2011 NFL Preview: AFC North

This is the lucky division that gets to beat up on the NFC West.

1. Pittsburgh Steelers, 12-4

2009 Super Bowl loser: Indianapolis Colts 14-2. Following year, 10-6
2008 Super Bowl loser: Arizona Cardinals 9-7. Following year, 10-6
2007 Super Bowl loser: New England Patriots, 16-0. Following year, 11-5
2006 Super Bowl loser: Chicago Bears, 13-3. Following year, 7-9
2005 Super Bowl loser: Seattle Seahawks, 13-3. Following year, 9-7

You get the point. For whatever reason, whether it is the first place schedule or letdown after being so close to hoisting the trophy, Super Bowl losers seem to always fair poorly the following year. The Steelers have never lacked motivation, so they will look to buck the trend.

The Steelers seem to think they have what it takes to return to the Super Bowl, as they return virtually the exact same team. It all starts with defense in Pittsburgh. They led the league or were very close to the top in almost all of the important statistical categories. It starts with their fantastic linebacking group. The Steelers are the prototypical 3-4 machine. They always seem to have studs, and always seem to draft studs in waiting. Youngsters Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley were both rewarded with monster contracts this off-season, ensuring the two youngsters will be a part of this defense well into their 30's. Speaking of 30's, the other two linebackers, James Harrison (33) and James Farrior (37), keep on producing at a high level. If they fall off this year, there is depth, as always. Former starter Larry Foote backs up the inside and Jason Worilds, that 2nd round pick starter in waiting I was talking about, could both step in as needed.

The defensive line is deep, with veterans Casey Hampton, Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel as starters with two first round picks in Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward backing them up. The long time starting trio is getting up there in age, but still can do their job.

The Steelers haven't had a shutdown corner for years, and they will go with the same quartet of starters this year. Ike Taylor, Bryant McFadden and Ryan Clark are good but not great. Troy Polamalu had an amazing 2010 season of course, but his Achillies injury is very worrisome.

The defense has always received all the pub in Pittsburgh, but this offense is very good as well. Except for the offensive line, which gave up 52 sacks. If Ben Roethlisberger wasn't built like a linebacker, that total could have been even higher. Unfortunately they did not add any upgrades to the line, meaning below average starters Willie Colon, Jonathan Scott and whichever guards win out will have to lineup next to great center Maurkice Pouncey. If the Steelers end up missing the playoffs, you can probably point to this porous line as the reason why.

The skill positions are set though. Rashard Mendenhall and Mike Wallace are two up and coming stars. Mendenhall helped the Steelers get back to that punishing running game they were known for before the Willie Parker ways, and Wallace stole the number one receiver spot away from aging Hines Ward. Wallace has averaged 20 yards per reception in his two year career and is one of the best deep threats in football.

Overall, the Steelers have always been and will always be in the Super Bowl discussion. Few teams in the NFL draft for the future better, as pretty much all of Pittsburgh's main contributors are draft picks. But there are some serious questions with the team this year, most notably a terrible offensive line and a weak secondary. But with a very easy schedule it would surprise me if Pittsburgh did not contend for their fourth Super Bowl appearance in seven years.

2. Baltimore Ravens, 11-5.

It seems like every year I predict the Ravens to win 12 games and make the Super Bowl. Well, I got it half right last year, as they went 12-4. But their season ended the second weekend of the playoffs with a close loss at the hands of their nemesis, the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Once again I will have to put the Ravens on the short list of pre season Super Bowl contenders. They cut plenty of fat off their roster, losing former mainstays Todd Heap, Derrick Mason, Fabian Washington, Kelly Gregg, Willis McGahee and others, but none of those players would have played a particularly large role in 2011. The key studs remain.

Start with the defense. The defense has been one of the most feared in the league this entire century, and 2010 was no different. They allowed less then 17 points per game while allowing few yards per game. The turnovers and sacks were down from previous seasons, however. At 36 years old and in his 15th season, Ray Lewis is still the leader of this defense. He is a tackling machine and still installs fear in his opponents. Whoever his teammates have been on defense, they have always fed off his leadership and intensity. Jarrett Johnson may be the best run stopping outside linebacker in the NFL. People will look at his measly two sacks and discount his great play. Terrell Suggs gets to the quarterback enough to make up for it on the other side. Haloti Ngata is equally adept at stopping the run and can get to the quarterback as well.

As for offense, on paper the losses of Todd Heap and Derrick Mason look bad. Both were favorites of Joe Flacco. But they are counting on newly acquired deep threat Lee Evans to pick up the slack. And if the pre season is any indication, he could be just what the Ravens ordered. Flacco has never had a veteran deep threat to throw to, and that could open lanes underneath for Anquan Boldin, who looked old and washed up his first season with Baltimore. Of course, playing with slow fossils TJ Houshmanzadeh and Mason could have had something to do with that.

Ray Rice is one of the best in the NFL in the back field. He can catch the ball, take it outside and pound it up the middle. At 5'9, 225, he is built like a rock and extremely difficult to tackle. Ricky Williams has enough in the tank to be a solid backup. Don't discount the signing on Vonta Leach, who is considered by many to be the best fullback in the business. He will be like another offensive guard, opening up lanes for Rice. The interior of Ben Grubbs, Matt Birk and Marshal Yanda is very good. Michael Oher will move back to right tackle, where he was much more productive. Bryant McKinnie was signed to play on the left side, where he will battle with Jah Ried. That position will be a huge weakness.

I think the Ravens, Steelers and Patriots are the only contenders for the Super Bowl in the AFC as I write this preview. Baltimore has a great chance to win the division and get homefield throughout. They get to chalk up wins against the NFC West and have several other winnable games on the schedule. They will have to get past the Steelers first, however. Joe Flacco has never beaten Pittsburgh. I am very tempted to pick the Ravens to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl, but I am not going to this year. Which means they should win it all.

3. Cleveland Browns, 6-10.

Well, a Cleveland Brown is on the cover of Madden 2012. The season is over before it starts. The truth is, Peyton Hillis was due for a decline in production this year, and now people will have the cover to blame it on. For as good of a season as Hillis had, he only ran for over 100 yards on 5 occasions and failed to crack 4 yards per carry in 7 games. Unfortunately for the Browns, Montario Hardesty has struggled to come back from his injury and Brandon Jackson is Brandon Jackson, meaning Hillis may have to shoulder much of the load on offense again.

Colt McCoy was universally considered to lack NFL caliber skills, but more then held his own as a rookie. He finished with a 60% completion percentage and showed that he can make all the throws. I still don't think he will be anything other then one of the 5 worst starting quarterbacks in the NFL for this year, but he has the potential to be a solid starter one day.

The rest of the offense is mediocre, with the lone exception being stellar left tackle Joe Thomas. He just received a huge much deserved pay day. He will have his hands full protecting his young quarterback, as the rest of the offensive line is average. So are the receivers, as Greg Little, Brian Robiskie and Mohamed Massaquoi are all former high draft picks with little production so far. The trade they pulled off with the Atlanta Falcons will be a huge help to their rebuilding phase, but it would have been nice to see Julio Jones in brown and orange.

The defense is once again in transition, moving back to the 4-3. As with most teams making the change, they lack personnel for the switch at the moment. The most disconcerting thing is where a pass rush is going to come from. Their starting defensive ends project to be Jayme Mitchell and Jabaal Sheard. Who and who? The former is a free agent who was sparingly used for his few years in Minnesota, the latter is a second round pick. They are much better on the inside with Ahtyba Rubin and Phil Taylor. That is 700 pounds of man in the middle, meaning teams will probably try to want to run outside against this defense.

The back seven is equally full of question marks. Only Joe Haden and D'Qwell Jackson are sure things. Jackson has been very productive during his four year Cleveland career, and now gets to play in the 4-3, his more natural scheme. Expect him to be all over the field racking up tackles. Some thought Haden was a reach as the 7th overall pick in 2010, but he had a tremendous rookie season, often shutting down the opposing team's best receiver and picking off 6 passes. The rest of the defense is full of placeholders, and there is little depth to speak of.

The Browns always seem to play better then the talent level indicates. They could be the leaders for the Andrew Luck bowl on paper, but I have them at 6-10 and actually wouldn't be surprised if they won a couple more games, even though they have weak talent at the skill positions and no pass rush. The main reason is the schedule might be the easiest in football. They get the NFC West as well as Cincinnati twice, Miami, Oakland, Tennessee and Jacksonville. Every year a team takes advantage of a very easy schedule to make a surprise playoff push. The Browns could do that this year.

4. Cincinnati Bengals, 5-11.

Wow. Players threaten to retire if they aren't traded all the time. They usually end up eventually crawling to training camp with their tails between their legs. But apparently Carson Palmer is done. And with that the Bengals go from a possible playoff team to a possible Andrew Luck winner. And the thing is Palmer was not even that great. It is just what the Bengals have behind center now is just that weak. Andy Dalton looks to have the arm strength of Olive Oil and Bruce Gradkowski has always been nothing more then a strict backup that you hope to never see on the field. It will be another long season for the Bengals.

That is a shame for Bengals fans, because there is actually some talent on this team. The Bengals defense really regressed in 2010 after a good season the previous year. As the year went along young players who are expected to be a big part of the future stepped up. Starting with Carlos Dunlap, who was talked about as a top 10 pick but was ultimately selected in the second round in 2010. He was a second round monster with 9.5 sacks in the second half of the season. Cincinnati has decided to play Michael Johnson at end full time, and the two could be a potentially devastating combo. Their talent and size is scary.

The Bengals brought in Manny Lawson to go with Keith Rivers and Ray Maualuga. All three players are still very young and could become a pretty good linebacking trio. The secondary suffered a downgrade, replacing Jonathan Joseph with Nate Clements.

The Bengals defense will have to do everything they can, because the offense will struggle mightily. AJ Green is an absolute stud, but he will have to learn from Calvin Johnson on how to stay involved in a terrible offense. Forget the quarterback situation, the backfield is equally helpless. I can't believe Cedric Benson is still a starting running back in the NFL. His plodding, sloth like approach helped the Bengals rush for only 95 yards per game in 2010. For some reason Cincinnati refuses to give Bernard Scott the ball more then a few times per game, even though he is their only homerun threat on offense. There is talent on this offense with Jermaine Gresham, Jordan Shipley and Jerome Simpson, but none of that will matter since Dalton will be the starter from day one.

I picked the Bengals at a generous 5-11 because I think they have some talent, but with a completely overmatched quarterback and a pretty tough schedule outside of the NFC West, 3-13 looks more like it. Oh, by the way, Mike Brown is an idiot who has never had any idea or never will how to run his team. He has always made terrible decisions and refusing to trade Carson Palmer for a couple of picks (I bet Miami would have given him a second or a third) to accelerate the rebuilding process is pure idiocy. Donald Sterling would be proud.

Jonathan Carrano

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