Easily the hardest-hitting division in all of football, the AFC North boasts the reigning AFC champion Pittsburgh Steelers.
While the Steelers have the league's staunchest defense in terms of points (14.5 per game), not far behind is a veteran squad led by linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed, the Baltimore Ravens (16.9 points per game).
The Steelers made an effort in the draft to upgrade a sieve of an offensive line by taking tackle Marcus Gilbert in the second round. Receiver Mike Wallace (1,257 yards, 10 touchdowns) is entering his third season, which many believe is a wide receiver's breakout year, playing with the rejuvenated Ben Roethlisberger. Adding to a receiving corps that already has perennial Pro Bowl-talent Hines Ward, and up-and-comer Emmanuel Sanders, the Steelers have a group of pass catchers that rival any team in football. The Steelers have been and always will be a smash-mouth team, and bruising running back Rashard Mendenhall (1,273 yards, 13 touchdowns) carries the load willingly. Until someone else says otherwise, the Steelers will be the class of the AFC North in 2011.
The Ravens, after having back-to-back-to-back playoff seasons, are led on offense by fourth-year pro Joe Flacco. Flacco has improved every year he has been in the league and now has the addition of newly-drafted Torrey Smith. Smith, a player who Baltimore's front office feels will provide a deep threat and add to the team's passing game, and hopefully his presence will open more running lanes for starter Ray Rice. The defense is always a force to be reckoned with, but it is getting older. They were able to add corner Jimmy Smith in the draft, and he will be counted on to hold down one side of the field. While they are still unsure of the playing status and eligibility of 2010 first-round selection Sergio Kindle of Texas, opposing offenses will find yards tough to come by against the team.
Second-year quarterback Colt McCoy leads an offense looking for an injection of life under new head coach Pat Shurmur. The West Coast switch and change in defensive philosophy to the 4-3 could cause the Browns to struggle early and often, but they should be much improved on both sides of the ball. RB Peyton Hillis can be penciled in for 1,000 yards as long as the Browns can provide him the sufficient breaks he will need with back up Montario Hardesty. Over the past two drafts, team president Mike Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert have done a remarkable job of playing catch-up in the talent department, and the addition of second-round receiver Greg Little should provide Colt McCoy with the type of weapon at the position the team has lacked. Rookies Phil Taylor and Jabaal Sheard will be counted on to anchor the defensive front seven in its run at respectability.
The weak link in the AFC North is the Cincinnati Bengals. This team is in total disarray. Quarterback Carson Palmer is refusing to come back, both top receivers from the 2010 season (Chad Ochocinco, Terrell Owens) are likely to be gone, and running back Cedric Benson is a free agent who slowed down considerably at the end of last season. To rebound, the Bengals drafted quarterback Andy Dalton, wide receiver A.J. Green, and linebacker Dontay Moch in the first three rounds of the 2011 draft. They open the season at Cleveland, assuming the season starts on time, and it will be a great barometer as to how both teams have progressed, or regressed, this offseason.