AFC North: The Big Question AFC

NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Can the defending AFC North champion Cincinnati Bengals overcome a first-place schedule to duplicate last year's success?

[+] EnlargeMarvin Lewis
Frank Victores/US PresswireCan Marvin Lewis coach the Bengals through a first-place schedule?
Coming off a division title and their first playoff appearance in four years, the Cincinnati Bengals have even higher expectations in 2010. But to repeat a run to the postseason, Cincinnati will have to accomplish the feat against a brutal first-place schedule.

Will the Bengals hold up against the NFL's elite?

Cincinnati has the league's fourth-toughest strength of schedule this season and will play 10 games against opponents that had winning records a year ago. Four will be within the AFC North division against the Baltimore Ravens (9-7) and Pittsburgh Steelers (9-7).

On paper, this is the deepest and most talented team head coach Marvin Lewis has had in eight seasons in Cincinnati. The defense was ranked No. 4 last season, and the offense added weapons to the passing game to balance its already stout rushing attack.

By all accounts, the Bengals appear to have better chemistry than the 2005 playoff team. That group tasted one year of success and unraveled. Cincinnati suffered through three consecutive non-winning seasons from 2006-08, before finally turning it around last year.

"First and foremost, the teams are totally different," Bengals captain and offensive guard Bobbie Williams said recently. "The maturity on this team, even though it's a younger team, is phenomenal. Guys are way more focused, more hungry and way more professional. The hunger never dies. So it's totally different."

It has been well-documented that the Bengals haven't had back-to-back winning seasons in 28 years. The talent is there to end Cincinnati's streak, but a first-place schedule could be the team's biggest hurdle.

NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

After recent charges of allegedly punching a bar worker, will Cincinnati Bengals tailback Cedric Benson be suspended this season?

At the conclusion of last month's mandatory minicamp, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis praised his team for having a quality -- and quiet -- offseason.

Cedric Benson
John Sommers II/Getty ImagesThen Bengals were having a quiet offseason until Cedric Benson allegedly punched a bar employee.
Lewis lauded the strong participation and how there weren't the distractions many other teams faced around the NFL. In Cincinnati's division alone, the Pittsburgh Steelers have had to deal with Ben Roethlisberger's suspension, the Baltimore Ravens had the Jared Gaither saga, and there were several unhappy restricted free agents with the Cleveland Browns.

But last week that silence ended with charges against Benson, who allegedly punched a bar worker in Austin, Texas, following a barroom brawl. These charges bring into question whether Cincinnati's leading rusher will face a suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy.

Right now it's too early to provide a definitive answer, because the details are unclear. Benson was not charged until nearly a month after the incident.

That this isn't Benson's first run-in with law enforcement is probably the biggest factor working against him. Benson has had two previous incidents while in the NFL. Charges were cleared in both cases, but a third incident -- while Benson is on the league's "watch list" -- is never a good thing in the eyes of commissioner Roger Goodell.

Another issue: Why didn't Benson report the incident to the NFL and the Bengals in May when it first occurred? According to Benson's lawyer, David Cornwell (who also represents Roethlisberger), Benson called Lewis and the commissioner's office only after his release from jail on June 29.

Interestingly, Benson's representatives recently approached Cincinnati about a contract extension. The Bengals were open to the idea, in all likelihood without knowing about Benson's alleged altercation. Expect those talks to be put on ice until the legal system runs its course.

After getting through minicamp and organized team activities without incident, expect Benson's legal situation to be the biggest story facing the Bengals heading into training camp.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

With Ben Roethlisberger serving a conditional six-game suspension, will Pittsburgh Steelers third-year quarterback Dennis Dixon get a fair shot to win the starting job?

[+] EnlargeDixon
James Lang/US PresswireDennis Dixon will compete with Byron Leftwich for the starting quarterback spot while Ben Roethlisberger serves his suspension.
If there's a quarterback competition going on in Pittsburgh, the Steelers have an odd way of showing it.

Byron Leftwich received a majority of the first-team reps this offseason. Roethlisberger also got some first-team reps when he returned late for organized team activities.

Meanwhile, Dixon -- last year's No. 2 quarterback -- is being iced out. He was relegated exclusively to the second team this spring, making Pittsburgh's quarterback competition appear anything but "open."

Is there a reason Leftwich has dominated the first-team reps? Does Dixon have a realistic chance to earn the starting job in Week 1? If Dixon is to get a fair shot, it will have to come in training camp and the preseason.

The Steelers have a culture of making young players earn their keep, and Dixon is no different.

With a decent performance on the road last year against the Baltimore Ravens, many thought Dixon could be the favorite to be under center for Pittsburgh in September. He accounted for two touchdowns (one passing, one rushing) in a 20-17 overtime loss to the Ravens. But the Steelers aren't letting Dixon get comfortable with his moderate success.

Coming off a chaotic offseason, perhaps Pittsburgh feels more comfortable with a stable veteran at quarterback. Leftwich knows the offense well and filled in admirably for Roethlisberger during the Steelers' last Super Bowl run in 2008.

Leftwich may very well be the best option for Pittsburgh. But Dixon at least deserves a fair chance this summer to prove otherwise.

Big Question: Ravens hype

June, 22, 2010
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Coming off a 9-7 season, will the Baltimore Ravens live up to the immense preseason hype in 2010?

The frown on Chad Ochocinco's face told the story last week. The Cincinnati Bengals' receiver couldn't understand all the preseason hoopla surrounding Baltimore.

"The Ravens?" Ochocinco said. "I mean, what have they done?"

[+] EnlargeAnquan Boldin
AP Photo/Gail BurtonThe addition of Anquan Boldin has raised expectations in Baltimore.
To Ochocinco's point, it was the Bengals who dominated the AFC North last season. Cincinnati swept Baltimore in two games on its way to a division title. The Ravens underachieved in the regular season but won a road playoff game against the New England Patriots to advance to the divisional round.

Suddenly expectations are sky high for the Ravens, who seem to have the right ingredients to be successful. Quarterback Joe Flacco is improving in his third season, Baltimore traded for three-time Pro Bowl receiver Anquan Boldin, and a strong draft added depth to key areas.

Some power rankings now have the Ravens rated among the top three teams in the NFL, and nearly all project Baltimore to win the AFC North.

Is the Ravens' hype premature? Or as Ochocinco recently implied, is it undeserved?

“We got better than them," Ochocinco said in defense of the Bengals. "They're not better than us.”

Overexposure could be a cause for concern. Traditionally, Baltimore plays better as the underdog, not as the favorite.

Most recently, the Ravens had modest expectations in 2008 with a rookie quarterback and advanced to the AFC Championship Game. Last season, some experts picked Baltimore as a possible Super Bowl contender, and the team finished 9-7 and lost in the divisional round.

How the Ravens handle preseason expectations will be important this year. Ochocinco isn't on Baltimore's bandwagon, but a lot of people are.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Will quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's conditional six-game suspension cost the Pittsburgh Steelers a playoff berth?

[+] EnlargeBen Roethlisberger
Jared Wickerham/Getty ImagesThe Steelers need to perform well in quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's absence if they hope to make the postseason.
On paper, the Steelers are as talented, deep and experienced as any team in the NFL. They have Pro Bowlers on offense and defense and nearly all their starters are back and healthy from their Super Bowl run two years ago.

But there's one huge concern: Roethlisberger will miss up to six games this season for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy. The punishment can be reduced to four games if the embattled quarterback stays out of trouble. But that may be enough to dash Pittsburgh's hopes of getting back to the postseason after missing the playoffs in 2009.

Backup quarterback Byron Leftwich or Dennis Dixon will run the Steelers' offense during Roethlisberger's suspension. Pittsburgh is guaranteed to play without Roethlisberger against the Atlanta Falcons, Tennessee Titans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Baltimore Ravens in the first four games. If the suspension is six games, Roethlisberger also will miss games against the Cleveland Browns and Miami Dolphins.

The Steelers must play at least .500 football during Roethlisberger's suspension to have a good chance at the postseason. But if the Steelers fall below that, they will have to play nearly perfectly the rest of the way to earn a playoff spot, and that will put a lot of pressure on "Big Ben" when he returns.

Atlanta, Tampa Bay and Tennessee were all non-playoff teams a year ago. The Baltimore game will be the toughest, but the Steelers-Ravens rivalry is always close, no matter the records. Last year, with Roethlisberger sidelined by a concussion, the Ravens needed overtime at home to edge the Dixon-led Steelers, 20-17.

Playing in the AFC North won't be easy this year. Baltimore and the reigning division champion Cincinnati Bengals are playoff contenders, and the Browns are also expected to improve. But Pittsburgh must win without its most important player for the first month so the suspension won't ruin the entire season.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Will new kicker Shayne Graham be clutch for the Baltimore Ravens this season?

[+] EnlargeShayne Graham
AP Photo/David Kohl Graham missed two field goals in Cincinnati's playoff loss to the Jets.
Statistically speaking, Graham is money when it comes to making field goals. He has connected on 85.2 percent of his kicks during his nine-year career, which puts him among the all-time accuracy leaders.

But it's not the routine kicks that are a problem for Graham. It's the clutch field goals he missed during his tenure with the Cincinnati Bengals that could be a cause for concern.

If the Ravens turn out to be as good as most -- including the AFC North blog -- expect in 2010, Graham will get plenty of opportunities to make big kicks this season. If Graham beats out incumbent kicker Billy Cundiff, the Ravens have to hope Graham's big misses of the past won't follow him in the future.

Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis recently hinted that Graham may be haunted by his "demons." Perhaps that term is a bit strong. But Graham failed to come through in several big spots with Cincinnati:

  • On Jan. 9, 2010, Graham missed two field goals in a 24-14 playoff loss to the New York Jets.
  • On Nov. 22, 2009, Graham missed a 37-yard field goal in a 20-17 loss to the Oakland Raiders.
  • On Nov 16, 2008, Graham missed a 47-yard kick at the end of overtime in a 13-13 tie with the Philadelphia Eagles.
  • On Dec. 31, 2006, Graham missed a potential game-winning field goal at the end of regulation in a 23-17 overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. A win would have put the Bengals in the playoffs.

Graham has to prove that his shaky performance with the Bengals during close games is a thing of the past and he will have to do it this year in a different uniform.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Is Cleveland Browns receiver Brian Robiskie ready to start in his second year?

[+] EnlargeBrian Robiskie
Aaron Josefczyk/Icon SMIBrian Robiskie caught just seven passes during his rookie season in 2009.
The opportunity for playing time has never been more wide open for Robiskie. The Browns are in search of another starting-caliber receiver opposite Mohamed Massaquoi, and Cleveland is hoping Robiskie develops into that player this season.

Like Massaquoi, Robiskie was taken in the second round in 2009. But unlike Massaquoi, Robiskie didn't show much in his rookie year. The former Ohio State product struggled and barely saw the field until late in the season. Robiskie finished the year with only seven catches for 106 yards.

But growth for Robiskie is already evident this year in offseason workouts. He has been impressive early and is showing the ability to make plays at the next level. Cleveland is hoping Robiskie can carry that momentum into training camp and eventually earn a significant role in the offense this summer.

A possible starting group of Massaquoi and Robiskie could potentially be the youngest receiver tandem in the NFL this season. Veteran quarterback Jake Delhomme should help develop these inexperienced players, but it will be a work in progress.

Cleveland also continues to keep its options open with possibly adding a veteran receiver to the mix (Patrick Crayton, anyone?). But Robiskie's steady performance in organized team activities is one reason the Browns have stayed put so far with what they have.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Does participating in five preseason games impact regular-season success?

Brad from Atlanta sent an interesting thought to our AFC North inbox. He wondered if the Hall of Fame game had a positive or negative impact on teams in the regular season.

Because of the risk of injuries, there is some debate whether it is fair to ask only two NFL teams to play five exhibition games during the summer, while the other 30 teams play four preseason games. But the Hall of Fame game has a rich history, and it is an honor to represent the league in the first preseason game of the year.

On Aug. 8, the Cincinnati Bengals will play the Dallas Cowboys in Canton, Ohio. Cincinnati wanted to participate in this game for years because of the deep connection between Bengals founder Paul Brown and northern Ohio. Also, Dallas has Cowboys great Emmitt Smith being inducted in what should be a tremendous, weeklong celebration for its franchise.

On the field, there hasn't been any significant impact one way or the other with teams playing a fifth preseason game. The overall record of the last 10 Hall of Fame game participants is 83-77, which is slightly above .500. Five of those teams had winning records, three had losing records and two finished 8-8.

That means Bengals and Cowboys fans shouldn't worry. If they have a good team, like the 2008 Indianapolis Colts and 2007 Pittsburgh Steelers, the latest Hall of Fame game participants will make the playoffs this year. If they don't have a good team, like the 2009 Buffalo Bills, the postseason won't be in their future.

But there's no statistical proof that playing an additional preseason game will cause Dallas or Cincinnati to have a poor season.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Will the Pittsburgh Steelers offer outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley a contract extension before the start of the 2010 season?

[+] EnlargeLaMarr Woodley
Rich Gabrielson/Icon SMILaMarr Woodley was one of the best bargains in the NFL last season, collecting 13.5 sacks while making $460,000.
Coming off a Pro Bowl year in 2009, there is little debate that Woodley has outperformed his rookie contract. He led the Steelers with 13.5 sacks while making $460,000 last season.

But new rules during the NFL’s uncapped year have made things very complicated for Woodley and the Steelers. The league’s 30 percent rule is the biggest hurdle for Pittsburgh to work out a pay raise for Woodley, as it is for several other quality players around the league who are nearing the end of their deals.

By rule, Woodley can make a maximum salary of $598,000 in 2010, which is a 30 percent increase over last season. The subsequent salaries could go up only 30 percent each year during the life of the contract. That means a substantial bulk of a multiyear deal would have to go into bonuses, forcing both parties to get extremely creative for Woodley to get fair market value.

Things have been quiet on the Steelers’ front. So far there has been no substantial movement from the team to negotiate a new deal with Woodley. Pittsburgh also drafted three linebackers in the first five rounds last month to groom for the future. But that probably has more to do with James Harrison, 32, than it does Woodley, 25, who is entering his prime.

Pro Bowl linebacker Patrick Willis recently proved that it’s not impossible to get around the 30 percent rule. He signed a five-year, $50 million contract extension with the San Francisco 49ers. The difference is San Francisco had more to work with in terms of base salary, because Willis is a former No. 11 overall pick. Woodley was a second-rounder.

Former second-round pick Kevin Kolb also worked out a one-year, $12 million deal with the Philadelphia Eagles that was heavy in bonuses. Pittsburgh probably prefers to go the multiyear route with Woodley.

But it remains to be seen whether the Steelers are willing to work out a new deal this year. The franchise’s primary focus this offseason is to get star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger back on track. Couple that with the 30 percent rule, and to date Pittsburgh hasn’t given Woodley’s situation a lot of attention.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

What are realistic expectations for controversial Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Adam "Pacman" Jones, who was inactive in 2009?

On one hand, the Bengals recently added a talented former first-round pick at cornerback who's known for his return skills. But on the other hand, Cincinnati also added a player with a checkered past who hasn't played in the NFL since 2008.

[+] EnlargePacman Jones
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesAdam "Pacman" Jones hasn't played since 2008.
Welcome to the enigma of Adam "Pacman" Jones.

The Bengals signed the embattled cornerback to a two-year deal. But there is no way to know exactly what Cincinnati is getting next season.

Jones could quickly develop into the athletic, No. 3 cornerback the Bengals are hoping for. If that's the case, Jones would provide an immediate impact by filling a void in the secondary for the reigning AFC North champs. Cincinnati's defense struggled covering slot receivers last year.

But Jones' history also suggests that, potentially, he could become a distraction for the Bengals. Rust also will be an issue. Cincinnati is trying to make the jump to being a legitimate contender in the AFC and can't afford any problems.

The "Pacman" Jones experiment didn't work for the Tennessee Titans and Dallas Cowboys. Both franchises tried, then eventually felt he wasn't worth the headache and moved on.

Now it's the Bengals' turn, and they're hoping for different results.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Will the Cleveland Browns have enough patience to successfully groom rookie quarterback Colt McCoy?

When it comes to quarterbacks, patience certainly is not a virtue in Cleveland.

[+] EnlargeColt McCoy
AP Photo/Amy SancettaColt McCoy is expected to start the season No. 3 on the quarterback depth chart.
It's a city that is desperate for a championship and a franchise quarterback to call its own. It's been 17 years since Bernie Kosar last donned a Browns uniform. Cleveland fans have been quick to anoint the Browns' next franchise quarterback, only to be disappointed.

Often the Browns' organization followed suit by rushing quarterbacks onto the field and usually without much of a supporting cast.

For example, Tim Couch was a No. 1 overall pick after the Browns returned to the NFL in 1999. He played 15 games his rookie year and spent that season -- and most of his career -- taking a pounding for an expansion franchise. Thus, Couch never had the chance to fully blossom as an NFL quarterback thanks to various injuries he suffered.

Kelly Holcomb, Charlie Frye, Derek Anderson and most recently Brady Quinn all followed and were among the young players who were shuffled in and out of Cleveland’s revolving door at quarterback. The team never established a consistent direction at the league's most important position.

This brings us to McCoy -- this year's highly publicized third-round pick. He is the next young quarterback to generate hope and a significant buzz in northeast Ohio.

Ideally, Browns president Mike Holmgren wants to wait a year, maybe two, before McCoy sees the field. But the second veteran starter Jake Delhomme struggles with a multi-interception game, there will be pressure in Cleveland to see what McCoy can do. Yet Seneca Wallace, not McCoy, is currently No. 2 on the depth chart if Delhomme falters.

In the past decade, few NFL franchises have failed more at grooming a long-term solution at quarterback than the Browns. That is why it's important for the team to stick to its plan and let McCoy learn from the sidelines in 2010 -- no matter what happens with the quarterbacks in front of him.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Will the Cleveland Browns go with a rookie starting safety this season?

Rarely is an NFL coach stumped by a football question.

But after the Browns took cornerback Joe Haden in the first round of the NFL draft, coach Eric Mangini was quizzed on his starting safeties, which caused some hesitation.

[+] EnlargeT.J. Ward
Chris Williams/Icon SMIThe Browns hope T.J. Ward can step in and be a starter at safety.
"It's a ways away," Mangini said. "So I can't really say that definitively right now."

Over the next two days, the Browns drafted a pair of safeties -- T.J. Ward of Oregon and Larry Asante of Nebraska. The Browns are hoping one of these players matures quickly and earns a starting role this season alongside veteran Abram Elam.

Safety was arguably Cleveland's biggest need entering the draft. It was a major reason many projected Eric Berry or Earl Thomas to land with the Browns in the first round.

Berry was a target for Cleveland at No. 7. But when he went off the board at No. 5 to the Kansas City Chiefs, the Browns turned their attention to Haden. It also forced Cleveland to look very hard at safeties in the second round.

Some draft experts felt the team reached for Ward at No. 38. But Ward was a player the Browns really liked.

"When I looked at him and spent time with him he reminded me a lot of Lawyer Milloy," Mangini said. "I think he's got outstanding instincts in the running game. He’s one of these guys that can navigate through traffic and it's almost like the blockers don't exist. Very rarely does he miss tackles."

The Browns selected Asante in the fifth round. He has similar skills to Ward in terms of being an aggressive hitter at safety. Right now, Ward is the favorite to be the Week 1 starter. But both rookies will have plenty of opportunities to impress Cleveland's coaching staff in training camp.

"Just like with the other guys, he will battle at safety for playing time," Browns general manager Tom Heckert said of Asante. "We do think he is a good player. He played at a big-time level of competition, which is always a nice thing to have."

With opposing quarterbacks on the schedule such as Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Joe Flacco, Ben Roethlisberger and Carson Palmer, the Browns need at least one of these rookie safeties to be fast learners.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

With a suspension of star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger looming, how difficult will the Pittsburgh Steelers' September schedule be?

[+] EnlargeBen Roethlisberger
Jerry Lai/US PresswireThe Steelers are waiting to hear from the NFL about a punishment for Ben Roethlisberger.
Courtesy of Roethlisberger's off-the-field misconduct, the Steelers are currently at the mercy of the NFL in so many ways. Not only are they awaiting word on a likely suspension of their starting quarterback, but the Steelers also have to hope for the most lenient September schedule possible.

Pittsburgh will get one answer Tuesday night when the league releases its 2010 regular-season schedule at 7 p.m. ET. The Steelers and the rest of the league will be keeping close tabs on whom Pittsburgh faces to start the season.

The Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals would be very fortunate (happy?) if the NFL scheduled September divisional games for Pittsburgh. The AFC North is expected to be very competitive this year, and the Steelers' rivals could get a head start by beating a weakened Pittsburgh team.

Fortunately for the Steelers, their strength of schedule is only rated No. 21 this year. So there's ample opportunity to get winnable September games.

Many project Roethlisberger's suspension to be in the range of two to four games. Perhaps Pittsburgh could have a shot without him against rebuilding teams such as the Buffalo Bills, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Oakland Raiders and maybe Cleveland. But the league also could pit the Steelers against 2010 opponents such as Baltimore, Cincinnati, the New England Patriots and the reigning Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints.

Either way, every game is going to be tough for Pittsburgh to win without Roethlisberger.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Will the Cincinnati Bengals reach a long-term contract extension with coach Marvin Lewis before his deal runs out in 2010?

Frank Victores-US PRESSWIREBengals coach Marvin Lewis is only signed through 2010.
Contract extension or no contract extension?

It's somewhat bizarre that Lewis, in the final year of his contract, hasn't had his deal extended.

According to the 2009 NFL Coach of the Year, the Bengals approached him twice -- once in October and once in January -- about working out a new deal. Yet, both times the sides failed to reach an agreement.

Cincinnati's willingness to come to the negotiating table makes it clear the Bengals are interested in keeping Lewis beyond the 2010 season. But there is an interesting power struggle going on in Cincinnati behind the scenes.

The Bengals do not have a traditional front-office setup. It's been a constant battle over the years between Lewis, his coaching staff and team ownership, led by Mike Brown, over personnel decisions, philosophies and how to maintain a winning culture.

Lewis arguably had the best season of his career in 2009, which should provide leverage. But Brown is known as a very tough negotiator, which has led to this current standstill.

The AFC North blog talked to several league insiders at the NFL combine about this topic, and a majority believe Lewis would be a valued commodity if he became a coaching free agent next offseason.