AFC North: NFL scenarios 2012

Yes, the start of training camps is two months away, but it’s never too early to consider the coming season. A look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the Steelers in 2012.

Dream scenario (13-3): Losing a handful of veterans this offseason won't impact the Steelers' play on the field. The Steelers show last year's division champion (the Ravens) and the division's upstart team (the Bengals) that they still own the division as long as Ben Roethlisberger is healthy and the defense is at full strength. A return trip to the Super Bowl would follow their pattern (Pittsburgh went in the 2008 and 2010 seasons).

Roethlisberger thrives in Todd Haley's offense much like Kurt Warner did. The biggest change is a quicker release, which will allow Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders to show off their elusiveness and make yards after the catch. The offensive line becomes the best in the AFC North with center Maurkice Pouncey staying healthy, right tackle Marcus Gilbert continuing to develop and rookies David DeCastro and Mike Adams living up to expectations.

The Steelers' pass rush is even stronger this season because James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley will be on the field together for more than a handful of games this year. The run defense is bolstered by the return of nose tackle Casey Hampton, who is able to start the season despite having knee surgery in January. The combination of Larry Foote and Stevenson Sylvester makes up for the loss of inside linebacker James Farrior.

Nightmare scenario (7-9): Pittsburgh underestimates the loss of leadership after parting ways with Farrior, Hines Ward, Aaron Smith and Chris Hoke. The Steelers also struggle more than expected with the injuries to Hampton and running back Rashard Mendenhall (knee surgery in January). It's tough to win in one of the top divisions in football when you're not at full strength.

The key to any Steelers season is the health of Roethlisberger. While the Steelers' offensive line has the potential to rank among the best, this year could be a transitional one as well. Roethlisberger could take a good number of hits behind a line that starts two rookies and moves tackle Willie Colon to guard. Losing Roethlisberger will result in a losing season. Pittsburgh would then have to depend more on a running game without Mendenhall. Isaac Redman has shown flashes, but he is a question mark as a featured back.

Defensively, the run defense becomes vulnerable in the middle with the injury to Hampton and the loss of Farrior. Hampton starts the season on the physically unable to perform list, and Steve McLendon and rookie Alameda Ta'amu can't fill the void. The pass defense takes a step back if one of the young cornerbacks (Keenan Lewis, Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown) can't replace William Gay.
AFC Scenarios: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Yes, the start of training camps is two months away, but it’s never too early to consider the coming season. A look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the Ravens in 2012.

Dream scenario (13-3): The Ravens come back more motivated after falling a couple plays short of getting to the Super Bowl. Baltimore takes care of its biggest distractions before the season by signing quarterback Joe Flacco and running back Ray Rice to long-term deals. The Ravens go on to produce the best record in the AFC and have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Flacco backs up his claim of being an elite quarterback and finally takes control of the offense. He has a reputation makeover similar to the one Eli Manning had. Flacco gets help in the passing game with wide receiver Torrey Smith and tight end Ed Dickson, who stretch the field even more in their second seasons as starters. Rookie second-round pick Kelechi Osemele is able to make the transition from college tackle to left guard, which is the biggest question mark on the Ravens' offensive line.

Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs gives the defense a big boost when the NFL's reigning defensive player of the year is able to return in early November from an Achilles injury. Rookie second-round pick Courtney Upshaw steps up to replace Jarret Johnson as the team's edge-setter on run defense. And Baltimore shuts down some of the best wide receivers in the NFL with the league's most impressive pair of cornerbacks in Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith.

Nightmare scenario (7-9): Baltimore can't shake the crushing loss in the AFC Championship Game and fails to make the playoffs for the first time in the John Harbaugh era. The injury to Suggs is too tough to overcome, and Rice isn't the same player after skipping offseason workouts and training camp. Not being at the top of their game hurts the Ravens, who have the fourth-toughest schedule in the NFL.

The offensive line shows some cracks with declining left tackle Bryant McKinnie and overhyped right tackle Michael Oher. Center Matt Birk begins to show his age (he turns 36 in July), and Baltimore fails to adequately replace Pro Bowl left guard Ben Grubbs. The lack of consistency up front puts more pressure on Flacco, who is forced to rush and throws more interceptions than he has in the past. Anquan Boldin watches his receptions decrease for a third straight season, and Torrey Smith drops more deep passes than he catches.

Defensively, Suggs is able to return late in the season but he doesn't have the explosiveness to be effective. The Ravens drop out of the top 10 in defense for the first time since 2002 because Paul Kruger can't replace Suggs, Ray Lewis' play slows down with his age (37) and Ed Reed stays in a funk because he's unhappy with his contract.
AFC Scenarios: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Yes, the start of training camps is two months away, but it’s never too early to consider the coming season. A look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the Browns in 2012.

Dream scenario (8-8): The Browns reap the rewards of a third straight successful draft and produce their first non-losing season since 2007. Team president Mike Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert are vindicated for making the right moves, and head coach Pat Shurmur shows what he can do when he has a full offseason with a team. While this isn't a playoff team yet, this season proves that the team is headed in the right direction.

First-round running back Trent Richardson becomes the centerpiece of the Browns' offense, providing a tough and mean attitude. He lives up to expectations of being the No. 3 overall pick and is the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. First-round pick Brandon Weeden makes an immediate impact with his big arm, convincing everyone that he is a franchise quarterback. He is also the mature leader that the offense needs.

On defense, tackle Phil Taylor returns earlier than expected from his pectoral muscle injury and misses only a handful of games. Middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson proves he's worth his new five-year, $42.5 million deal and leads the NFL in tackles. Linebacker Scott Fujita wins the appeal of his three-game suspension from the Saints' bounty scandal and starts the season opener. The addition of defensive end Frostee Rucker significantly improves a run defense that ranked 30th in the NFL last season.

Nightmare scenario (3-13): The Browns hit rock bottom, struggling against the NFL's third-toughest schedule. The hot seat is scorching for Shumur, and there are constant questions whether Holmgren and Heckert will be around when the Browns select first in the 2013 draft.

The biggest problem is a lack of playmakers on offense. Richardson is a physical runner but he can't break tackle after tackle. Defenses load the box with eight and nine players because they don't fear any of the wide receivers. Greg Little continues to drop passes and Mohamed Massaquoi continues to underachieve. Rookie Travis Benjamin brings speed but doesn't have the size to get off the line. That is all compounded by Weeden making too many mistakes when pressured, which was the knock on him coming out of college.

The defense's biggest weakness -- run defense -- gets exploited even more when Taylor takes longer than expected to recover. Rookie defensive linemen John Hughes and Billy Winn play like rookies in trying to replace him. Defensive end Jabaal Sheard isn't as disruptive as he was as a rookie, and Rucker is a disappointment as the team's top free-agent signing.
AFC Scenarios: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Yes, the start of training camps is two months away, but it’s never too early to consider the coming season. A look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the Bengals in 2012.

Dream scenario (11-5): The Bengals end their three-decade-long streak of inconsistency and put together back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 1981-82. Cincinnati wins its second division title in four years and hosts a playoff game at a sold-out Paul Brown Stadium.

The offense takes another step forward in coordinator Jay Gruden's second season. A.J. Green becomes a top-five receiver in the NFL and turns in a Calvin Johnson-like season (Johnson produced 1,331 yards and 12 touchdowns in his second season). Wide receiver Brandon Tate and rookie third-round pick Mohamed Sanu make surprising impacts and fill the void left by Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell. The running game goes from plodding to productive with BenJarvus Green-Ellis and two new run-blocking guards in veteran Travelle Wharton and first-round pick Kevin Zeitler.

The defense remains top 10 in the NFL and avoids a second-half swoon like last season. Rey Maualuga becomes a force in the middle now that he is healthy and adjusted to playing inside linebacker again. Cornerback Leon Hall is able to start the season after making a full recovery from last season's Achilles injury. The rest of the cornerbacks (Adam Jones, Jason Allen and Terence Newman) show they still have first-round talent. Safety Reggie Nelson lives up to his new four-year, $18 million contract.

Nightmare scenario (6-10): New players, same result. Even with an influx of young talent, the Bengals once again show they can't follow up a successful season, which crushes the momentum built from last year's surprising playoff season and productive offseason. This would follow the Bengals' pattern. Cincinnati had a four-win season after the last time it had gone to the playoffs in 2009.

Quarterback Andy Dalton suffers from a sophomore slump and regresses after defenses have had a full offseason to dissect him. Green also can't put up the same numbers from a year ago, although it's not his fault. Defenses clamp down on him because the Bengals don't have anyone to step up to become the No. 2 wide receiver. Green-Ellis, who averaged 3.7 yards per carry, doesn't upgrade the running back position over Cedric Benson.

Defensively, the Bengals start the season without Maualuga, who receives a suspension for violating the personal conduct policy. Hall doesn't heal as fast as expected and begins the season on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list, meaning he misses the first six weeks of the season. His replacements prove to be either too old (Jones, Allen and Newman) or too young (first-round pick Dre Kirkpatrick). New starting safety Taylor Mays becomes a liability in pass coverage.

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