A team-by-team analysis of the division. The arrow indicates which direction each team is trending.
Final Power Ranking: No. 9
Biggest surprise: No one outside of Cincinnati’s locker room believed this team would win the AFC North this season. But the Bengals ran roughshod through the division with a 6-0 record. For the first time, the Bengals looked like a true AFC North team. Cincinnati ran the football extremely well and had the NFL’s fourth-ranked defense.
Biggest disappointment: When the Bengals drafted tackle Andre Smith with the sixth overall pick this past April, most NFL observers knew it was a bad pairing. Smith made several questionable business decisions leading up to the draft, including switching agents twice, and the Bengals are notoriously one of the league’s toughest teams when negotiating big-money contracts. As a result, Smith missed all of training camp in a contract dispute. He then broke a bone in his foot and missed the first nine games.
Biggest need: Cincinnati’s roster is talented, but its biggest need is another deep threat at receiver. No. 1 receiver Chad Ochocinco gets too much attention because there isn’t another player to stretch the field. Veteran Laveranues Coles does most of his work underneath at this stage of his career. Andre Caldwell made solid strides in his second year but is more of a possession receiver. Adding a speedy receiver via the draft or free agency could take Cincinnati’s offense to another level next season.
Team MVP: Tailback Cedric Benson is the engine behind the Bengals. He led the team with 1,251 rushing yards. His play took the pressure off quarterback Carson Palmer and helped keep the defense off the field. The Bengals were 6-0 when Benson rushed for more than 100 yards.
Schedule breakdown: The Bengals’ 1-3 record in the final month of the season has been a subject of debate. One school of thought is the team already had swept the division and was more concerned about the “second season.” Another school of thought is the Bengals are backing into the playoffs. Saturday’s wild-card game against the New York Jets will answer a lot of questions.
Final Power Ranking: No. 11
Biggest surprise: Ravens coaches told anyone who would listen in the offseason that second-year tailback Ray Rice was going to be a stud, and they were right. Rice made his first Pro Bowl after rushing for 1,339 yards and catching 78 passes out of the backfield. Getting Rice and quarterback Joe Flacco in the 2008 draft laid a great foundation for Baltimore’s offense.
Biggest disappointment: Baltimore’s inconsistency this year has been baffling. Following a 3-0 start, the Ravens were 6-7 in their final 13 games. Baltimore has the talent to compete with anyone. But penalties and poor secondary play often prevented the Ravens from putting together consistent stretches throughout the season. It’s anyone’s guess which team will show up in the playoffs.
Biggest need: A big-play receiver has been a void in Baltimore for quite some time. Derrick Mason, Mark Clayton and Demetrius Williams are all free agents in 2010. So general manager Ozzie Newsome has important decisions to make this offseason. Flacco looks like a franchise quarterback in the making, and it’s the responsibility of the front office to make sure he has enough weapons to continue his development.
Team MVP: Rice is the obvious choice. He was the one constant during an otherwise up-and-down season.
Schedule breakdown: Losses to the Bengals on Oct. 11 and Nov. 8 killed any chance of the Ravens winning the AFC North. Baltimore made the playoffs as a wild card for the second straight year. But a home playoff game would have made a significant difference.
Final Power Ranking: No. 13
Biggest surprise: Rookie receiver Mike Wallace exploded on the scene this season. The third-round pick opened training camp as the fourth receiver behind Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes and Limas Sweed. But Sweed's early struggles opened the door for Wallace, who turned out to be a natural fit in the offense. Wallace had 39 receptions for 756 yards. His blazing speed allowed Wallace to lead the team with 19.4 yards per catch.
Biggest disappointment: Pittsburgh’s fourth-quarter defense was a season-long issue that couldn’t be resolved. The knee injury to safety Troy Polamalu hurt. But the Steelers had to be disappointed no one stepped up in his absence during the crucial moments of games. Things were so bad that at one point coach Mike Tomlin called a surprise onside kick with a two-point lead late in the fourth quarter against the Green Bay Packers. Many commended Tomlin for the move, but it was a strong statement that the coaches had lost confidence in the defense.
Biggest need: The William Gay experiment didn’t go well. So look for the Steelers to upgrade the cornerback position. Perhaps budding rookie cornerbacks Keenan Lewis and Joe Burnett can make enough strides in their second year to fill the void. Cornerback also could be a target with Pittsburgh’s first-round pick (No. 18) in April.
Team MVP: Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had a career year with 4,328 passing yards and 26 touchdowns. A strong case can also be made for Polamalu, but Pittsburgh likely would be a sub-.500 team had Roethlisberger missed most of this season.
Schedule breakdown: Pittsburgh’s five-game losing streak in November and December sealed its fate, particularly losses to bottom-feeders such as the Oakland Raiders, Kansas City Chiefs and Cleveland Browns. It was actually surprising the Steelers were still in the playoff hunt in the final week. A three-game winning streak to end the year came a little too late.
Final Power Ranking: No. 25
Biggest surprise: Despite flashes of brilliance, running back Jerome Harrison spent most of his career buried on Cleveland’s depth chart. But a season-ending injury to Jamal Lewis (concussion) finally gave Harrison the opportunity he craved. He finished with a career-best 862 rushing yards and five touchdowns. Harrison’s 286-yard performance against the Kansas City Chiefs on Dec. 20 was third all time.
Biggest disappointment: The high-profile quarterback battle between Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson was a dud. The Browns entered training camp believing they had two starting-caliber NFL quarterbacks. But by the end of the season, the team wasn't sure either player is the long-term solution. Quinn won the job but was benched after three games. Anderson didn’t do much better with his opportunity. Quinn eventually returned and had some good moments before suffering a season-ending foot injury.
Biggest need: This may sound like an easy out, but Cleveland’s biggest need is overall talent. The Browns are lacking depth and impact players at just about every position. New president Mike Holmgren has his work cut out for him. The Browns have question marks at quarterback, receiver, tight end, linebacker, safety and cornerback.
Team MVP: Browns return specialist Josh Cribbs had arguably his best season with four returns for touchdowns (three kickoffs, one punt). Look for Cleveland to rework Cribbs’ contract in the offseason.
Schedule breakdown: The Browns ended the season as the hottest team in the AFC North. Cleveland’s four-game winning streak over the Steelers, Chiefs, Raiders and Jacksonville Jaguars provided hope and potential momentum going into next season.