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AFC North is on Cowboys' 2012 radar

5/15/2012

There's a feeling the AFC North doesn't get the respect it deserves, and I am among those who believe that at times. Well, not this time. Someone from the Big D is putting the division on the Cowboys' radar for this season.

ESPNDallas.com's Calvin Watkins put together a list of five troublemakers for Dallas this season while excluding the obvious stars like Ben Roethlisberger and Ray Lewis. Of those five players to watch, two come from the AFC North: Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton and Ravens linebacker Courtney Upshaw. As a matter of full disclosure, I worked with Watkins at the Baltimore Sun, so he has a familiarity with the division.

Here's what Watkins had to say about Dalton, who was the best rookie quarterback in the AFC in 2011 and would've been the top one in the NFL if not for that quarterback named Cam. A second-round pick in 2011, Dalton became the only rookie in NFL history to throw for 20 or more touchdowns passes while winning eight or more games as a starting quarterback.

The former TCU standout proved last year he can play in this league. When the Cowboys visit Cincinnati on Dec. 9, they will take on the second-year quarterback who compiled a 78.1 quarterback rating but threw eight touchdowns and six interceptions in home games in 2011. NFL teams aren't waiting on quarterbacks to develop, they're playing them now and getting results. Dalton is another example of this.

The other player who could cause some problems for the Cowboys is Upshaw. A second-round pick this year, Upshaw is expected to replace Jarret Johnson and is is eager to prove himself after watching four Alabama teammates get selected in the first round. He has a high motor and should make an impact as a pass rusher (15.5 sacks the past two seasons in college). This is Watkins' take on Upshaw:

Terrell Suggs' Achilles injury might keep him out for the Oct. 14 matchup between Baltimore and Dallas. If he's not available -- and it appears he won't be -- the rookie from Alabama will show the Cowboys what he can do. Jason Garrett saw him at Alabama's Pro Day. There's a thought that Upshaw is no different than Anthony Spencer in terms of skill set from the outside linebacker position. Early in the draft process, the Cowboys were linked to Upshaw as a mid-first round pick. But Upshaw dropped to the second round. We'll see what he can do against Dallas.

The AFC North has had moderate success against the Cowboys. Since becoming the AFC North in 2002, the division has gone 5-3 against Dallas (including a combined 4-0 by the Steelers and Ravens).