2011 AFC North Predictions: Which Team Will Be Crowned Division Champs?
When it comes to the AFC North, everyone knows what to expect.
No, it's not explosive offenses and inflated scores. It's brutal, hard-hitting defense with points being rare and infrequent.
The Browns are switching from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense and are once again replacing an inadequate head coach.
The Bengals are starting a rookie quarterback since Carson Palmer has retired after his trade demands were not met.
Further losses include their best cover corner in Jonathan Joseph to free agency, though the Bengals did acquire Nate Clements from the 49ers.
Combine this with the fact that there were no OTAs and mini camps to prepare with, and both teams will have their work cut out for them this year.
Then again, this is the NFL and freaky stuff happens all the time. So without further ado, here are my 2011 AFC North predictions.
2011 Schedule: NFC West, AFC South, AFC North and the inter-conference games.
4th Place: Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals are starting off the 2011 season in worse shape than they were at the end of 2010.
What really takes the cake is that head coach Marvin Lewis was given another extension. After a 4-11 season that included a 10-game losing streak, Lewis looked as good as gone.
However, Mike Brown gave him another shot and the Bengals will pay for it in the form of another subpar season.
Final Record: 6-10. Miss playoffs.
3rd Place: Cleveland Browns
The Browns will open the 2011 season with a new 4-3 defense and new head coach Pat Shurmur.
Thanks to the lockout, the Browns were not afforded the luxury of OTAs and mini camps to get acclimated with a new defense and coach.
Regardless of the setbacks, the Browns are not totally lost. They had an excellent draft, acquiring pieces to fit in their new 4-3 scheme.
The secondary, which ranked seventh in the league against the pass last year, will once again be a strength with T.J Ward and Joe Hayden a year older and wiser.
Most people think of the Browns as a joke. However, the Browns gave up 30-plus points only once during the 2010 season—and that was in a 41-9 Week 17 loss to the rival Steelers.
On offense, Peyton Hillis looks to steamroll opposing defenses with his bruising style of running.
Quarterback Colt McCoy is now in his second year and looks to build on a greater-than-expected rookie season.
For the Browns' sake, I hope they fixed their problems on offense because they ranked 29th in total offense in 2010 with 289.7 yards per game.
I would say that the schedule is in their favor, but that depends on what end you are looking at.
In the first half of the season, the Browns catch a break with only the Colts being the hardest team. The second half shows no mercy.
Cleveland has to face all three divisional rivals in Weeks 12-14—and then end the season against Baltimore and Pittsburgh in Weeks 16 and 17.
Talk about brutal.
Also, don't be surprised if you see an upset or two as they did beat the Saints and Patriots.
Final Record: 7-9. Miss playoffs.
2nd Place: Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens ended their 2010 season in an eerily familiar fashion with a loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field.
It's no secret that the Ravens have a Pittsburgh problem. Even when they have a 21-7 lead heading into halftime, they still manage to come up short against the men in the black and gold.
If the Ravens want to clinch the division, they will have to dethrone the men from western Pennsylvania and the Raven-killer Big Ben.
I know it was necessary to get under the salary cap, but you can't help but wonder if this will come back to bite the Ravens later in the season.
Terrence Cody is expected to replace Gregg as the nose tackle. Whether he is up for the challenge remains to be seen.
Baltimore just recently acquired wide receiver Lee Evans from Buffalo for a fourth-round draft pick. Evans will help stretch the field and be a nice vertical threat for Flacco.
Vonta Leach, the fullback from the Texans, signed a deal with the Ravens and he will pave the way for Ray Rice from Rutgers.
If Baltimore has anything working in their favor, they have an insanely easy schedule this year.
I have the Ravens splitting with the Steelers, losing to the Colts and suffering an upset loss to a team they are expected to beat.
Baltimore won't clinch the division, but don't think for a second that they won't be neck-and-neck with the Steelers the whole way.
Final Record: 13-3. Make playoffs as fifth seed. Again.
2011 AFC North Division Champions: Pittsburgh Steelers
Call it a bias pick all you want. The only team in the division that poses any threat to the Steelers is the Ravens. Last I checked, they haven't even sniffed the division crown since 2006.
The Steelers, on the other hand, have captured the top spot three times out of the last four seasons and will do so again in 2011.
Unlike the Ravens, Pittsburgh has managed to retain almost all of their free agents, ensuring the fact that they will be a veteran-laden team for one more year.
They managed to retain their top corner in Ike Taylor, who will prevent an already suspect secondary from becoming even weaker.
LaMarr Woodley signed the second largest contract in franchise history, which will bind him to the Steelers through 2016 to the tune of $61.5 million.
Mewelde Moore, Willie Colon, Jonathan Scott, Chris Hoke and others were all retained by the Steelers as well.
Re-signing most of their veterans will serve as an advantage for the Steelers because they know how to play in the NFL and don't have to be taught new schemes or anything.
The defense, while aging, will still be the dominating men of steel we've come to know and love.
Receivers Hines Ward, Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders, Antonio Brown and the newly acquired Jericho Cotchery look to put up stellar numbers this season as they will have their star quarterback to guide them for the entire season.
The schedule is even in the Steelers' favor this year. Only the Ravens twice, Colts and Patriots pose a significant threat to the team.
I predict that the Steelers will split with the Ravens, beat either the Colts or Patriots and suffer an upset loss to a team they should beat.
Final Record: 13-3. Win division by strength or victory tie breaker. Make playoffs as second seed.