The AFC North has routinely been known for their hard-nosed style of play and ground-and-pound schemes. From Jerome Bettis to Jamal Lewis, this division is notorious for chipping away at opponents and wearing them down via the ground attack.
But as the NFL has changed, so has the AFC North.
Up until last season, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had more Super Bowl rings than 4,000 yard seasons. Ravens QB Joe Flacco may have had his third straight 3,600 yard season, but he piled up a career high 542 attempts.
There's no doubt that change is coming to the division. So with that in mind, let's take a shot at predicting the top five passers in the AFC North for 2012.
5. Colt McCoy / Cleveland Browns
It doesn't really matter who has the fifth most passing yards in the division. Considering there's only four starting quarterbacks, the fifth guy is the backup who will probably get the most reps.
Despite the Browns clear distaste for McCoy, the soon-to-be 25 year old could conceivable still be considered the teams quarterback of the future. Rookie Brandon Weeden will turn 29 this season, making him the second oldest starter in the division.
It's going to take some time for Weeden to get acclimated to the NFL game and with limited talent around him that process could take a lot longer. There's a half-decent chance McCoy will get some garbage time snaps or come in if Weeden is injured. Either way, I think he'll be number five.
Predictions: 422 yards passing, 1 touchdown, 2 interceptions, 60% completion
4. Brandon Weeden / Cleveland Browns
Let me start off by saying that I wasn't a big fan of Brandon Weeden coming out of college or the Browns selection of him. If a team's trying to build through the draft, it doesn't make much sense to draft a quarterback who's already half way to retirement.
As I said in the previous assessment, Weeden will be the second oldest quarterback in the division, and the only one who hasn't been to the playoffs. He'll be playing in a division that boasted three playoff teams in 2011.
To make matters worse, the Browns management has done an awful job of giving any talent to their rookie QB. Trent Richardson is a phenomenal back, but he's not enough to even put Cleveland over top of the Colts.
2012 could be pretty hard for Browns fans to stomach. The offense will struggle mightily and they'll be lucky to win three games.
Predictions: 2,725 yards passing, 14 touchdowns, 22 interceptions, 54% completion
3. Andy Dalton / Cincinnati Bengals
After falling to the second round because of a lack of "ideal size and arm strength," former TCU star Andy Dalton made a lot of teams pay by successfully managing his Cincinnati Bengals to the playoffs.
Dalton did a great job of protecting the football in 2011 and wasn't afraid to make a big play when he had to. He showed great poise in the pocket and developed a fantastic chemistry with fellow rookie A.J. Green that will undoubtedly be the backbone of this Bengals offense for the next decade.
Unlike the Browns, the Bengals front office has done a great job of surrounding their franchise quarterback with weapons. Green is already flying up the list of receivers in the NFL while Dalton is protected by one of the league's best (and most underrated) offensive line.
New additions like BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Mohammed Sanu bring fresh talent to an already youthful team.
One thing to watch for this season with Dalton is the dreaded "sophomore slump". If he can overcome this, Andy and the Bengals could have quite a season.
Predictions: 3,600 yards passing, 25 touchdowns, 16 interceptions, 63% completion
2. Joe Flacco / Baltimore Ravens
As I said in the introduction, Flacco set a career high in pass attempts last season and it could routinely be seen throughout the year that the offense was Joe's. And, despite taking a loss, when Flacco out-dueled Tom Brady in last year's AFC Championship, the team became his.
Over the last three seasons, Flacco has actually been one of the most consistent quarterbacks in the league. Since 2009, the former Blue Hen has thrown for 3,600 yards and 20+ touchdowns each year while the offense relied mostly on the running game.
But I think that's going to change in 2012.
This team now belongs to Flacco and Baltimore spent a lot of the offseason gathering weapons for their quarterback on the outside. Torrey Smith is in his second year and coupling him with free agent acquisition Jacoby Jones would appear that the Ravens are trying to move the ball down the field. Anquan Boldin is still a great underneath threat and Baltimore has the poor-man's version of the Patriots tight ends with the Ed Dickson/Dennis Pitta combo.
Although Ray Rice is clearly the best player on the Ravens offense, the team now belongs to Flacco. Last season, Rice was the team's leading receiver. That might not change, but you better believe there will be more balls to go around.
Predictions: 3,950 yards passing, 27 touchdowns, 14 interceptions, 60% completion
1. Ben Roethlisberger / Pittsburgh Steelers
It's crazy to see a Steeler at the top of a passing leaders list but that should very well be the case this season.
Gone are the days of Jerome Bettis and Franco Harris and in is the era of the young wide receivers. The Steelers, maybe as much as any team in the AFC outside of New England, are perfectly set up for the pass.
Disgruntled receiver Mike Wallace has returned to camp and Antonio Brown has had a phenomenal preseason. Add in great veteran presence with Jerricho Cotchery and tight end Heath Miller and you've got an attack that's ready to fly.
But it's not just the receivers who have gotten better. Pittsburgh added former Florida utility man Chris Rainey via the draft to be a pass catcher out of the backfield. Roethlisberger has never had a weapon like this from the running back position. Rainey could be a major contributor on third downs when Big Ben is flushed from the pocket.
The Steelers might say they want to run the ball, but with starting running back Rashard Mendenhall out for an extended period of time and an offensive line that has routinely been a revolving door of below average talent, throwing the ball is the best way for the Steelers to win.
Last year, Roethlisberger topped the 4,000 yard mark for the second time in his career. With Wallace, Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and company, Big Ben could be looking at his best receiving corps to date. And that could lead to his best passing season.
Predictions: 4,300 yards passing, 33 touchdowns, 14 interceptions, 64% completion
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