AFC North: 2012 NFL Preview

Drum roll please ... my prediction for first place in the AFC North is the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Now, before you crack open an Iron City in celebration, I should let everyone know my track record when it comes to predictions. I'm very good at predicting games week to week. But I'm absolutely terrible at season predictions. Last season, my forecast for the division (from first to worst) was: Steelers, Ravens, Browns and Bengals. In other words, I was wrong on every team.

Here's the preview page for the Steelers. And here's five things you need to know about them:

1. They want to run the ball: At least, run the ball more than they did last season, when they kept it on the ground 42 percent of the time. The 434 rushing attempts in 2011 were the Steelers' second-fewest total in the past 20 years. New offensive coordinator Todd Haley has returned the fullback to the Steelers' offense, and set the tone in training camp by running on nearly every play in the first full-team drill. With starting running back Rashard Mendenhall (knee) expected to miss the first month of the season, the Steelers are turning to Isaac Redman, who has averaged 4.5 yards per carry in his two-year career and ran for 121 yards in the playoff loss at Denver. Durability is a question mark for Redman, because he's had double-digit carries in only four career games and missed time this preseason with an injured hip.

2. Top-ranked defense isn't satisfied: The Steelers' defense finished No. 1 last season for the third time in Mike Tomlin's five years as coach, but the players don't feel as if they were dominant on that side of the ball. Pittsburgh was tied for 17th in the NFL with 35 sacks, and ranked last with 15 takeaways. The Steelers either had no takeaways or just one in 13 of 17 games last season (including the playoffs). Increasing the pressure on quarterbacks should increase turnovers. Healthy versions of James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley -- they missed a combined 11 games last season -- would boost both sacks and takeaways.

3. Stability on offensive line is much-needed: The blockers for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger were stuck in a bad game of musical chairs last season. The Steelers used a league-high 25 different offensive-line combinations, and they started four players at left guard. Pittsburgh showed its commitment to creating some continuity on the line by selecting offensive linemen with its first two picks in the 2012 draft (guard David DeCastro and tackle Mike Adams) and by re-signing tackle Max Starks. The Steelers moved Willie Colon from tackle to left guard, and started DeCastro at right guard from the start of the preseason. DeCastro, injured in the preseason against Buffalo, might not play this season, however. Starks and Adams are battling for the left tackle job.

4. Cornerbacks will get tested: Even though the run defense dropped from first to eighth last season, the target is on the Steelers' unproven cornerbacks. Keenan Lewis, the nickelback last season, is taking over for William Gay. Lewis has fought through injuries in training camp to keep the starting job from Cortez Allen, who is expected to be the third corner. Quarterbacks aren't going to be throwing in the direction of Ike Taylor. Only 41 percent of passes were completed against the seven-year starter last season. That means the pressure is on Lewis and Allen, who have combined for one start and one interception in their careers.

5. Timing is right for Roethlisberger: The two-time Super Bowl winner turned 30 this year, hitting the prime of his career. And with the retirement of Hines Ward, all eyes are on Roethlisberger to lead this offense. The key to Roethlisberger has been and always will be his health. He's recovered from an ankle injury that derailed his season, and he doesn't seem concerned about a small tear in his rotator cuff. Roethlisberger, who has been sacked at least 40 times in five of his past six seasons, has built a reputation of playing through pain. Imagine what he could do in an injury-free season.

DIVISION FINISH: 1st -- With all of the camp drama now over, Pittsburgh has the fewest questions of any team in the division. As long as Roethlisberger remains healthy and the defense remains in the top five, the Steelers are the class of the division.
Our season preview for the AFC North continues to my predicted second-place team, the Cincinnati Bengals.

Second place was the toughest decision for me. I nearly put the Ravens at this spot, but I came away impressed by the Bengals during my training camp visit there. After a painful preseason for the Bengals, perhaps I should put an asterisk by this prediction. The Bengals will take second as long as they stay healthy.

Here's the preview page for the Bengals. And here's five things you need to know about them:

1. Andy Dalton has an edge this year: Dalton has a lot to prove (he went 0-7 against teams with a winning record last season), and that is a good thing for the Bengals. Critics seem to bring the best out of Dalton, who went to the Pro Bowl as a rookie after being a second-round pick. The talk all offseason has been his lack of arm strength. When he threw a 55-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Green in the preseason, he said, "You can tell everybody that it's not even close to what I've got if I need it." That's what you call swagger.

2. It's a make-or-break year for Rey Maualuga: He's watched his former USC teammates, linebackers Clay Matthews and Brian Cushing, become the leaders of their defenses. Maualuga would be happy to establish himself at his own position. The move to middle linebacker last year wasn't as successful as everyone anticipated. Maualuga believes he will play much better this season after having his ankle surgically repaired in January. But time is running out for Maualuga, who is entering the final year of his contract. There's increased pressure with impressive rookie Vontaze Burfict playing behind him.

3. They will run the ball up the middle: The Bengals made a concerted effort to address their biggest weakness on offense by signing left guard Travelle Wharton in free agency and drafting right guard Kevin Zeitler in the first round. This game plan took a hit when Wharton went down with a season-ending knee injury in the preseason opener and center Kyle Cook recently suffered a serious ankle injury. Cincinnati is hoping the replacements -- left guard Clint Boling and newly signed center Jeff Faine -- will provide a better push inside than last year's line. Last season, the Bengals averaged 3.3 yards in between the tackles (30th in the NFL) and scored three touchdowns up the middle (tied for 21st), according to ESPN Stats & Information. Cincinnati is still going to run up the middle because that's where physical running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis is most effective.

4. Jermaine Gresham will elevate his game: It's no secret Green is the top receiver on the team and one of the best young playmakers in the league. The biggest question is who would step up to be the Bengals' No. 2 target. The focus has been the battle between Armon Binns and Brandon Tate. But the player to watch is Gresham. Drafted ahead of Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham in 2010, Gresham has the tools to be an elite tight end like them. It wouldn't be a surprise to see Gresham crack 70 receptions this season.

5. Defense has the potential to be the best in the AFC North: This initially comes across as blasphemy because the Bengals are in the same division as the Steelers and Ravens, two of the best defenses the past 15 years. But making this jump isn't much of a stretch for Cincinnati, which ranked first in defense for a couple of weeks last season and finished seventh overall. Great defense starts up front and the Bengals are loaded with Geno Atkins and Domata Peko inside and Carlos Dunlap (who could miss the season opener with a knee injury) and Michael Johnson on the ends. Cincinnati has experience at outside linebacker with underrated Thomas Howard and Manny Lawson and it has stockpiled former first-round picks at cornerback. This group can be nasty this year.

DIVISION FINISH: 2nd -- The Bengals haven't had back-to-back winning seasons since 1981-82. But this isn't your typical Bengals team. Green is one of the most explosive playmakers in the league, and the defense could be the best in the division if it avoids injuries.
As we make our climb up my predicted AFC North standings, the next team to address is the Ravens. Yes, I have the Ravens as the third team.

Let's be honest, there was no way I was going to win here. If I picked the Ravens to take the division, I would be accused of being a Ravens homer. If I put them second, I would be accused of playing it safe and being too boring. By putting Baltimore third, I know I will get that I'm being tough on the team so no one thinks I'm a Ravens homer. I think that about covers it.

So, how did I make this decision? I went with my gut. And my gut says Joe Flacco will have a career year. The problem for the Ravens is they have too many question marks from their aging offensive line to their lack of a pass rush.

Here's the link to the preview page for the Ravens. And here are five things you need to know about the Ravens:

1. Joe Flacco is primed for a career year: He has more confidence than ever after coming within one failed catch of leading Baltimore to the Super Bowl. The Ravens added Jacoby Jones as a third receiver to go with Torrey Smith, giving Flacco his fastest group of targets yet. New quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell, a stickler for fundamentals and mechanics, was brought in to get more consistency out of Flacco. This is the first year where it feels as if Flacco is in total control of the offense. Going no-huddle in the preseason, Flacco looks like Peyton Manning when he's calling out plays at the line of scrimmage. As far as motivation goes, it doesn't hurt that Flacco is entering the final year of his contract.

2. Bad year to lose Terrell Suggs: There's no timetable on the return of Suggs, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year who is out indefinitely with an Achilles injury. The Ravens need him as soon as possible when it comes to this year's schedule. Baltimore plays 13 games against Pro Bowl quarterbacks, including four Super Bowl-winning ones (Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning and Peyton Manning). Generating a pass rush is going to be a challenge. With Suggs out, the current players on the roster accounted for 25 of the team's 48 sacks last season. If the Ravens give these quarterbacks too much time, they'll get picked apart.

3. The offensive line is ancient by NFL standards: The Ravens could end up starting three linemen who are at least 32 years old. But age is only part of the problem with this group. Left tackle Bryant McKinnie is dealing with a weight issue again. Left guard Bobbie Williams is coming off season-ending ankle surgery. Center Matt Birk missed a large portion of training camp with a back injury. The right side of the line is the team's strength. Marshal Yanda is one of the best right guards in the league, and Michael Oher has made improvements this offseason. This represents the X factor for the Ravens' offense this year.

4. Special teams is a focus: The Ravens were one of four teams to allow three touchdowns on returns last season. That didn't sit particularly well with coach John Harbaugh, who was the longtime special-teams coach with the Philadelphia Eagles. Improving this area was a priority for Baltimore, which made Corey Graham, a Pro Bowl special-teams player last season, its first signing in free agency. The Ravens also re-signed Brendon Ayanbadejo, a three-time Pro Bowl special-teams player. It would be a big disappointment if the Ravens gave up the same number of big returns as last season.

5. This could be the Ravens' final season with Ray Lewis and Ed Reed: Lewis refuses to discuss retirement even though he is entering his 17th NFL season. But he once said he can't see himself playing past 37 years old, and he turned 37 in May. Lewis started off strong last season and was among the NFL's top inside linebackers in the first half. Then, after missing four games with a toe injury, he seemed to wear down toward the end of the year. For Reed, it's not a matter of calling it quits. He wants to play another four or five seasons. But he's entering the final year of his contract, and the Ravens' priority is re-signing Flacco. It's hard to imagine the Ravens' defense without these future Hall of Famers.

DIVISION FINISH: 3rd -- There are major questions, from the loss of Terrell Suggs to an aging offensive line. The lineup of strong quarterbacks on the schedule only compounds the problem. You can't expect John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco to get to the playoffs every year.
This is an exciting day, because we're rolling out our season previews and predictions for the 2012 NFL season.

We'll start at the bottom of the AFC North and work our way up. Here's the link to the preview page for the Browns.

This is the one team in the division which everyone, well except those in the Dawg Pound, can agree on as far as place in the final standings. There's no question the Browns have more talent than they did a year ago. But this will be another year of growing pains for one of the youngest teams in the league.

The previews for the Bengals, Ravens and Steelers are up next.

Five things you need to know about the Browns:

1. Pat Shurmur's seat is already hot: His first season was made more challenging by the NFL lockout, which meant he didn't meet his players until training camp. His second one is marked by a change in ownership, which has created an uncertain future for him in Cleveland. If that hasn't made his job difficult enough, Shurmur's top draft pick from 2011, defensive tackle Phil Taylor, is expected to miss at least the first six games with a torn pectoral muscle. His top pick from this year, running back Trent Richardson, had his knee scoped in training camp. Circumstances have made it tough to make a fair evaluation of Shurmur.

2. The offense is young: The Browns are close to fielding a college all-star team on offense. There is a chance that Cleveland will start as many as four rookies: Richardson, quarterback Brandon Weeden, right tackle Mitchell Schwartz and wide receiver Josh Gordon. That's in addition to the three players who started as rookies last season: wide receiver Greg Little, left guard Jason Pinkston and fullback Owen Marecic. The Browns needed to inject some new blood into their offense. Cleveland ranked 29th in offense last season and scored more than 17 points just twice.

3. The big concern on defense once again is stopping the run: Only two teams (St. Louis and Tampa Bay) were worse at slowing running backs last season. The Browns allowed seven backs to gain more than 100 yards, and the Ravens' Ray Rice ran for 204 yards. There's little hope that Cleveland's run defense has improved. The only major addition was defensive end Frostee Rucker, a free-agent signing from Cincinnati. That pales in comparison to the losses in the front seven. Taylor is expected to be sidelined until Oct. 21, outside linebacker Chris Gocong is out for the season with an Achilles injury and outside linebacker Scott Fujita has been suspended for the first three games for his role in the Saints' bounty scandal. The Browns open the regular season against Philadelphia's LeSean McCoy, the NFL's fourth-leading rusher from a year ago.

4. Weeden doesn't lack confidence: The knock on Weeden has been his age (he turns 29 in October), but he's the poised leader this offense desperately needs. The problem is the times when he's too confident. Weeden plays with a gunslinger mentality and shows no fear in throwing into tight windows. That will often lead to turnovers, which was one thing the Browns' offense didn't do last season. Weeden is in a tough position, because his wide receivers don't have the speed to consistently get open.

5. Schedule poses a couple of problems: The NFL schedule-makers didn't do the Browns any favors at the beginning or end of the season. After the season opener against the Eagles, the Browns play three of the next four games on the road, and all come against teams that made the playoffs last season (Cincinnati Bengals, Baltimore Ravens and the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants). Cleveland finishes the regular season at Denver and at Pittsburgh. That's consecutive road games against Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger. Cleveland is a combined 1-19 against them.

DIVISION FINISH: 4th -- The Browns have upgraded their talent with Richardson and Weeden, although it won't show in the win total. Cleveland is too young on offense and too vulnerable against the run on defense to hold up against a difficult schedule.

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