AFC North: 20 Burning Questions in the Division

Amber Lee@@BlamberrSports Lists Lead WriterJune 20, 2011

AFC North: 20 Burning Questions in the Division

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    AFC North
    AFC North

    Recent news about progress in NFL labor negotiations has fans across the country breathing a collective sigh of relief. 

    Sure nothing is definitive, but after having reached an impasse in early March, it seems as though both sides have finally returned to the table with a willingness to compromise.  If these guys are ready to get back to business, then so are we.

    In addition to division-wide questions, every team in the AFC North had a unique finish last season with each facing different lingering question heading into the 2011-2012 season. 

    Here are the top 20 burning questions in the AFC North.

Is Colt McCoy the Answer in Cleveland?

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    Colt McCoy
    Colt McCoyChris Graythen/Getty Images

    The Cleveland Browns have been flailing in a sea of QB uncertainty since 1991 when then coach Bill Belichick made the controversial mid-season decision to release Bernie Kosar.  Since then their QB roster has been a veritable who's who of professional football playing garbage.

    Tim Couch, Derek Anderson, Doug Pederson, Luke McCown, Charlie Frye, Ken Dorsey and Jake Delhomme (after he transitioned from serviceable to human turnover machine) are just a sampling of the QB horror show Browns' fans have had to endure.

    When the Browns picked Texas' Colt McCoy in the third round of the 2010 draft, we assumed that sooner or later the young QB would be thrown to the wolves and eventually fade into obscurity.  Well, we were half right—McCoy's first start did come just two months into the season against the Pittsburgh Steelers

    However, despite losing the game, McCoy's performance was unexpectedly solid and he followed it up by defeating the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints and the always formidable New England Patriots in successive weeks.

    This doesn't mean McCoy is officially the man in Cleveland—their final record was 5-11 after all.  Plus there's the little matter of Andrew Luck, you know, the next John Elway who is the biggest 'can't-miss' QB prospect since.. uh.. John Elway.  Oh, and even John Elway agrees. 

    Fans are going to turn on McCoy if he doesn't win early this year and start clamoring for Luck.  Who could blame them?

Can the Steelers Dodge the Super Bowl Hangover?

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    Frank Zombo says hello to Ben Roethlisberger
    Frank Zombo says hello to Ben RoethlisbergerKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Much like "bulletin board material" or "distractions", the "Super Bowl Hangover" is just another irritating invention created by the sports media in order to fill copy or countless hours of NFL programming—if you've ever seen the hosts of ESPN's NFL Countdown try to fill four ours of airtime, you know exactly what I'm talking about. 

    That being said, if the hangover does exist, the Steelers have fallen victim to it twice in the last few years—having missed the playoffs in the season following their Super Bowl victories in 2005 and 2009.

    There is a key difference between then and now—they actually won then, which could explain their lackadaisical approach the next season. 

    Having lost to the Packers on the world's biggest stage, the Steelers have nothing to hang their collective hat on this year.  If they manage to miss the playoffs with one of the weakest NFL schedules, the Super Bowl Hangover officially exists. 

Is Ravens QB Joe Flacco Elite or Just Good?

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    Joe Flacco
    Joe FlaccoNick Laham/Getty Images

    Save for the late Steve McNair, Joe Flacco is the best QB to start for the Baltimore Ravens since their 1995 inception.  Before Flacco, the Ravens favored a power running game with the QB simply asked to manage the game and not blow it for the defense—a strategy that long defined the AFC North and allowed Trent Dilfer to become a Super Bowl winning QB in 2000.

    Unfortunately for the Ravens, you can't expect your defense to hold opponents to a record-setting 165 total points every season. In today's NFL, a team simply will not contend for a championship without a productive QB who can keep defenses honest.

    Unless teams spontaneously and inexplicably start running the single-wing again, then inaccurate, middling QBs like Kyle Boller, Chris Redman and Elvis Grbac aren't going to be effective.

    Joe Flacco is clearly an upgrade, but how good is he really?  Flacco's numbers during the regular season have been good, and most people agree he has the tools to become a great QB.  The question remains though—is he a young gun with the potential and the ability of Philip Rivers, or is he a serviceable guy lacking the mettle required to win a Super Bowl?

    Maybe we'll find out this season.

What Is Cincinnati Going to Do at QB?

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    The evolution of Carson Palmer
    The evolution of Carson Palmer

    We've witnessed a stunning evolution in the career of Carson Palmer--from his Heisman Trophy winning senior year at USC, to his stunning first season at the helm in Cincinnati, and now the broken sad-sack you see today who, at age 31, would rather retire than play another day as a Bengal. 

    It's been a pretty brutal ride, so it's hard to blame Palmer for wanting to bring it to a merciful end. Bengals owner Mike Brown, who loves to get nothing for something, has said that Palmer will not be traded under any circumstances. 

    If the Bengals don't do the smart thing (we know they won't) and trade Palmer for a solid, veteran QB, it looks like either Andy Dalton, the second round draft pick out of TCU, or Jordan Palmer—Carson's less talented/attractive little brother—will be the starter in Cincy.

    Dalton is the most likely option, but do they want to risk his career by throwing him into the fire during another rebuilding year? For every Peyton Manning who survived and thrived, there is a David Carr who was asked to start immediately for a bad team and, fairly or not, never lived up to the hype.

    Since the Bengals seem to be throwing crap against the wall to see what sticks at this point, why should this be any different?

Who Is Going to Lose the Most During Free Agency?

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    Haloti Ngata introduces Peyton Manning's face to the dirt.
    Haloti Ngata introduces Peyton Manning's face to the dirt.Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    All four teams in the division have several free agents but Cincinnati and Pittsburgh have the most to lose in terms of the number of quality free agent players yet to be signed to a new deal.  But, the Bengals are more likely to suffer if they lose any of their core players, because of their current state of disarray and overall lack of depth.

    While losing a good, free agent corner like Ike Taylor would inevitably hurt an already vulnerable secondary, the Steelers still have a top five QB, young, fast receiving corp, and a Dick LeBeau coached defense. They are built to survive the loss of a vital player, while the Bengals cannot afford to lose free agent like Johnathan Joseph.

    Take into account all of these factors, along with the Steelers track record in retaining players who can still contribute and letting others go at the right time, and the Bengals could have trouble signing their key free agents to new deals.

    The top four unrestricted free agents for each team are as follows:

    Bengals: RB Cedric Benson, WR Terrell Owens, LB Dhani Jones, CB Johnathan Joseph

    Steelers: OT Willie Colon, DE Chris Hoke, LB LaMarr Woodley, CB Ike Taylor

    There's a realistic chance that the Bengals could lose all four of these guys and the Steelers won't lose more than two. 

Will the New Rules Have the Biggest Impact in the AFC North?

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    James Harrison does not like rules.
    James Harrison does not like rules.

    It's no secret that the NFL's new rules on player 'safety' are aimed at the Pittsburgh Steelers, but they aren't the only team in the division that relies on an intimidating, hard-hitting defense.

    Since the 1999-2000 season, the Ravens and the Steelers havd—with a few exceptions—fielded two of the best and most violent defenses in the NFL. Featuring iconic, fearsome hitters over the years like Joey Porter, the enigmatic Ray Lewis, James Harrison and Bart Scott, these defenses have produced bone-jarring collisions, broken bones, and more than a few concussions.

    Having drafted young, hungry beasts like Lamar Woodley and Haloti Ngata, both defenses show little sign of losing their reputation. 

    Cincinnati's improved defense shouldn't be overlooked either; its a solid unit coached-up by good-guy Mike Zimmerman and features talented young hitters like Jonathan Fanene and Keith Rivers. Despite being just a terrible team, Cleveland's defense kept many of the games closer than they should have been last season.

    James Harrison—the consequential poster boy for the kind of hits targeted by the new rules—has been vocal critic of how these rules will impact his play and the game itself. This begs the question—who is going to bend more, players who make their living with violent hits, or the Commissioner.

    This is unknown territory, so it's anybody's guess how the rules will be applied. How will the teams, the players, and the fans react if one of their best defensive players is suspended at a crucial point in the season? There is no division in the NFL that has more at stake on this issue than the AFC North.

Can the Ravens Best the Steelers?

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    Hines Ward and Ed Reed exchange words
    Hines Ward and Ed Reed exchange wordsNick Laham/Getty Images

    Forget the Patriots versus the declining Colts and the Eagles versus the always underachieving Giants—Steelers-Ravens is the best and most violent rivalry in the NFL.  These games are heated, contentious affairs that usually cross the line from "hard-hitting" to "absolutely brutal." 

    In recent years these teams have been statistically even, both teams finished 12-4 last year, and the vast majority of their games are decided by three points.  The playoffs are where the the Steelers distinguish themselves, having vanquished the Ravens on the road to their last two Super Bowls.

    Beyond the wins and losses, this rivalry has been defined by vicious collisions, gruesome injuries, and personal grudge matches. The outcome is more often than not, determined by the last man standing.

    At a time when the NFL is pushing for rule changes and other measures to ensure player safety, its hard to believe that players like James Harrison, Haloti Ngata, Hines Ward and Ray Lewis are going to be able to just turn the hatred off. During the following decade the Steelers-Ravens rivalry could become known as much for the subsequent suspensions as for its hits.

    Either way, it remains the biggest obstacle for the Ravens—though the margin of victory is always slim, the Steelers more often than not have come out on top.

    If 36-year-old Ray Lewis wants to see another Super Bowl before he retires, he's gotta find a way to beat the Steelers in the playoffs. 

Will the Lockout Have Any Impact on off-Season Conditioning?

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    Andre Smith is still faster than you
    Andre Smith is still faster than you

    Of course Tom Brady is conducting offseason, private workouts with his New England Patriots, would you expect anything less of the ultimate company man?  Not many quarterbacks have followed his lead and the question of off-season conditioning issues as a result of the NFL lockout looms large.

    There is no evidence that proves offseason OTA's provide any substantial conditioning benefit to players—league-wide successes would be difficult to quantify due to a lack of uniformity in OTA activity. 

    The only way to actually quantify the importance of OTA's would be to completely eliminate them, which the NFL lockout did this year. While the lockout disappeared the OTA's, there is no union, contract or other measure in place to compel players to stay in shape or even learn the playbook on their own personal time.

    So, predictably, some players are being proactive while others are taking full advantage of their unpaid vacation.

    Every team seems to have one or two guys that routinely show up to training camp overweight, it'll be interesting to see if there's a noticeable uptick in fatties this year. And even if the fatty rate isn't too far from the norm, there could be more penalties and otherwise boneheaded plays due to a shortened/non-existent preseason.

Can A.J. Green Make an Instant Impact on an Uncertain Cincy Offense?

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    A.J. Green
    A.J. GreenKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    The QB-challenged Cincinnati Bengals selected Georgia receiver A.J. Green fourth overall in the draft.  There's no question Green is a major talent, and was universally considered the top receiver in the draft-- drawing comparisons to a young Randy Moss without the baggage. 

    Unfortunately for Green, like many of the ill-fated top ten talents drafted by the Bengals over the years, the situation he'll be stepping into is uncertain at best.  Marvin Lewis' job status is questionable, or at best...weird; the QB situation is tenuous, and owner Mike Brown is known for poor personnel decisions and general awfulness.

    Certain teams in the NFL are career killers, but the best athletes can buck the trend and give fans some much needed optimism.  Will Green be able to rise to the occasion and help re-build the Bengals from the ground up like Calvin Johnson did in Detroit, or will he look more like Randy Moss during his time with the Oakland Raiders.  

    Nobody knows, but all eyes will be on Green this season.

Can Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu Stay Healthy?

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    Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed
    Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed

    Are Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed the greatest safeties ever?  Maybe. 

    Are Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed the best safeties playing today?  Definitely.

    Who gets the edge in greatness really depends on whether you're reading the Pittsburgh Post Gazette or the Baltimore Sun—but that's a debate for another day.  The two former first-round draft picks were selected only one year apart and their careers have been intrinsically linked due to the divisional rivalry and position they share. 

    Over the past few seasons, both Reed and Polamalu have suffered injuries and missed significant playing time. On the wrong side of 30, it's inevitable that their bodies and play will begin to decline--at least by their lofty standards.

    However, if you look at the statistical performance of the Steelers and Ravens defenses with and without Polamalu and Reed on the field, it's clear they remain high-impact players.

    Beyond the stats, both players have that intangible, instinctual ability to make game-changing plays that cannot be replaced by even the best scheme designed to mitigate their absence. If you need more proof, then how about the fact that Reed led the league with eight interceptions after missing the first six games, and when it comes to Polamalu, well, words aren't adequate.

    If Reed and Polamalu stay healthy, the Ravens and Steelers defenses will continue to be a dominant force—if the past two seasons become a trend and they miss significant time in 2011, these defenses will merely be good. The Reed-Polamalu factor will be the difference between fielding another championship-caliber team or just average one in the hunt.

Will Any Team Make a Big Move in Free Agency?

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    Antonio Cromartie, better with you than against you
    Antonio Cromartie, better with you than against youGregory Shamus/Getty Images

    The Browns seem legitimately committed to rebuilding, which means they probably aren't going to be acquiring any over-priced veterans. 

    The Bengals tend to make the most divisional noise during free agency and that could be the case again this year, but Marvin Lewis has to know they are more than a few free agents away from being competitive.  They need to focus on keeping the talent they have.

    The Ravens and Steelers both have a few offseason needs to address if they expect to make a serious Super Bowl run.  The most glaring need for both teams is at cornerback—with a number of quality corners on the free agent market it will be interesting to see who, if anyone, they bring in. 

    Both teams would also benefit immensely from a bringing in quality running back to complement their number one backs.  The 2011 free agent market is littered with solid vets who would could make and immediate impact on either team.

    However, if you look at the history of success the Ravens and Steelers have had plugging in a running back who was previously buried on the depth chart, then more likely that not, both teams will stand pat.

Will Peyton Hillis Beat the Madden Curse?

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    Peyton Hillis will try to beat the odds
    Peyton Hillis will try to beat the oddsMike Stobe/Getty Images

    So, is the Madden Curse real?  Why don't you ask Shaun Alexander and Daunte Culpepper and get back to me. 

    Sure there's nothing carved on the wall of an ancient pyramid that officially proves the existence of a curse, but the list of athletes who have, following their cover appearance, either been seriously maimed or began a career free-fall following is pretty darn convincing. 

    You know who doesn't believe in the Madden Curse?  Peyton Hillis.

    Shaun Alexander didn't believe in it either.

Is This Dick Lebeau’s Last Season with the Steelers?

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    Dick Lebeau
    Dick LebeauGregory Shamus/Getty Images

    Hall-of-Famer Dick LeBeau is the heart and soul of the Steelers' defense, a Hall of Famer, and the architect of the 3-4 defense. Long after he has coached his last game, LeBeau's legacy as a defensive innovator will continue to influence the game.

    Now at age 73, is heading into the the last year of his contract. The man does not age like the rest of us, this much is obvious, but he has been employed by the NFL as a player or coach for over five decades. Perhaps next season will not be his last, but expect the speculation to continue—he is simply at that point of his long, storied career.

    The good news for Steelers fans is that he's got a protege in linebackers coach Keith Butler. Butler who was recently denied permission to interview with the misfit island of Steelers' castoffs Arizona Cardinals, is loved by his players and a worthy successor. 

    However, the impact of losing LeBeau cannot be understated—his zone-blitz schemes are synonymous with modern Steelers football. If he retires, it will truly represent the end of an era.

Which Rookie Is Going to Have the Biggest Impact?

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    Cameron Heyward
    Cameron HeywardJamie Sabau/Getty Images

    Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey’s rookie year was nothing short of spectacular.  He was in the discussion for the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year throughout the season before being bested by the Rams’ QB Sam Bradford

    He started all 16 regular season games his rookie year and was one of only three Steelers selected to the NFL Pro Bowl.  In February 2011, Coach Mike Tomlin said of Pouncey “his contributions to this football team have been nothing short of miraculous.”

    Unfortunately an ankle injury in the AFC Championship game versus the Jets ended his season one game short and many cite Pouncey’s absence as a contributing factor to the Steelers Super Bowl loss. 

    Pouncey set the bar unrealistically high—given the lockout, does any rookie have a chance at making the same kind of impact?

    Probably not, but here are a few guys to keep an eye on:

    Andy Dalton, QB Cincinnati Bengals

    A.J. Green, WR Cincinnati Bengals

    Greg Little, WR Cleveland Browns

    Jabaal Sheard, DE or OTL Cleveland Browns

    Torrey Smith, WR Baltimore Ravens

Can Marvin Lewis Commit to Rebuilding with His Job on the Line?

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    Marvin Lewis is stressed
    Marvin Lewis is stressedStreeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Oh Marvin.. you should've went to coach at PITT.. standards are low and Mike Brown isn't involved.

    Marvin Lewis has had a roller coaster of a career in Cincinnati, with equal parts exceeding expectations and embarrassing the city with colossal failure. 

    Because relatively few players will willingly go to Cincinnati, they developed a reputation as the half-way house of the NFL—taking in talented players with character issues and trying to reform them (hello Pacman Jones, Ray Maualuga, Chris Henry, and Cedric Benson).

    Despite his successes in Cincinnati, Lewis' job is in jeopardy.  His two-year extension means nothing, sure Brown is a noted cheapskate so the two years is guaranteed, bit unless he comes up with a way to make this team win now he is on his way out. 

    Can Lewis convince Brown that rebuilding is the best option?

Is Mike Wallace the Best WR in the Division?

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    Mike Wallace
    Mike WallaceMatthew Stockman/Getty Images

    Actually, Mike Wallace proved he's the best receiver in the division last year.  Can he prove he's the best receiver in the league this year?

Will Cleveland’s Strong Draft Pay Off?

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    PITT's Jabaal Sheard
    PITT's Jabaal SheardJared Wickerham/Getty Images

    The general consensus is that Mike Holmgren’s draft was amongst the top in the NFL this year—finally giving Browns’ fans a reason to be optimistic about the future. 

    They addressed most of their major needs and a few of their picks have the potential to make an major impact in their rookie seasons.  

    The Browns draft is going to pay off for years to come but the question is will it make them competitive this year? 

Are Any Cornerstone Vets Playing Their Final Year?

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    Ray Lewis makes you forget he was once implicated in a double murder
    Ray Lewis makes you forget he was once implicated in a double murderHandout/Getty Images

    The soul of the Ravens' and the Steelers' are hard-nosed veterans who have had inexplicably long careers.  Ray Lewis, Derrick Mason, James Farrior, Aaron Smith and Hines Ward are just a few examples. 

    Lewis, age 36, and Ward, age 35, are the emotional core of their respective teams—how many quality years do they have left?

    Oh, and are there any young guns able to step in and lead?

Will Terelle Pryor Land in the Division?

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    The party is over for Terrelle Pryor
    The party is over for Terrelle PryorKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    There are a lot of questions surrounding Terrell Pryor, the least of which may be which NFL team will he land with.

    That being said, there are reasons to believe the AFC North is a natural landing spot for the troubled QB.  Pryor is a native of Jeanette, which is a suburb of Pittsburgh, and was a stand-out talent at Ohio State University until his recent troubles forced him out of OSU and into the NFL. 

    Pryor, who had a GPA of 3.3, was recruited by the top college programs in the country(Florida, WVU, USC, and Texas) before deciding on Ohio State. 

    His career at OSU speaks for itself, and the severity of his "crimes" is debatable.  He's certainly a kid worth taking a chance on and there are two teams in the AFC North with absolutely no answer at QB and two who could use an upgrade at backup. 

Will Pittsburgh or Baltimore Disappoint?

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    John Harbaugh
    John HarbaughKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    It's true that, with the parity that exists in the NFL, there is no such thing as an easy schedule.  That being said, there is such thing as an "easier road" to the Super Bowl and both the Ravens and the Steelers have one. 

    With the Ravens ranking 31st in strength of schedule and the Steelers ranking 29th, expectations for both teams are high and anything short of the Super Bowl could be seen as a disappointment. 

    Okay, so maybe that's a little unfair.  How about...

    Both teams finished 12-4 last year.  Both teams have made improvements through a solid draft.  Both teams benefit from an easier road.

    Hence, anything worse than 13-3 and a trip to the AFC Championship should be considered disappointment. 

Can Anyone Fill the Personality Void with the Impending Departure of T.Ocho?

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    RIP The T.Ocho Show
    RIP The T.Ocho Show

    This is obviously the most pressing question facing the division.  Of course Terrell Owens only spent one season with the Bengals, but Chad Ochocinco has been the biggest spectacle in the division for an entire decade. 

    News that Ocho's strained relationship with coach Marvin Lewis could be his ticket out of Cincinnati didn't come as a surprise, the pair have engaged in publicly reported spats for years. 

    Unfortunately as one of tens of viewers of the T.Ocho show, that doesn't make it any easier to deal with.  Unlike the officials of the No Fun League, I absolutely love my football with little theater and spectacle on the side-- and nobody does theater and spectacle better than T.Ocho.

    Is there another pair of teammates in the AFC North who are ostentatious enough to fill these shoes?

    Please leave any suggestions (including the name of their future show) in the comments section.  Perhaps we can work together to make it a reality.