Three Way Battle for the North? (2012 NFL Preview: AFC North)

NFL Divisions all can generally be the same as some conferences are tougher and some are easier but all are relatively similar. The AFC North is not one of the divisions though as the North division has its own attitude all together. The AFC North is one of the toughest divisions in the league and the toughness is more than just the amount of competition in the division. The toughness of the division is simply that every team fights and claws all the time. There is no fanciness to this division as old school football rules with every team looking at their run game and defence to win. The division takes this mentality thanks in large part to the part of the country that most teams are located in. The majority of these cities are in the Rust Belt that has been the centre of industry in the USA. The people in this part of the country are a working class people who love the grind it out style of football. This is what the AFC North is as those who cannot play defence or run are left behind. Usually this style of football is not the most popular as teams transition to high flying pass offences. Somehow though the AFC North makes this style of football fun and with the constant chase for the division crown there are plenty of fans waiting to see these teams get started. The division has been dominated by two teams in the past few years as the Steelers-Ravens rivalry continues to grow into one of the best in the NFL. As these two teams fight it out the Bengals have been slowly rising up led by a young tandem that is looking to buck the trend of the division in order to end the reign of the top two. Last year three teams from this division made the playoffs as the AFC North is quickly becoming one of the best in the league. This year the AFC North could see three teams fighting for the division all year as it could be the best division race of the 2012 season.

 

Baltimore Ravens

 

 

 

The Baltimore Ravens are one of the two teams that have fought for the AFC North title every year. They have established one of the best rivalries in the NFL with the Pittsburgh Steelers and have built themselves much like the Steelers. The Ravens are a team that looks to their defence for leadership while they run the ball to grind out wins. For years they fought the Steelers to win the division and more often than not they were forced to sit on the outside looking in. They struggled to get past the traditional power as they continued to be the second best team in the division. As the Ravens started the 2011 season the Ravens had the all too familiar question of whether or not they could finally get over the hump of the Pittsburgh Steelers. As the season progressed the year played out like it always did. The Steelers and the Ravens were once again at the top of the division with only a few weeks left in the season. When the season closed out the Ravens and Steelers ended tied with 12-4 records for the division title. Two wins against the Steelers during the season pushed the Ravens to the top as they were able to win the division for the first time since 2006. They moved in to the playoffs in one of the top spots as they earned a first round bye. They looked to be on the path to the Super Bowl as one of the best teams in the AFC. The run came to an end in the AFC Championship though as the New England Patriots were just too much taking out the Ravens before they could play in the Super Bowl. This year the Ravens are looking to continue their play form last year and take that next step and play in a Super Bowl. They will as always have some challenges to get where they want to be especially with two very competitive teams instead of one. The Ravens are hoping that they can continue their winning ways and fend off the new challengers to win once again.

The Ravens are a traditional football teams as their run game and their defence are the heart of the team. The age of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are raising questions while the injury of Terrell Suggs has brought some concern to the usually solid defence. On the front line the defence is led by Haloti Ngata who has cemented himself as one of the premier defensive tackles in the NFL. In the linebacking corps the Ravens hope that Lewis still has enough in the tank as he will need to take on a bigger role with Suggs gone. Lewis is used to this role but another year has reduced his ability to cover despite still being one of the best linebackers in the game. In the secondary Ed Reed hopes to stay healthy while Lardarius Webb continues to be a flash of the future of the team as a premier cornerback. The defence does have its issues and questions this year but it will remain one of the best in the league and will remain one of the best parts of the Ravens. On offence the Ravens lean on the run game to get them their wins as they continue to resist the new passing trend in the NFL. At the heart of the run game is Ray Rice who continues to provide consistent play in the backfield that helps the Ravens grind out games. The passing offence is the one concern for the Ravens as many wonder if Joe Flacco can truly lead a passing offence or if he is just a game manager. Flacco will look to step up this year as the Ravens will be looking for a more balanced attack although when the pressure amps up expect them to fall into old habits. Flacco does have the weapons to help him as Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith  are both great receivers that could break open a game if they can get the ball. The offence is a solid one but Flacco will be the key to where they go this year with his ability to operate the passing determining how they go. The special teams will go with a new kicker in Justin Tuckers and a new returner in Jacoby Jones to try and bring the Raven specials out of the basement. The Ravens will be a good team again this year but the loss of Suggs and lack of passing game has tempered big expectations. Expect another battle for first place as it could be another year where three teams from the North make the playoffs although the Ravens will likely need to be a wild card this year.

 

Strengths:
Rushing Offence
– Ray Rice has been one of the most dependable running backs in the NFL and if he can stay healthy and continue his dependability he will be the focus of the offence especially when the Ravens get into tight situations

 

Weakness:
Passing Offence
– Joe Flacco has yet to prove that he can lead an explosive passing game even with additional receiver help and it seems that this year will be his make or break year as the Ravens look to finally make their offence balanced

 

Biggest Addition:
Jacoby Jones, WR/PR (Free Agent, Hou)
– The Ravens special teams have not been as explosive as they want and so they went o0ut to find someone who could help them win the field position battle as Jacoby Jones will take over as the punt returner to provide a little more excitement I the return game

 

Biggest Loss:
Terrell Suggs, LB (Injury)
– The Ravens didn’t really lose too many people to free agency or retirement but the loss of Terrell Suggs to an Achilles injury suffered in the offseason will be the biggest loss as there is not much known about when he will be able to return leaving a massive hole in the linebacking corps

 

Cincinnati Bengals

 

 

 

 

The Bengals were not supposed to be a good team last year as they had recently began a rebuilding phase. Before the 2011 season the rebuilding began as longtime starting QB Carson Palmer began the season with a request to be traded. The Bengals held out as long as they could and as insurance began to look into the future of their team. With their first pick in the first round the Bengals drafted a young Receiver out of Georgia, A.J. Green in what many thought was a move to entice Palmer to come back. Then in the second round the Bengals went out to get insurance as they selected QB Andy Dalton from TCU. With the ongoing dispute between the two sides Palmer would not start in week 1 of the regular season and so the Bengals moved on with Dalton. As the season went on the Dalton-Green pairing became one of the best in the league as they helped guide the Bengals into the hunt for the division. With this Carson Palmer became the odd man out as the Bengals traded him to the Oakland Raiders, where he made little impact in his first year. The Bengals continued on with their young tandem as they surprised most teams in the NFL with just how good their passing attack and defence was. The Bengals were also changing the trend in the AFC North as they were going through the teams with a passing attack instead of their running game. They still had that defence that is needed in the North though but they began transitioning. As the season ended the Bengals found themselves in third place in the North but had a good enough season to win a wild card spot along with the Pittsburgh Steelers. They could not translate this into postseason success though as they lost to the Houston Texans in a very one sided battle. The 2012 season for the Bengals is about continuing to grow as they hope to make the playoffs again and begin to challenge the top two in the AFC North to create one of the best division battles of the year.

The Bengals in 2012 will rely on their young tandem once again as they look to Andy Dalton and A.J. Green to lead the offence. The offence is not the biggest part of the Bengals though as they have overshadowed a very good defence. On defence the Bengals relies highly on their constant rotation of defensive lineman. The Bengals used 8 lineman last year in an attempt to keep the group fresh and to grind down the offensive line. The best of the group is Geno Atkins who provides constant pressure in the middle alongside Domata Peko. This year the rotation may seem some young talent as well with rookies Brandon Thompson and Devon Still forming the relief corps. On the edge the Bengals will look to see more production from Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson to put more pressure on the opposing offence. In the linebacking corps the Bengals are solid with veterans Manny Lawson and Thomas Howard holding down the outsides. The one question is whether or not Rey Maualuga can step it up in his fourth year and be the impact linebacker they though he was when they drafted him. The defensive backs are a team full of veterans and travelers. The Leon Hall and Nate Clements will be leaned on to provide veteran leadership but Hall is coming off of an injury while Clements is near the end of this 12 year career. The defence is solid even with some questions around the secondary as they will once again be a strength of the team. The offence will be led once again by the tandem of Andy Dalton and A.J. Green who are the best young duo in the league. With a full offseason they could be better but the secret is out and Green will get more attention than ever. This exposes the weakness of the offence as there is no real second option in the receiving corps as Brandon Tate and Andrew Hawkins are not major threats in the offence. To fill this spot is Jermaine Gresham will take on a bigger role in the passing offence as a good outlet for Dalton. The running game received a little boost with the signing of BenJarvus Green-Ellis who is a solid rusher and a good passing threat out of the backfield. The Bengals’ specials teams are led by the big leg of Mike Nugent while Brandon Tate provides an explosive returner if he can stop his mental mistakes. The Bengals are once again led by their defence while their offence will need to figure out how to consistently play now that the NFL knows more about them. The Bengals should fight for a playoff spot again this year and will be involved in the division race as they could be headed for the playoffs once again.

 

Strengths:
Defence
– The defence is the cornerstone of the Bengals as the front seven are good enough to keep QBs off balance and force mistakes to make lives easier for a secondary that still needs a little bit of work

 

Weakness:
Receiving Corps
– A.J. Green could be an elite receiver in the NFL if he continues to grow from his first year but after that the talent in the receiving corps drops off drastically with no second threat for Andy Dalton to go to when Green gets double coverage

 

Biggest Addition:
BenJarvus Green-Ellis, RB (Free Agent, NE)
– With the loss of Cedric Benson the Bengals needed someone to fill the running back hole and the man known as the Law Firm can fill that hole as he will provide a solid running threat but even more than that provides a better passing threat than Benson did

 

Biggest Loss:
Cedric Benson, RB (Free Agent, GB)
– Benson was a big part to the Bengals offence for years and when Andy Dalton came he provided a change of pace with a veteran presence behind the rookie and with his loss the Bengals will be without that veteran presence in the backfield

 

Cleveland Browns

 

 

 

 

The Cleveland Browns are the one team that has failed to keep up with the rest of the division. With three of the four teams now looking like solid threats the Browns are the odd team out as they have failed to rebuild a team since returning to the league in 1999. The Browns joined the league in 1999 after folding and moving to Baltimore in 1996. The three years of inactivity hurt the Browns beyond measure as they came back to much fanfare but had no team. With the expansion the Browns drafted an entire team in the hopes that they could begin to build something. At the beginning it seemed to work as fans expected the expansion woes and saw that the team was making some strides. In 2002 the Browns made the playoffs as the rebuild was finally beginning to payoff. Then the team began to slide as the momentum of the 2002 season could not be continued. The team continued to miss the playoffs and continued to mismanage the team. The 2011 season was supposed to be yet another new beginning for the Browns with a new general manager in Mike Holmgren and a young promising QB in Colt McCoy taking over as the starting QB full time. With some excitement for at least an improved team to show that the organization was committed to creating a winning franchise. The Browns failed to do this though as a weak line gave Colt McCoy issues and the contract and injury issues of Payton Hillis removed their best player from the team. The Browns struggled all season as they continued a losing tradition finishing the season with a 3-13 record and at the bottom of the division. The Browns are one of the worst teams in the league and yet they continue to fail to improve through the draft. For Browns fans it seems that enough is enough as they need something to prove that the Browns can be competitive. The 2012 season could be promising for the Browns but history continues to show that the improvements that the Browns make never seem to pan out.

The Browns have attempted to look for many ways to improve their team and in 2012 the strategy seemed to be using the draft. The Browns looked to instantly improve in the draft and so they made an attempt to trade up. Both the Indianapolis Colts and Washington Redskins would not trade their pick as they took Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. These two Qbs are the real draft picks the Browns wanted but could not get as they sent a clear message to Colt McCoy that he was not going to be the QB of the future. Unable to move up in the draft the Browns selected Trent Richardson out of Alabama as they added a very promising young rusher. The Browns will lean on Richardson to provide a solid running game and give time for the passing game to develop. The Browns also got their new QB in the draft with the 22nd pick as they drafted 28 year old Brandon Weeden. Weeden won the job in the preseason as he will take over the offence in his rookie season. Weeden will struggle to find any weapons on the offence though as Greg Little and Mohamed Massaquoi are not enough to be top threats. The offence will lean on rookies Trent Richardson and Brandon Weeden this year but as always rookies raise a number of questions leaving the offence up in the air. The defence of the Browns might be their best part as they ranked 10th in the NFL. It is not a great defence but it is solid enough to give the offence at least a chance against the lesser teams in the league. The defensive line is good but lacks any big playmakers. Jabaal Sheard, Ahtyba Rubin, Forstee Rucker, and rookie john Hughes will all be good enough to stop some offences but don’t expect a lot of big plays. The linebackers are much the same as the line as they are solid but not amazing with Scott Fujita, D’Qwell Jackson, and Kaluka Maiava all able to fill the spots they need. The secondary is a bit of a question as Joe Haden seemed to slow down last year while T.J Ward, Eric Hagg, and Sheldon Brown continue the pattern of the rest of the defence. On special teams the Browns are set with Phil Dawson providing dependable points and Josh Cribbs scaring most return teams. The Browns made some improvements but most are big questions leading up to the 2012 season while the defence saw no improvement. The Browns will struggle again and if their lucky, usually they are not, they will see some slight improvements but still remain in the basement.

 

Strength:
Special Teams
– If there is one thing the Browns do right it is the Special Teams as Phil Dawson is one of the most reliable kickers in the game while Josh Cribbs is one of the most exciting returners and both players should provide at least some hope for the Browns this year

 

Weakness:
The Division
– There are too many weaknesses to list in the team but one of the biggest is the fact that they play in a division where the Steelers and Ravens are always good and the Bengals are rising and with 6 games against these teams the schedule is always a tough one

 

Biggest Addition:
Trent Richardson, RB (Draft)
– With the loss of Peyton Hillis the Browns needed a running back and drafting Trent Richardson provides this as the Browns will need to look to the run as they might struggle to find much else to go right in their young offence

 

Biggest Loss:
Peyton Hillis, RB (Free Agent, KC)
– Peyton Hillis was the one consistent part of the Browns as he provided a solid running game and his loss will take away the one known of their offence although the disputes over the past year will not be missed

 

Pittsburgh Steelers

 

 

 

 

 

The Pittsburgh Steelers are one of the most consistent teams in the NFL with the most Super Bowls of any team. Along with these Super Bowls the Steelers have a number of division titles as the best team in the AFC North. The Steelers are a rare teams that never seems to have to go through a rebuilding phase. They have off years where they cannot win the division or the do not make the playoffs but the team continues to roll on. They have done this through the true sense of the AFC North attitude. The Steelers are a working class team from a working class city that depends on the basics of football to get their wins. With a change in the way offences are run in the NFL the running offence of the Steelers should be able to work as well as it has. Still the Steelers remain one of the toughest teams to beat as they continue to rely on their defence and run game to win games. They have adjusted slightly though as the passing game has become a much bigger part to their game in the past few years. The Steelers were strong once again as they began the season as a favorite to go back to the Super Bowl. What they didn’t expect was to lose two games to their division rivals in the Baltimore Ravens. As a result their 12-4 finish was not good enough for another division title forcing them into the wild card. The wild card was another unexpected moment for the Steelers as an offensive outbreak saw the Denver Broncos beat the Steelers 53-43. The Steelers were shocked to be out so soon and so the offseason came and the Steelers finally made some change. The Steelers began getting rid of some key veterans in the 2012 offseason although much of the core players still remain. Going into the 2012 season the Steelers are hoping to continue their consistent play and make it back into the playoffs and hopefully win another Super Bowl.

As usual the defence of the Steelers will be the focus after a season where they ranked at the top of the league. The defensive line is not one that will rush the passer as their place in the defence is to stop the run and hold up the line. Ziggy Hood, Casey Hampton, and Brett Keisel are three of the best at doing exactly that although they lack the pressure of most top tier lines. The linebackers are the all-stars of the Steelers defence as they are relied on to be the best players in the defence. They are there to stop the run and disturb the pass. This year will see a big change in the linebacking corps though as outspoken James Farrior was released leaving Lawrence Timmons to fill his spot in the group. LaMarr Woodley will be back along with Larry Foote and Chris Carter as the linebackers will once again be the highlight of the defence. In the secondary is a unique one as Ike Taylor and Ryan Clark provide solid pass defence for the Steelers. Meanwhile Troy Polamalu is left to essentially do whatever needs to be done from the safety spot as he is free to roam the field. The Steelers defence looks solid once again with only a few questions that will likely be forgotten after a full preseason under Dick LeBeau. The offence is much the same as they pride themselves on consistency. This year is somewhat different though as the Steelers will see a new offensive coordinator in Todd Haley. The new coach will be of interest to QB Ben Roethlisberger who will look to get along in what could be a great partnership or a battle of strong wills. Without Hines Ward the offence will still roll on thanks to the emergence of Mike Wallace and the steadiness of Antonio Brown. The running game will be led by Rashard Mendenhall who will look to stay healthy in order to continue leading the offence and Isaac Redmen there to back him up. The offence has seen some change and may see some more change with their new offensive coordinator at the helm as they remain strong. On special teams Sean Suisham will look to be more consistent while Antonio Brown will see limited action in the return game as Emmanuel Sanders will trade off with him. The Steelers are making the most changes in a long time but compared to many the changes are relatively small. The Steelers remain a solid team and will be favorites once again to win the division as they will fight with the Ravens and possibly with the Bengals to earn that playoff spot.

 

Strength:
Defence
– The defence is always the focus of the Steelers and with Tory Polamalu and LaMar Woodley back in the fold along with the underrated Brett Keisel they look to be storng again under the leadership of Dick LeBeau

 

Weakness:
Age
– The Steelers are not getting any young and last year the injuries to James Farrior, Tory Polamalu, and Rashard Mendenhall proved this as the Steelers need to be careful that their veterans are not put in bad situations where they can be hurt

 

Biggest Addition:
Leonard Pope, TE (Free Agent, KC)
– The Steelers really made no additions to the team in the offseason but Leonard Pope should provide a good second option if Todd Haley decides to go with a two tight end set in the new Steeler offence

 

Biggest Loss:
Hines Ward, WR (Retired)
– An offensive leader both on and off the field Hines Ward was a true Steeler through and through as a tough receiver who fought for every yard and with his release and retirement the solid leadership will be missed by the Steelers

 

Prediction:
1. Pittsburgh Steelers
2. Baltimore Ravens
3. Cincinnati Bengals
4. Cleveland Browns

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