AFC North: playoffs

CINCINNATI -- Minutes after walking back into their home locker room Sunday afternoon, the Cincinnati Bengals accomplished something scores of other Bengals were unable to achieve.

Thanks to a Miami Dolphins loss in Buffalo that came at the same time the Bengals were heading to the showers, Cincinnati had clinched a playoff berth; its third in the last three seasons. Never before had a trio of Bengals teams gone to the postseason in back-to-back-to-back years.

"It's amazing. We're making history," defensive tackle Domata Peko later said.

But the good news didn't stop there. Some three hours later, after the Bengals had all left Paul Brown Stadium, their postseason plans received an added boost as the Baltimore Ravens fell at home to the New England Patriots. That defeat officially clinched Cincinnati's second AFC North crown, and gave it a clear path to the No. 3 seeding in the conference playoff race.

A week after one of their worst Sunday nights of the year, the Bengals had reason to celebrate. But few said they actually would. To them, as great as the events of the day were, there still is so much left to accomplish.

For a team that hasn't won a playoff game since 1990, that's precisely the stance to take.

It also helps explain why there was relative calm inside the Bengals' locker room even moments after word began spreading that the playoff spot was clinched. Indeed, happiness mixed with a little relief was clearly apparent on the faces of those who were present, but there was no wide-scale celebration.

"We've been here before, so we're not going to get too high about this because we still have a lot of work to do," receiver Andrew Hawkins said. "We set out for a goal and we have a lot of unfinished business."

Some of that unfinished business includes finishing out the regular season with a perfect home record. The Bengals have a chance to do that next week when they host the Ravens in the regular season finale. In addition to giving them a win over a division rival, a victory over Baltimore would bounce the Ravens from the playoff picture. A win also could give Cincinnati a chance of boosting its playoff seeding. The Bengals currently sit at No. 3 in the AFC, but a loss by the Patriots next week could push the Bengals into the No. 2 spot and give them the coveted first-round bye.

Beyond those aspirations, though, Cincinnati trying to stay focused on other goals. Still, they understand how big of a step claiming the division championship was.

"You do this to win the Super Bowl, but you can't earn a trip if you can't punch a ticket," defensive end Wallace Gilberry said. "Our ticket's been punched. And we've got a group of guys that deserve to be there."

For Hawkins, a young receiver who grew up watching the once-scuffling Bengals when his older brother Artrell Hawkins played for the franchise between 1998 and 2003, the three straight postseason trips are still something to celebrate; but only in the right dosage.

"I can remember being young praying for the Bengals to win games, praying to go to the playoffs," Hawkins said. "So to be here and to see three playoff appearances, it's surreal.

"It just shows that everything is headed in the right direction. You put guys in the locker room who are not just great football players, but who are great men, great teammates, guys who are accountable, play for each other and have such a chemistry together. When you do that, that's what it takes for a franchise to take the next step."

What helps an organization that has routinely been stymied by first-round playoff exits change that part of its identity? By becoming dissatisfied with complacency.

"Our goal, I relate it to the Cleveland game [last month]," offensive lineman Andrew Whitworth said. "All we heard that week was about Cleveland saying what a big game it was, and to us, it was just another game on the schedule. Our goal isn't to beat Cleveland or to beat Baltimore or to beat Pittsburgh. Our goal is to go to the Super Bowl."

On Sunday, the Bengals took two big steps closer to seeing that goal come to fruition. But they still have miles left to walk this season.
Here are the most interesting stories Tuesday in the AFC North:
  • Baltimore Ravens center Matt Birk isn't worried about the addition of Pro Bowl center Andre Gurode.
Morning take: Birk says he's healthy, which puts him in line to start Sunday's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Gurode needs to learn the scheme and get his feet under him. But Gurode is younger and could eventually be the starter.
  • The Steelers are jumping into the regular season the hard way with a tough road game against the Ravens.
Morning take: You can't find a more intense start for either team. Baltimore will be fired up after getting knocked out by Pittsburgh recently in the playoffs. Here is a poll on who AFC North fans think will win the game.
  • The Cleveland Browns' offensive line is in flux leading into their Week 1 game against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Morning take: Left guard is the biggest question. You forget how important Eric Steinbach (back) is to the team until he's out for the season.
  • Bengals running back Cedric Benson is happy to be back following a brief jail stint.
Morning take: Benson was wise to get his legal issues behind him before the start of the season. He will be a big part of the Bengals' offense this season and now has a clear head.

Week 1 poll: Steelers at Ravens

September, 5, 2011
This is the game we've all been waiting for.

Using our SportsNation poll, vote on who will win Sunday's much-anticipated, AFC North showdown between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens. These teams don't like each other and met three times last season. Pittsburgh won two meetings, including a playoff victory at Heinz Field.

Will it be more of the same for the Steelers? They have had Baltimore's number when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is under center. The Steelers are the preseason favorites to win the division.

Or is this Baltimore's year? The Ravens have been so close but fail to make the big plays at the end. Will Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco finally get his first win against Roethlisberger on Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium?

Cast your vote and share your thoughts in the comment section below. Provide a final score if you're feeling really brave.

AFC North Homer of the Week

August, 24, 2011
Various preseason games and traveling to training camps prevented me from putting together a recent mailbag. Therefore, we never posted our latest "Homer of the Week."

This week's award goes to a Cleveland Browns fan.
  • Cory Hart from Shelby, Ohio, writes: After watching the first two preseason games I'm going to make a prediction: The Browns will go 10-6 this season and be the sixth seed in the playoffs. They will then beat the New England Patriots in the first round but will ultimately lose to the Houston Texans, who will go to the Super Bowl but will lose to the Atlanta Falcons. Colt McCoy will throw for 3,800 yards and 28 TDs with 9 INTs and Peyton Hillis will rush for 1,500 yards with 13 TDs and catch for 700 yards with 7 TDs. That is how I see this year for my team.
Walker: Wow, Cory. I don't know if I'm more shocked you think the Browns will beat the Patriots in the playoffs or the Houston Texans are going to the Super Bowl. And McCoy and Hillis should be first-round picks in fantasy drafts with these projections. Be careful not to overrate the preseason, Cory. Congrats on being our "Homer of the Week."

Poll Friday: Ochocinco's legacy?

July, 29, 2011
The Cincinnati Bengals made a big trade Thursday, shipping colorful receiver Chad Ochocinco to the New England Patriots. In return, the Bengals got two future draft picks and can officially begin the A.J. Green era in Cincinnati.

But before we look ahead, let's reflect on the Ochocinco era with the Bengals. In our latest "Poll Friday," we ask how will you remember Ochocinco's 10 seasons in Cincinnati?

Will you most remember Ochocinco's productivity? He was one of the NFL's most dynamic receivers for a long stretch with the Bengals and finished with 751 receptions, 10,783 yards and 82 touchdowns. He also was consistent, posting seven 1,000-yard seasons.

Or will Ochocinco be remembered for his antics? The receiver filled reporters' notebooks with zany quotes and predictions that often got under coach Marvin Lewis' skin. Ochocinco also had arguably the league's best touchdown celebrations, which made him a household name.

Finally, does it come down to winning and losing for Ochocinco? The Bengals only had two playoff appearances in Ochocinco's 10 seasons and never won a playoff game. The Lewis-Ochocinco-Carson Palmer era was expected to bring postseason excitement and potentially a title to Cincinnati, but it didn't come close.

Using our SportsNation poll, vote on Ochocinco's legacy with Cincinnati. You can also share your thoughts in the comments section below.

AFC North locker-room leaders

July, 22, 2011
Leadership is a huge part of pro football. The league has so much talent and parity that the teams with the best leaders truly can gain an edge.

With that in mind, we take a look at the locker-room leadership for each AFC North team and provide a grade.

Baltimore Ravens

Locker-room leader: LB Ray Lewis

Analysis: In their first year of existence, the Ravens were fortunate not only to draft a future Hall of Famer but also to get one of the best leaders and motivators in NFL history. Lewis is synonymous with the Ravens, and his leadership is a major part of his legacy. At 36, Lewis is not the same player he was a decade ago, but he continues to play at a high level to keep the Ravens in contention. Lewis makes the players around him better -- many defensive free agents who left Baltimore over the past 15 years didn't have the same success elsewhere.

Grade: A

Cincinnati Bengals


Locker-room leader: LT Andrew Whitworth

Analysis: Whitworth is one of the league's underrated players and also an underrated leader. He took over the leadership void left behind by former longtime offensive tackle and mentor Willie Anderson. Franchise quarterback Carson Palmer never had that "take charge" attitude, which was one of the biggest criticisms of him in Cincinnati. The Bengals are hoping Andy Dalton can be different in that way. Overall, Cincinnati doesn't have enough leaders, and that's one reason this team struggles to win consistently. Whitworth wears that hat well, but there's only so much one person can do.

Grade: B-

Cleveland Browns


Locker-room leader: QB Colt McCoy

Analysis: McCoy deserves credit for displaying natural leadership right away as a rookie for the struggling Browns. Once McCoy became the starter, he claimed the Browns as his team. McCoy also played the biggest role in organizing players-only workouts. But eventually, it's going to come down to what McCoy does on the field. He had mixed results as a rookie, throwing for 1,576 yards, six touchdowns and nine interceptions. He's just 2-6 as a starter, and wins and losses will eventually determine whether Cleveland's locker room continues to follow a young, inexperienced quarterback.

Grade: C+

Pittsburgh Steelers

Locker-room leader: Various veterans

Analysis: Pittsburgh has a unique locker-room culture because there isn't a clear-cut leader. If you surveyed the team, some players would say linebacker James Farrior, others would say Hines Ward or Ryan Clark or Troy Polamalu. As a group, Pittsburgh's veterans usually do a good job of keeping younger players productive and in check. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin doesn't have many major issues with his team during the season, because it's usually squashed in the locker room before it reaches the coach's desk. Recent off-the-field distractions this summer caused by Hines Ward and James Harrison prevent Pittsburgh from getting a better grade.

Grade: B+
I'm still ducking black and gold tomatoes thrown my way after picking the Baltimore Ravens to win the AFC North this week. There are a lot of questions, so let's check it out.

Josh from Shiloh, IL, wants to know what are the chances the Pittsburgh Steelers cut ties with linebacker James Harrison following his explosive comments.

James Walker: Nothing is official, but I would be surprised if the Steelers let go of Harrison, Josh. Some are comparing this to Santonio Holmes' situation last year, but that is not an accurate comparison. Holmes violated the NFL's drug policy and was suspended by the league. That impacted the team and the front office. Harrison made comments against two teammates, and I think the locker room is where it will be mostly handled. Harrison didn't say anything bad about the Steelers' organization. Therefore, I expect coach Mike Tomlin and the players to smooth things over.

Davis from KCMO writes: Will the Steelers' locker room back Ben Roethlisberger or James Harrison?

Walker: Davis, this is exactly what the Steelers want to avoid. Harrison's comments toward two key members of the offense have the potential to divide a locker room. But it will be up to Tomlin and the players to make sure that doesn't happen. The Steelers have a really good locker-room culture. So I think this gets addressed quickly before it gets worse.

Rawleigh Brown from Birmingham, Alabama, writes: I can give Ward a pass considering this is his first encounter with law, but is it possible for you tell my Steelers to stay away from Georgia all together?

Walker: Ward lives in Georgia and is from there, Rawleigh. You can't blame the state of Georgia for his arrest.

Will from Nashville, TN, writes: After the Cincinnati Bengals decide what they will do about Johnathan Joseph and Cedric Benson, what positions do you see them going after in free agency?

Walker: A veteran quarterback is probably the first priority, Will. The Bengals need someone with experience behind Andy Dalton, Jordan Palmer and Dan LeFevour, who combine for zero NFL starts. Don’t expect a big name. The Bengals are rarely major players in free agency, although if there are mandatory spending requirements in the new CBA, that could change this year. I think Bruce Gradkowski and Jim Sorgi are the kind of veteran quarterbacks Cincinnati may target.

Anthony from New York wants to know if the Bengals plan to go with a committee at running back.

Walker: Anthony, many teams are going that way, but not the Bengals. They want Cedric Benson to be their workhorse and, health permitting, he will get a lion's share of carries. Bernard Scott is a speedy backup and will get some opportunities. But a committee is closer to a 50-50 split, and Cincinnati won't lean that way.

Eric from Princeton, NJ, writes: Do you see any likelihood of the Cleveland Browns going for a right tackle in free agency?

Walker: The Browns have spoken highly of right tackle Tony Pashos this offseason. Pashos was injured last year, so it's hard to say how well he fits in Cleveland. He was considered an average and serviceable tackle in his most recent stops with the San Francisco 49ers and Jacksonville Jaguars. That may be enough for the Browns, who are very stout on the left side.

Matt Suydam from Hudson, Ohio, writes: Do the think the Browns have a chance of making the playoffs this year, or will they have better chances in the next few years?

Walker: Browns fans hate when I say this, but Cleveland will not be a playoff team this year. The Browns are at least two years away from contending and still have some major talent gaps on their roster. President Mike Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert are doing a good job of adding talent. But it's not going to happen overnight.

Max from Wildwood, N.J., wants to know how the Baltimore Ravens' offensive line will perform this year?

Walker: It has to be better than last season, Max, because the Ravens were very inconsistent in both the running and passing games. It was probably the worst year I've seen from a Baltimore offensive line since I began covering the team three years ago. Right tackle is a huge question mark that the Ravens must fill. Rookie third-round pick Jah Reid may not be ready, and from what I've seen, I don't think Oniel Cousins or Tony Moll are the answer. Re-signing guard Marshal Yanda will be important, as well.

Jimmy from Utah writes: Let's see if you stand by that Baltimore prediction in January?

Walker: No problem, Jimmy. We run a full-accountability blog. If I'm wrong, I will own up to it. I promise.

Comment and complaint department

Here are the latest comments and complaints from our AFC North community.

Mike from Ewa Beach, Hawaii, writes: I mean this from the bottom of my black and gold heart -- thank you for picking the Ravens over the Steelers. Regardless of what's going on, Mike Tomlin, the Rooneys and the players will find a way to make this season a success. Tomlin has gone 10-6, 12-4, 9-7, and 12-4. The players and coaches will fix the locker room issues and management (Kevin Colbert and Omar Khan) will figure out the roster/salary cap issues. You're a fair and objective dude, but I think a lot of people are making a mountain out of a mole hill. Taker easy, JW.

Mingo from Killeen, Texas, writes: Mr. Walker, go ahead and jump in the bandwagon with the Ravens. You keep forgetting we have one of the best coaches in the league when it comes to discipline and players ego. The NFL does not has perfect player or teams. It how the come together and execute during the season.

MikeGirts via Twitter writes: Fair analysis, James. But I'm not worried until Baltimore shows it can beat Pittsburgh when #7 is on the field.

TonyD_12 via Twitter writes: JW, you should know by now not to make predictions in July. The Ravens actually have to beat the Steelers to win the division.

Walker: I knew my column this week wouldn't sit well with Steeler Nation. Usually, I wait until the end of training camp to make my annual prediction. But after a wild and crazy week with the Steelers, the timing felt right to do it early this year. By the way, I also predicted the Steelers won't win their seventh Super Bowl this season. Why is no one bashing me for that?

Caleb from Pittsburgh writes: Is it just me or does it seem like the Steelers have been almost out of control ever since Bill Cowher left and Dan Rooney became Irish Ambassador? Nothing against Tomlin, but every offseason we have more and more Steeler problems, and it needs to change. How much more of Harrison's mouth and these other problems can we take in Pittsburgh?

Walker: Caleb, I don't have official numbers, but there definitely has been bigger controversies and issues in Pittsburgh the last few years. Ben Roethlisberger had his issues under Cowher, such as his motorcycle accident. But his two sexual assault allegations resulted in a suspension and possibly kicked off the team. Holmes was a big deal and resulted in a trade, and this offseason we've seen three separate issues, although they're all different. I can't put a finger on why, but it needs to change in Pittsburgh.

Ben from Pensacola, Fla., writes: I thought Ryan Clark was supposed to be a smart guy. Why does he feel the need to give the Ravens even more bulletin board material than LaMarr Woodley did? I'm sick and tired of seeing Steeler after Steeler make a fool of themselves because they couldn't keep their mouths shut. Where is Mike Tomlin to muzzle these guys? Enough is enough!

Walker: Ben, although I disagree with what Clark said, I understand his point. He doesn't believe the Ravens and Steelers are a true rivalry, because Baltimore hasn’t won enough games in recent years. Normally, that's a valid argument. But I believe the games have been so close and so physical that wins and losses don't accurately gauge how intense and competitive these recent games have been. With Tomlin, coaches cannot have contact with players until a new collective bargaining agreement is reached.

AFC North "Homer of the Week"

If there was any week I thought we'd avoid "Nnamdi-to-Steelers" talk, it was this week. I was floored when the following letter came in our AFC North inbox.

TShell from Mason, Ohio, writes: James, I know you've tried to close the book on Nnamdi Asomugha coming to the Steelers, but now there's a twist. Honestly, I don't see the Rooneys being too happy with Hines and Harrison right now. What if they make an example of Harrison and trade him, thus being able to land Asomugha? The guy has gone too far and it seems as though he keeps shoving his foot farther into his mouth as time goes on. The Steelers have a reputation to uphold and the kind of language and disparaging remarks, and Harrison has really crossed the line.

Walker: TShell, this isn't really a homer comment. But since you're one of the few Steelers fan who still believe Asomugha has a chance of coming to Pittsburgh, I made you our "Homer of the Week" anyway. Congrats.

AFC North "Hater of the Week"

As expected, there were a bevy of haters this week. But this one took the cake.

Matt from South Lake Tahoe, Calif., writes: James, I think your blog sucks because you write it. Every year you pick against the Steelers only to watch them dominate the AFC North once again. So quit your day job and start a blog covering women's soccer in the "Mistake On the Lake" area. I see more people hating on you than enjoying you. Wait till the Ravens actually beat the Steelers with Big Ben at the helm before you start throwing in all your pathetic predictions. I'll be looking forward to the day when it's someone else's picture I see on the AFC North blog and not you. P.S. Colt McCoy sucks. Get over it. Please stop talking up the Browns! They are a joke.

Walker: I appreciate the love, Matt. I can tell you're not a regular reader of this blog if you feel I hype up McCoy and the Browns. Congrats on being our latest AFC North "Hater of the Week."

If you have any additional questions, complaints, homer or hater comments, feel free to send them to our AFC North inbox.
This is a big year for Cleveland Browns starting quarterback Colt McCoy -- not only on the field but with contract bonuses.

After starting eight games as a rookie, McCoy already increased his fourth-year salary from $500,000 to $1.15 million in 2013. But McCoy has several more play-time escalators this season that can be added to the back end of his contract.

The former third-round draft pick has a chance to add as much as $625,000 to his fourth year. Here is the breakdown:
  • McCoy can earn an additional $250,000 in 2013 for taking 70 percent of this year's snaps and winning 10 games. McCoy also can also get the same amount with 70 percent playing time and leading the Browns to the playoffs, regardless of wins.
  • McCoy can earn an extra $250,000 for taking 80 percent of Cleveland's snaps this year and finishing in the top 10 in any of the six major categories, such as yards or touchdowns.
  • Finally, McCoy can earn an additional $125,000 for making the Pro Bowl.

McCoy signed a four-year deal worth a maximum of $5 million in 2010. Many of these escalators were put in to satisfy the "quarterback premium," in the event McCoy turned out to be Cleveland's starter.

McCoy quickly took over the quarterback job as a rookie and exceeded expectations. Will he do the same by reaching these goals this season?

AFC North: Oldie but goodie

July, 15, 2011
Projecting the best 30-and-over player in my division by the start of the 2014 season.

The NFL is such a year-to-year league that it's hard to predict which veteran players will continue to thrive. Injuries can take a toll on any superstar in his 30s and that player may never be the same.

But the "oldie but goodie" player I predict will still be dominant in the AFC North three years from now is Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The 29-year-old will be 32 in 2014, and quarterback is one of the few positions NFL players can still dominate at an advanced age.

Other quarterbacks such as Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Brett Favre have recently put together some of their best seasons well into their 30s, and there's no indication Roethlisberger couldn't do the same. According to Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, Roethlisberger played the best football of his career in 2010, which is a sign the two-time Super Bowl champion is in his prime years.

Health is the only concern for Roethlisberger. Pittsburgh has never put a good offensive line in front of him, and Roethlisberger's been sacked an astounding 221 times the past five seasons. That’s an average of 44.2 sacks per season.

As a result, Roethlisberger has suffered a variety of injuries to his foot, ribs and shoulder. But he's been fortunate to avoid any season-ending ailments. As long as that continues, Roethlisberger should thrive in Pittsburgh for years to come.

Are the Steelers unraveling?

July, 14, 2011
James Harrison, Hines Ward and Rashard MendenhallGetty Images, US PresswireJames Harrison, Hines Ward and Rashard Mendenhall have all contributed to the Steelers' off-field issues this offseason.
Here's a July prediction: The Baltimore Ravens will win the AFC North this season.

Yes, I said it -- and I will be sticking with that statement through January.

For months I've been going back-and-forth between Baltimore and the reigning AFC champion Pittsburgh Steelers. Both teams are talented, but this week's events put me over the top in favor of the Ravens.

I simply don't like what I'm seeing from Pittsburgh this offseason. Whether it's Rashard Mendenhall's tweeting, Hines Ward's recent arrest or James Harrison ripping everyone -- including his own teammates -- there's too many warning signs that suggest this isn't the Steelers' year.

Keep in mind, this is not a new phenomenon in Pittsburgh. Self-implosion is what the Steelers do best following Super Bowl appearances.

In 2006, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger got into a motorcycle accident and the Steelers finished 8-8. In 2009, Pittsburgh had to deal with Roethlisberger's first sexual assault allegation and Troy Polamalu's knee injury to finish 9-7. Both years they missed the playoffs.

This offseason reminds me too much of 2006 and 2009. The difference is that this year the leaks are coming from various places. Pittsburgh's controversies involve three starters who are among the most important members of the team. In addition, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin and president Art Rooney II have been unable to address these issues during the NFL lockout.

What will Rooney say to Mendenhall, who is no longer a fan favorite, about questioning the events of 9/11? What will Ward -- a team captain -- say to the front office about getting busted on charges of driving under the influence this past weekend? How will Tomlin address Harrison for ripping star players in his own locker room?

And this is before the Steelers hold their first practice in training camp.

Health permitting, Pittsburgh certainly is good enough to make the playoffs. But the odds are stacked against their winning a seventh Super Bowl title this season.

The Buffalo Bills were the last runners-up to make it back to the big game (Super Bowl appearances in 1991-1994), and they lost in each trip. It takes a tremendous amount of focus, togetherness and luck. The Steelers haven't displayed any of that so far in their quest to complete one of the hardest journeys in professional sports.

Harrison has never been called a bad teammate. But when you do an interview as explosive as he did with Men's Journal, it has the potential to divide a locker room.

Harrison may have exposed some underlying tension between Pittsburgh's offense and defense. He crossed the line by lambasting Roethlisberger and Mendenhall. Harrison later spoke with Roethlisberger. But there is no word at this juncture if Harrison is rescinding his "fumble machine" comment toward Mendenhall.

So what happens the next time Mendenhall fumbles? Will Harrison and the defense snicker about it? When Roethlisberger throws a pick deep in Pittsburgh's territory, will the defense focus and just play football? These things happen during the course of a season, and the Steelers need to pick each other up and play like one unit, which has been their strength in previous seasons.

Last year, Pittsburgh had one distraction, which was Roethlisberger's four-game suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy. That was easier to resolve, especially because Roethlisberger wasn't allowed around the team for the first month of the season. This year, the Steelers tripled the amount of distractions, and it will take more effort to get through each case.

The Steelers also have several personnel questions to address.

With the team expected to be more than $10 million over the salary cap, it's likely that No. 1 corner Ike Taylor won't return. He's not interested in offering a discount to stay in Pittsburgh. That leaves a major void in its secondary, which was exposed by the Green Bay Packers and several other teams last season.

The contracts of veterans Antwaan Randle El, Flozell Adams and Aaron Smith also will be up for discussion as the team tries to get under the cap. Their potential departures will hurt depth and leadership.

In contrast, the Ravens have it more together. Their biggest issue this offseason is opponents criticizing fourth-year quarterback Joe Flacco. And, if anything, that's been a rallying point that's motivated the Ravens and brought them closer together.

Baltimore has been unable to beat Pittsburgh in big games recently. But the talent is so close between these heated rivals that any additional edge can shift the balance in the AFC North.

Consider the Ravens the new favorites in the division in 2011. The Steelers are too busy dealing with self-inflicted wounds.
Joe FlaccoJim Rogash/Getty ImagesJoe Flacco has been a lightning rod for criticism from opponents and the media this offseason.
Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley believes Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco will never win a Super Bowl "in this lifetime."

Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Dhani Jones says Flacco can't handle pressure and makes too many bad decisions.

NFL Network analyst Jamie Dukes says Flacco doesn't work hard enough.

In other words, there has been no shortage of offseason jabs at Flacco, who has become the biggest punching bag in the AFC North during the NFL lockout. The list of detractors questioning Flacco's ability to take the Ravens to the next level appears to be growing every month.

But there is hope for the talented, fourth-year quarterback. Flacco, 26, is still young and entering his prime. So now is the time to put all of those concerns to rest.

With that in mind, here are five ways Flacco can silence his many critics in 2011:

No. 1: Flacco must beat Pittsburgh and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger

Analysis: There are no more excuses. Flacco has to beat his biggest rival in a big game. Flacco has two career wins against Pittsburgh but both come with an asterisk. Roethlisberger missed those games due to a concussion in 2009 and a suspension at the beginning of the 2010 season. Flacco is 0-6 in his career against the Steelers with Roethlisberger under center, which includes an 0-2 record in the playoffs. The good news is Flacco doesn't have to wait long for another shot. The Ravens host the Steelers in Week 1, and Woodley has already upped the ante for Flacco, who must perform well. A big win against Pittsburgh early could set the tone for the Ravens, who need to move on from last year's heartbreaking playoff defeat. It also would lift a huge burden off Flacco and could begin to change his reputation as a quarterback who struggles in big games.

No. 2: Flacco must perform well in the playoffs

Analysis: Advancing to the AFC title game as a rookie was one of the best and worst things to happen to Flacco. He did something few rookie quarterbacks have accomplished. But it also raised the bar much higher for Flacco than it is for your typical young quarterbacks. Flacco is 4-3 in the playoffs but played well in only one of those seven games. Other than Baltimore's wild-card victory over the Kansas City Chiefs last January, the Ravens have carried Flacco in the postseason. In Flacco's four playoff wins, Baltimore's defense held opponents to just 10 points per game, while Flacco did enough to manage the offense. If Flacco wants to become a great quarterback, that needs to change. The Ravens' defense cannot pitch a near-perfect game every time in the postseason (see recent playoff losses to the Indianapolis Colts and Steelers). There will be times Flacco has to carry the team with his arm in a big game. Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers last season was a perfect example of how a hot quarterback makes a world of difference in the postseason.

No. 3: Thrive against the AFC North

[+] EnlargeLaMarr Woodley and Joe Flacco
AP Photo/Tom E. PuskarLaMarr Woodley said Joe Flacco will never win a Super Bowl.
Analysis: There is a reason Woodley and Jones were blunt in their criticism of Flacco. Based on what happened on the field in recent seasons, they both have the right to speak on Flacco's struggles. The Steelers and Bengals have been two of Flacco's biggest nemeses early in his career. Flacco is a combined 5-9 against his two AFC North rivals and has thrown 11 touchdowns and 16 interceptions in 14 career games. Regardless of whether you believe Jones and Woodley should have made their comments public, the numbers back up their claims. Flacco has to play these teams at least four times per year and needs to perform better against AFC North competition.

No. 4: Bring back the deep ball

Analysis: Some teams have figured out how to defend Flacco and the Ravens' offense, because Baltimore hasn't thrown the deep ball much the past couple of seasons. Derrick Mason and Anquan Boldin are both possession receivers, and when they're not open, Flacco often checks down to running back Ray Rice. The offensive pattern has become predictable and drawn the ire of media and fans in Baltimore. Despite a lot of talent, the Ravens finished a disappointing 22nd in total offense last season. Flacco has one of the prettiest deep balls in the league, and it will be up to offensive coordinator Cam Cameron to find more ways to play to Flacco's strengths. The Ravens have lacked a deep threat in the past but hope rookie second-round pick Torrey Smith brings the speed they've been looking for to keep defenses honest. Including playoffs, Flacco only had one 300-yard passing game all last season, and it came against the 2-14 Carolina Panthers.

No. 5: Win a Super Bowl

Analysis: Winning a Super Bowl is the great equalizer. Baltimore's roster is stacked, which is why there is so much pressure and Super Bowl talk surrounding Flacco. Quarterbacks always get most of the credit for the team's success or most of the blame for its failure. So Flacco could silence everyone -- Woodley, Dhani Jones, media and fans -- by finally winning the big game. Even getting the Ravens to the Super Bowl would do wonders for Flacco's reputation.

If Flacco follows these five not-so-easy steps, he will have a much quieter offseason in 2012. Can Flacco accomplish some, or all, of these goals this upcoming season?

Stay tuned.
Ben RoethlisbergerMatthew Stockman/Getty ImagesA third Super Bowl title would ensure Ben Roethlisberger's place in Canton.
In February we explained that three Super Bowls victories for starting quarterbacks leads to automatic enshrinement into the Hall of Fame.

The only quarterbacks in that class are Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw, Troy Aikman and Tom Brady. Three are in Canton and one -- Brady -- will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer five years after he retires.

Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers nearly joined that elite group but came up one scoring drive short in Super Bowl XLV, losing 31-25 to the Green Bay Packers. Now he's stuck at two rings.

So what does this mean for Roethlisberger's Hall of Fame chances? It means he still has some winning to do.

And "winning" is the key word for Roethlisberger, because that will be the biggest part of his NFL legacy. Despite playing quarterback, Roethlisberger will never be a numbers guy. He plays for a defensive-oriented team in Pittsburgh, which wants to be efficient on offense. Roethlisberger has thrown for 4,000 yards just once in seven seasons.

Roethlisberger's career numbers will not match other top quarterbacks of his era such as Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees. Those three have thrown anywhere from 13,000 to 32,000 yards more than Roethlisberger, and it will be impossible for Roethlisberger to catch up.

Roethlisberger will have to take the Bradshaw and Aikman route to Canton. Neither had eye-popping numbers, but they were winners and extremely effective in big games.

Roethlisberger's 10-3 record in the postseason speaks volumes. His .769 winning percentage in the playoffs surpasses both Brady (.737) and Manning (.473). Roethlisberger also compares favorably with Hall of Fame inductees of the past 10 years in key areas such as passer rating (92.5), completion percentage (63.1) and yards per attempt (8.0).

Some thoughts on this chart:

  • Because of his unconventional, backyard style, Roethlisberger does not get nearly enough credit for his accuracy. But Roethlisberger is very efficient and currently has a better completion percentage than five of the six Hall of Famers we listed.
  • Roethlisberger also faces the stigma of being perceived as a "game manager," particularly early in his career. But his yards per attempt debunk that myth. Roethlisberger isn't afraid to take chances and throws one of the best deep balls in the NFL. His 8.0 yards per attempt is higher than Hall of Famers Dan Marino (7.3) and Warren Moon (7.2), for example, and both were renown gunslingers. Roethlisberger also averaged 8.2 yards per attempt or more in five of his seven seasons.
  • Longevity is key. Each Hall of Fame quarterback listed played at least 11 seasons in the NFL, and several played 16 or more seasons. Roethlisberger, who has seven years of experience, still has a long way to go.
  • Compared with current elite quarterbacks, Roethlisberger has a higher career passer rating (92.5) than Brees (91.7) but not Brady (95.2) or Manning (94.9).

Roethlisberger, 29, is in the prime of his career. Barring injury, there is nothing to suggest he cannot play at a high level for the next 3-5 years.

But these next several seasons will be crucial for Roethlisberger. If he retired today, Roethlisberger probably wouldn't get into the Hall of Fame, because he doesn't have the gaudy numbers or the longevity.

But with each deep run through the postseason, Roethlisberger gets one step closer to football immortality. If Roethlisberger is able to add a third championship along the way, his legend would be bronzed in Canton.
Unless Cincinnati Bengals owner Mike Brown and/or franchise quarterback Carson Palmer have a sudden change of heart, Palmer is heading toward early retirement. This leads us to our latest "Poll Friday" question in the AFC North blog.

This week we ask what Palmer's legacy is if he never plays another down in the NFL.

Was Palmer a draft bust and underachiever? He was a former No. 1 overall pick in 2003 but never led Cincinnati to a Super Bowl or even a playoff win. How much of the blame should be placed on Palmer, and how much is on the struggling organization he plays for?

Will you remember Palmer as a quality NFL quarterback? He reached two Pro Bowls and twice threw for more than 4,000 yards. In eight seasons, Palmer recorded 22,694 career yards, 154 touchdowns and 100 interceptions.

Or is Palmer a future Hall of Famer? We won't make that case, but some of you can try if you wish.

Using our SportsNation poll, vote on how you will remember Palmer's NFL career if he retires. You can also share your thoughts in the comment section below.
Let’s see what's in our AFC North inbox this week.

Brian from California wants to know if the Baltimore Ravens will field a top-10 defense in 2011.

James Walker: Every year people say the Ravens are getting too old on defense, and nearly every year they finish in the top 10. So until they prove otherwise, the safe money is on the Ravens' defense again. A big key will be the pass rush and the production of rookie first-round pick Jimmy Smith. Is he ready to be the No. 1 corner right away? Time will tell. But if Smith is, the Ravens could be better defensively than last season.

Dave from Baltimore wants know how much blame should be put on Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron.

Walker: Cameron definitely deserves blame, particularly with the play-calling. I thought the running game was out of rhythm all last season, and Cameron didn't do enough to get tailback Ray Rice the football consistently. But the offensive line also took a big step back last year, and I think that affected everything the Ravens wanted to do offensively. The Ravens missed Jared Gaither, Michael Oher wasn't the same on the left side, and the pass protection and run blocking in general were inconsistent. I would say both Cameron and the offensive line need to do a better job this year.

DJ Mitchell from Hamlim, N.Y., wants to know which Cleveland Browns receiver could surprise.

Walker: If I had to pick one, DJ Mitchell, it would be Mohamed Massaquoi. He's shown flashes over the past two seasons, and I think Massaquoi has some talent. He is just in a role that is too big as Cleveland's No. 1 receiver. Massaquoi faces the most double-teams for the Browns and often the opponent's best cornerback. Therefore, Massaquoi struggles to get open because he is not a true No. 1 option.

JMo from Bed-Stuy writes: Any idea who would take the Browns' third-string QB slot in Jake Delhomme's absence? Would you predict it ends up as a developmental type or a veteran type?

Walker: The third quarterback is not currently on the roster, JMo. I thought the Browns would draft one in the later rounds, but they didn't. There's still a chance Cleveland would keep Delhomme if he's willing to take a huge pay cut. But players often refuse when they can get a better deal somewhere else. If the Browns add another quarterback, it could be a young player to develop. Seneca Wallace has taken over the veteran backup role.

Kenny from Cincinnati writes: If the Pittsburgh Steelers lose cornerback Ike Taylor in free agency, do you think they would go after Johnathan Joseph?

Walker: Whew! I thought for a second you were going to ask about that other corner from the Oakland Raiders. But I think Joseph is going to be in a similar situation to Taylor's and be too pricey for Pittsburgh. I expect both corners should be able to command somewhere between $8 and $10 million per year. If the Steelers aren't willing to pay that much to keep Taylor, who knows the system, they probably won't do it for an outside free agent. Look for Carlos Rogers or Richard Marshall to be cheaper replacement options for Pittsburgh.

Mike Morrison from Boardman, Ohio, wants to know who will be the Cincinnati Bengals' No. 2 receiver.

Walker: We recently opened this question to our community, and readers voted Jerome Simpson as the most likely option. I think Andre Caldwell will give Simpson a good run in training camp, and it will probably be one of those two. I'm still not sure if Simpson caught lightning in a bottle at the end of last year or if he's finally turned the corner. Simpson still has to prove he's ready to be a full-time starter.

Comment and complaint department

Ben from Pensacola, Fla., writes: In what universe is Ike Taylor worth $8-$10M a year? Because he was the No. 1 corner on the best D in the league? Taylor came along for the ride, but he's barely been average since his strong starting debut in 2006. Stanford Routt is worth that kind of money because he's actually really good. Taylor is still trying to figure out [where] Greg Jennings is! I understand the market and perception that he's a starting-caliber corner will drive his price up, but I am PRAYING the Steelers don't fork out that kind of money for the guy. Heck, I wouldn't shell out more than $5M, and that's even a bit of a stretch. Not that anyone else on the roster is as "good" as Taylor, but they aren't significantly worse. The D will survive without him.

Walker: Wow, Taylor is right. Sometimes he gets little respect. Taylor is not an elite corner, but neither is Routt. As you mentioned, $8-$10 million seems to be the going rate for solid starting cornerbacks, and Taylor is in that group. I don’t believe the Steelers will fork over that kind of money, and if Taylor can get market value somewhere else, I expect him to take it.

Mike from Cincinnati writes: Just curious if you have seen what the Bengals have dubbed the "Who Dey Perspective"? It seems like a feeble and pathetic attempt by the organization to try an combat negative public opinion by sugar coating everything that fans view as negative. I find it in poor taste, and feel it is ridiculous that a team with the reputation of the Cincinnati Bengals think this is acceptable. What do you think?

Walker: Mike, I’ve read most or all of the "Who Dey Perspective" posts on the Bengals' team site and I don't think it's a bad idea. Cincinnati gets a lot of bad press here and elsewhere for its shaky decisions and regularly putting a poor product on the field. So if the Bengals want to give their side to the story, I think that’s fine. At the end of the day it’s up to the public to believe what it wants to believe.

Ben B writes: "A compelling case"? No. There is no compelling case for ditching your team for their big rivals unless you have no idea what it means to be a sports fan. You can't take someone's musical opinions seriously if every week their all-time favorite band is whoever is No. 1. Likewise, a true sports fan doesn't change with the tides. A compelling case? Nonsense.

Walker: Ben, I'm not arguing for Brett Kostoff to give up his fandom. In fact, I've said numerous times in the AFC North blog that Bengals and Browns fans shouldn't give up on their teams. All I said was Kostoff made a compelling case to explain why he gave up on the Bengals. By the way, the only reason he's a Steelers fan is that was the highest bidder on eBay. Kostoff could have easily been a Lions or Seahawks fan.

Homer of the Week

Our "Homer of the Week" comes from the NFC East. We have a big fan of Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, who didn't appreciate our recent comments on Romo getting too much hype with little results.

Foster from Chicago writes: Not quite sure what all the hate against Tony Romo is but it is definitely not appreciated. How can you not have respect for ANY player who comes out of being an undrafted free agent to become a starter? That takes A LOT of hard work. I would take Romo over any QB the AFCN has to offer. He's more consistent than Big Ben, he can carry a team better than Flacco and unlike Palmer, he has a playoff win. If Romo had an offensive line I feel like we'd be singing a different song.

Walker: Is my friend, former NFC East blogger Matt Mosley, playing a prank on me? I need to give him a call this weekend to make sure. Foster, you really think Romo is better than every AFC North quarterback, including Roethlisberger, who has been to three Super Bowls? Romo is a good quarterback but one playoff win does not make him elite. Flacco already has four in a shorter time frame, and he's not elite, either. Romo has had offensive lines in the past. He also currently has one of best supporting cast of skill players in the NFL. Dallas has three starting-caliber running backs, the best tight end in football and explosive receivers. Until I see the results match the enormous hype Romo receives for playing in Dallas, I will continue to say it doesn't add up.

Hater of the Week

Also, in an effort to evolve in the AFC North blog, we added a new feature to our weekend mailbag. Occasionally, we get some hate mail in our division inbox. So in addition to the AFC North "Homer of the Week," we will do an AFC North "Hater of the Week" when warranted.


Dan from Mexico writes: What is your obsession with Ben Roethlisburger and Troy Polamalu? First off, Troy is no doubt a great player and future Hall of Famer. However he was done last year and there's no denying it. Peter King's list is of the 50 best current players. As it looks, Troy is slowing down, with the injuries and his physical play. I saw him get burned numerous times last year. Ben on the other hand is highly overrated. His defense won each championship for him. Yeah, he's a good player. Are there 40 players better than him? I could name 50 maybe even 60. Colt McCoy could win a Super Bowl with that defense behind him.

Walker: Dan, congrats on being our first "Hater of the Week" in the AFC North blog. I find it strange how the reigning Defensive Player of the Year could be "done" in the same season. Polamalu had an Achilles injury that hurt his performance in the playoffs. But for his play in the regular season Polamalu, was voted the NFL's best defensive player. Also, I challenge you, Dan, to stay true to your word and email me 50-60 current players better than Roethlisberger. If you're up for it, we will run your list in the AFC North blog next week and leave it up to our community to decide if it's valid or you're blowing smoke.

If you have any future questions, complaints, homer or hater comments, feel free to send them to our AFC North inbox.