AFC North team evaluations

December, 30, 2008
12/30/08
2:44
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Baltimore Ravens (11-5)
The Baltimore Ravens turned out to be one of the biggest surprises in the NFL by posting 11 wins and making the playoffs as a wild card. Not much was expected of the Ravens after a downtrodden and injury-riddled 2007. But the Ravens are back and in the playoffs, starting with Sunday's game against the Miami Dolphins. With a stout defense and an improving offense, Baltimore has a puncher's chance to make a run in January. Grade: A-

Biggest surprise: If it were not for the equally impressive development of Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, rookie quarterback Joe Flacco would receive a lot more credit on a league-wide scale for helping turn the Ravens from a 5-11 team in 2007 to 11-5. Flacco joined a rookie head coach in John Harbaugh to post a double-digit winning season, an amazing feat. These two came to Baltimore in the same year and expect to be linked together for quite some time.

Biggest disappointment: The only blemishes for the Ravens were their inability to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in two tries. That is the difference between a first-round bye and fighting through the postseason on the road as a wild-card team. Baltimore lost those two games by a combined total of seven points.

Biggest need: After 12 years of existence, the Ravens have finally found their long-term solution at quarterback. Now it's time to build the offense around the attributes of their young signal-caller. Flacco has a strong arm but lacks the necessary deep threats. Derrick Mason is a terrific possession receiver but not a speed burner. Mark Clayton can be that player, but his production has not been consistent over 16 games. With bruising backs and a solid, young offensive line, a dynamic wideout and depth at the position are all the offense needs to take it to the next level.

Prospect for '09: Promising. The Ravens are looking solid for next year as long as they're able to retain their own free agents. Linebackers Ray Lewis, Bart Scott and Terrell Suggs are terrific players who are scheduled to hit the open market this offseason. General manager Ozzie Newsome has some huge decisions to make in that regard, as these three players will take up a lot of available cap room. As mentioned earlier, look for Baltimore to add some depth at receiver and perhaps a cornerback through the draft and free agency. If the Ravens continue to build and make the right moves, they could develop into a strong title contender in 2009.

Cincinnati Bengals (4-11-1)
The Cincinnati Bengals' 2008 season was doomed from the start. The major offseason story lines included the arrests of receiver Chris Henry and linebacker Odell Thurman, numerous trade demands from Chad Ocho Cinco, and the eventual cutting and re-signing of Henry before the team ever played its first game in the regular season. Things didn't go much better once the season started. Cincinnati lost franchise quarterback Carson Palmer to an elbow injury that kept him out of 12 games. The only good news is the team finished the year relatively strong. Grade: D+

Biggest surprise: Bengals receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh played without Palmer for most of the season and still had 92 receptions for 904 yards. That feat is even more impressive than last year's 112-catch year because a majority of Houshmandzadeh's catches in 2008 came from backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. Houshmandzadeh, an unrestricted free agent, will certainly cash in this offseason with the Bengals or another team.

Biggest disappointment: Ocho Cinco had arguably the worst season of his career for Cincinnati with 53 receptions for 540 yards. It started with the aforementioned trade demands in the offseason, then he needed ankle surgery in July, suffered a preseason shoulder injury in August, and had a poor statistical year this fall. Ocho Cinco also was deactivated and sent home for "conduct detrimental to the team" before his Week 12 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Bengals need to figure out if it's worth keeping Ocho Cinco around or cutting ties moving forward.

Biggest need: The Bengals need a stellar draft, whi
ch is something they haven't had in a long time. Last year the team selected 10 rookies and only first-round pick Keith Rivers was consistently productive before breaking his jaw in Week 7. Cincinnati is not a team that spends a lot of money in free agency. That approach is fine as long as you know what you're doing every year in the draft. The Bengals oftentimes do not and it's created a downward spiral that is hard to overcome. Let's see if this team can nail the draft in 2009.

Prospects for '09: Poor. Despite finishing the season on a three-game winning streak, the Bengals still need help. About the only sure thing this organization has is a franchise quarterback, and even Palmer is coming off an injury to his throwing elbow. It's time for Cincinnati to stop holding onto the past with players such as Houshmandzadeh, Ocho Cinco and Levi Jones. Those vets and career Bengals will be more productive somewhere else. Cincinnati needs to see if it can build a new core in the next 2-3 years to make one more run with Palmer, 29, before it's too late.

Cleveland Browns (4-12)
The Browns spent the past four years building the team to make a run this season. Yet it all came crashing down in the worst way. Cleveland suffered its third double-digit losing season in four years in 2008. Coming off a 10-6 campaign in 2007, the Browns entered the year with playoff expectations. Instead, they were one of the biggest disappointments in the NFL this season and now the team is unsure of its future. Grade: F

Biggest surprise: The Browns throttled the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants 35-14 in Week 6 on "Monday Night Football." That performance had people shaking their heads and wondering whether that was the real 2008 Cleveland team or simply an off night for the Giants. By the end of the year, everyone had the answer.

Biggest disappointment: Neither Brady Quinn nor Derek Anderson took hold of the quarterback position this season. The Browns are calling Quinn the franchise signal-caller of the present and future, but did he really instill a high level of confidence? He was 1-2 as a starter with two touchdowns, two interceptions, and he was benched in his final game. Quinn also is coming off season-ending finger surgery on his throwing hand. Anderson, coming off a Pro Bowl season, was expected to build off last year and, at the very least, increase his trade value. But an inconsistent season hurt the Browns in both performance and the trade market next year.

Biggest need: The Browns are in need of a culture change. Neither the players, coaches nor the front office are happy with the ways things have gone in Cleveland. Cleveland has major chemistry and philosophical issues that needs to be worked out before this team develops into a consistent winner. Browns owner Randy Lerner said everything is up for review, and he's already started by firing former general manager Phil Savage and head coach Romeo Crennel.

Prospects for '09: Murky. Last year's 10-6 run is looking like a fluke. It's very doubtful this team can consistently compete in the AFC North with the likes of the Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers. This also puts the Browns in an odd spot. Do they try to trade players such as Anderson, tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. and receiver Braylon Edwards in an effort to start over? That will certainly set the Browns back another couple of years. Or do they keep these key players who nearly led the Browns to the playoffs and try for another run next season? A case can be made either way. But, without a doubt, it will be an interesting offseason in Cleveland.

Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)
The Steelers have posted double-digit wins for the fourth time in five years and have a legitimate shot to win a Super Bowl for the second time since the 2005 season. Stability is the key in Pittsburgh. Despite a relatively new head coach in Mike Tomlin, the Steelers have rallied around him with the same toughness and winning mentality they've always had. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has dealt with injuries all year to keep the offense afloat, and he hopes to return for the playoffs. Pittsburgh's defense is tops in the NFL. Grade: A-

Biggest surprise: The Steelers overcoming injuries and adversity to master the NFL's toughest strength of schedule. Pittsburgh was expected to face heavy competition within the division. The Ravens were strong contenders and the Browns were expected to be much tougher, but Pittsburgh fended off all challengers to go 6-0 in the division, winning its second straight AFC North title and clinching the No. 2 seed in the playoffs. Most experts predicted Pittsburgh would win just nine or 10 games.

Biggest disappointment: When punter Daniel Sepulveda went down with a knee injury in training camp, most people didn't think it was a big deal. But Pittsburgh's punting has been inconsistent, although it's stellar defense masked that issue. Rest assured, the Steelers
will appreciate Sepulveda's return to training camp next year.

Biggest need: The offensive line has been Pittsburgh's only consistent and glaring weakness the past few seasons, and it's time the Steelers finally address that need. Pittsburgh passed on several quality offensive linemen on the first day of the draft last year, and it would be shocking if the team did it for the second year in a row. Left tackle Marvel Smith has back issues and likely will leave as a free agent. Max Starks was given the transition tag and his future in Pittsburgh remains uncertain, as well.

Prospects for '09: Tremendous. The Steelers know how to build a team from within. They have a franchise quarterback, depth at nearly every position, and a core on defense that will be good for years to come. If this year's rookie class -- with players such as tailback Rashard Mendenhall and receiver Limas Sweed -- develop in their second year, Pittsburgh will be golden. Add another draft class and a couple of solid hits in free agency, and the Steelers will be primed to make another Super Bowl run in 2009.

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