AFC North: A Preview of the Strongman Division and How the Teams Measure Up
The AFC North is, without question, one of the toughest divisions in the league.
The division is home to some of the grittiest, ground-pounding teams in the NFL and I don't see that changing any time soon.
Here is a look at the division's teams and where they'll end up this season.
The Bengals have seen the departure of Chad Ochocinco, Terrell Owens and Carson Palmer and have welcomed in a new regime to attempt to bring greatness back to Cincinnati.
There are many issues that this team must address during this season, as a primarily young team looks to embark on their 2011 campaign.
Andy Dalton is the heir apparent for Carson Palmer and has yet to take a meaningful snap under center. Dalton brings his youth and great expectations to the Bengals and looks to open up the passing game throwing to fellow rookie A.J. Green. I can't speak much of Dalton other than he has potential to become a good quarterback in the NFL, but this season may be one where his impact will be minimal at best.
The lack of an adequate backup quarterback leaves this team's offense heavily reliant on the running game, led by Cedric Benson. I don't foresee a great impact from Benson, as one man cannot carry the team alone. Bernard Scott brings depth and a nice change of pace, but it isn't going to matter much this year.
The receiving corps is young, inexperienced and unproven, and tight ends Jermaine Gresham and Bo Scaife should help give the young quarterback and receivers help, but nothing fantastic.
Defensively, this team is put together by average players, and will have difficulty in the run-stopping department. The linebackers and corners aren't much in the way of playmakers as a whole.
This team is embarking on a long road of re-building and maturing. Look for them to finish 3-13.
It remains to be seen if the Browns will be able to put out a solid group of receivers this year.
Joshua Cribbs, Brian Robiskie and Mohamed Massoquoi will bring the depth and hopefully can all play a full season without injury. Rookie wideout Greg Little should be able to make an impact in the offense but must sure up his hands to avoid too many dropped passes.
The key component in this equation is quarterback Colt McCoy.
McCoy has shown improvement in the preseason, and has the ability to move this team as he has shown poise and good decision making so far as compared to last year. Having spent some time with Brett Favre learning more about the West Coast offense is proving time well spent.
McCoy needs to be able to harness the preseason advances and carry this into the regular season, which it seems he could very well do.
The running game, led by Peyton Hillis, is poised again to provide a bulk of the offense and should be able to pick up where they left off. Hillis will see some carries reduced as his counterparts should be able to add a much-needed change of pace for defenders in the ground game.
Defensively, the Browns have a slightly above-average team that has the ability to make a difference in the game. I look for the pass-rushing ability to set the tone for the unit's success.
Overall, this team may not be ready to claim the division title, but it will continue to improve and give Pittsburgh and Baltimore a run for their money. Look for the Browns to finish 7-9.
The most intriguing part of the Baltimore Ravens is how they can't seem to jump the hurdle and get to the Super Bowl.
The Ravens are one of the most competitive teams in the AFC North and have the ability to dictate a game in many ways; yet they seem to always fall short when it matters most.
This year the Ravens look to continue to build and reach their ultimate goal by deploying an offense that is led by quarterback Joe Flacco.
Flacco has the talent and should be able to maximize the talents of his receivers in Anquan Boldin and newly acquired Lee Evans.
The ability of Boldin and Evans makes this duo one of the more formidible duo in the NFL, as the addition of Evans will help stretch the field and give the Ravens a legitimate deep threat. The only concern with this group is after Boldin and Evans, there isn't much there to support them.
Ray Rice leads the running attack and Ricky Williams arrives replacing Willis McGahee. Williams has seen better days in the league but can still contribute on third downs, goal-line carries and to change up the pace. If this one-two punch is used correctly, they can wreak havoc on opposing defenses.
Defensively, the Ravens have always had a solid core of of veterans that have set the standard for this team and, although they're a little older, should still carry this team on their shoulders and produce well.
Overall, the Ravens are, at this time, the only threat to the Pittsburgh Steelers for the division crown as I expect the Ravens to make a solid run this year. Look for them to finish 12-4 again.
Last year's representative in the Super Bowl for the AFC, the Steelers look to avoid the Super Bowl slump and return to the big game once again.
Big Ben Roethlisberger leads his team onto the filed without much concern again as this offense should continue to run like a well-oiled machine.
Roethlisberger should be his usual self and there isn't much worry at this position.
He will be throwing to future hall of fame receiver Hines Ward, who is complemented by the talented Mike Williams. Look for Emmanuel Sanders to contribute more this season in the passing game as his performance last year was impressive in the limited roles he played in.
The ground game isn't a concern either as Rashard Mendenhall should be a dominant force again as he runs at will on most teams.
The defense is aging but not slowing down in anyway and they should be able to play at their usual level without much concern. It is hard to find weaknesses in this group, just as it is equally hard to do when examining the Ravens.
Overall, this team is poised to have continued success and is one of the "big boy" teams in the AFC. Look for the Steelers to fend off the Ravens challenge for the division and finish at 13-3.
Although some can say this division is just a two-team division, it is hard to deny that it still offers some of the toughest division games as it provides many good battles.
Although there is a clear difference in the levels of the teams currently as teams such as Cleveland continue to grow and improve, the AFC North is shaping up to become one of the best divisions in the NFL once again.
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