top 10 in both rushing and passing defense. But they were unable to make the leap and topple Baltimore and Pittsburgh, who both swept them in the regular season.
They were a great playoff story in 2011, but I can't see them hanging around their rivals and sticking in the playoff hunt this year.
I'm not sure what the historical stats are for 28-year-old rookie quarterbacks, but I'm assuming they're not great.
I appreciate that the Browns have been improving their team through the draft the last few years, and I think Trent Richardson is going to be a decent starting running back, but this season's offense is just so young and inexperienced.
It might make me feel better if they had a big-name receiver or tight end to help Brandon Weeden adjust to the league, but their top players in those positions are currently Greg Little and Benjamin Watson. Not exactly the most faith-inspiring.
Unlike some of the other lower-tier teams I've mentioned in this preview, I do believe that the Browns are headed in the right direction. They have established a dominant left tackle in Joe Thomas, as well as a potential shutdown corner in Joe Haden.
The Browns might become competitive a few years down the road, but there is just too much inexperience right now for them to be relevant in 2012.
The NFC North was another one of those divisions that saw a five-game gap between first and second place. But it's really hard to blame second place when they made the playoffs at 10-6.
Green Bay was the annual "will they go 16-0" team. The answer was no, but they came pretty close. Besides a strange 19-14 loss to Kansas City in Week 15, the Packers cruised through the regular season and were heavy postseason favorites following their 15-1 campaign.
Apparently, though, relieving the pressure of pursuing a perfect season did not help as the Giants booted them from the playoffs with a dominating 37-20 performance.
Honestly, it seemed like everything that could have gone wrong for the Packers on that day, did. They had gone through the season (nearly) without incident, and it all just came crashing down in one bad outing.
The Lions surprised many as they climbed their way back into relevancy. It is amazing when you think about their ascent from their 0-16 2008 season, to 2-14 in '09, 6-10 in '10, all the way to 10-6 in 2011.
Clearly Matthew Stafford is a keeper at the quarterback position (throwing for over 5,000 yards), and that defense they have been building in the draft finally started to come together. Calvin Johnson was far and away the best receiver in football, hauling in 96 catches for 1,681 yards and 16 TDs.
The Lions fell short on wild-card weekend to a blazing hot Saints team, but for that franchise, the playoff appearance was a huge victory.
The Bears were a solid team through Week 11 last year. They stood at 7-3 and looked to be in contention for the wild card (which Detroit eventually ended up with). But they lost both Jay Cutler and Matt Forte for the season in a game against San Diego.
Caleb Hanie and Marion Barber filled in, and you wouldn't be surprised to know that the Bears promptly dropped five games in a row and dropped like a stone out of the playoff hunt. I have no doubts that a healthy Bears team would have been a major player in the 2011 postseason.
And Minnesota. The Donovan McNabb experiment lasted only six games before the Vikings realized they were about five years and 30 pounds too late.
Then, they undertook the Christian Ponder experiment (which sounds like something a youth church group would be involved in), which was interesting, to say the least.
Ponder looks great at times and downright atrocious at others. He was even benched in the last two weeks to make way for Joe Webb, who was hands-down the most exciting of the three options.
Mega superstar Adrian Peterson was sidelined after a torn ACL, but they were 2-7 with him in the lineup anyway. Clearly, there is a lot to be fixed in Minnesota.
Another curveball for you.
Yes, I predict that the mighty Packers will be dethroned this year. The Bears are looking awfully good to me.
As I mentioned, they were performing well last season before multiple disastrous injuries struck. Both Cutler and Forte will be back healthy for Week 1. Also, we will witness the sure-to-be-touching reunion of Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall.
I know that Marshall was little more than a distraction in Miami, but once upon a time, he was an elite NFL wideout. With Cutler at QB, Marshall went off during two years in Denver. That combo hooked up for 206 receptions, 2,590 yards and 13 TDs.
In addition, defensive leader Brian Urlacher should be ready to go soon. He has been battling a knee injury this offseason, but he aims to be back for the opening game on September 9 (via CBSSports.com), which is a major boost to that already stalwart defense.
I understand that it will be tough to beat out Green Bay, but this seems like the team that could do it. If their key players on offense and defense stay healthy, and they can take at least one of the games against their bitter rivals, look for a really close race for the division crown.
Don't get me wrong, the Packers are still going to be a great team, but when you look at that fateful game they played against New York last year, it is hard to ignore some of the warning signs.
Firstly, their pass defense is atrocious. I'm sorry, there is just no way around it. They were dead last in the league in opponent's passing, allowing 299.8 yards per game.
Now, obviously, your opponent is forced to throw a lot when your offense is putting up the kind of numbers the Packers do. It's just how it works. For example, Matt Stafford dropped 520 yards on them in Week 17, but Green Bay still won the game 45-41.
So clearly it worked out last year, but you can't expect the offense to produce like that every game. Because when they don't, you lose 37-20 in the playoffs. See where I'm going with this?
Secondly, their running game is a total joke. Right now, ESPN tells me that the top RB on their depth chart is Alex Green. I swear to you, I have no idea who that is. Apparently he has 11 career rushing yards.
Last year, the job belonged to James Starks, but he is way down in the third-string now. And they filled the backup spot with the aforementioned Cedric Benson. I find it hard to believe that any of these guys are suited to be starting in the NFL. Maybe the Packers really don't care.
This race is going to be a tight one. But I feel more safe with Chicago's team overall than I do with Green Bay's. I wouldn't be surprised, though, if this division produces the top two teams in the NFC in 2012.
It kills me to tell you that the Lions are going to slide backwards a bit this year. They are such a good story, and really a perfect model for how to rebuild a team, but they are playing in a ridiculously competitive conference. If the Bears and Packers are going to be as good as I predict, the Lions are going to feel the effects.
You may notice a recurring theme with the running back situations of many NFL teams. That is to say, that they stink. And the Lions are no exception.
Jahvid Best was supposed to be the answer for them, but he has had several concussions already in his young career, and we all know how serious that is at this point. Backup Kevin Smith never really broke out in Detroit, and there is no way that he is only 25 years old. Wasn't he their running back in like... 1997? Am I going crazy?
This puts the Lions in the same position as the Packers, in terms of the demand on their passing attack, and I don't personally find that they have the same level of ability as Green Bay. Calvin Johnson is only one man, you know?
Unfortunately, I think that the Lions reached pretty close to their ceiling last year, and I would be surprised to see them break back into the playoffs in such a rough division.
It is absolutely ridiculous that Adrian Peterson might possibly be ready for Week 1 (he will be a game-time decision, according to Pro Football Focus).
What illicit medical procedures is he undergoing in Germany that he can possibly recover from a completely torn ACL and MCL in eight months?! It has always been a full-year recovery process, with residual side effects hampering ability for another year or so.
This is why I don't anticipate a fully productive, healthy season for Peterson. I think, like Jamaal Charles, he will have a hard time getting back into the swing of things, which only compounds the whole Christian Ponder issue.
Percy Harvin turned out to be one of the top receivers the last half of the season, so at least they know that they have a viable option in the passing game. But without a credible quarterback to get him the ball, the offense is going to be moving very slowly, especially against the other defensive fronts in the division.
The Vikings are a great example of how quarterback-centered the game has become. You simply cannot succeed without a quarterback that can at least hold it together. Barring large improvements from Christian Ponder or Joe Webb, I don't see the Vikings going anywhere, especially in the loaded potato soup that is the NFC North.
Come back tomorrow, for previews for the final two divisions: the Souths.