Pittsburgh Steelers: Joe Haden

A look at the AFC North

January, 7, 2014
Jan 7
11:00
AM ET
The lone AFC North team in the playoffs made another early exit Sunday when the No. 3 Bengals lost to the No. 6 Chargers, 27-10, at Paul Brown Stadium. With all four division teams now in offseason mode, here is a quick look at them by order of finish in the AFC North.

Cincinnati Bengals

2013 record: 11-5, 3-3 in division

Key free agents: DE Michael Johnson, OT Anthony Collins

Biggest question: Have coach Marvin Lewis and quarterback Andy Dalton taken the Bengals as far as they can?

Biggest reason for hope: Despite losing in the wild-card round of the playoffs for the third consecutive season, the Bengals have a very good nucleus. Rookie Giovani Bernard showed enough to think his time splitting carries with the plodding BenJarvus Green-Ellis is over.

Why they might disappoint: Dalton has faltered too many times in big games to think he can take the next step, and just making the playoffs is no longer good enough in Cincinnati.

Overall state of the franchise: The Bengals find themselves at a crossroads, but they have little choice but to stick with Dalton -- for now -- unless they want to draft a quarterback in the first round and hand over a veteran team to him.

Pittsburgh Steelers

2013 record: 8-8, 4-2

Key free agents: OLB Jason Worilds, WR Emmanuel Sanders

Biggest question: Will the Steelers re-establish themselves as Super Bowl contenders while re-tooling their defense?

Biggest reason for hope: The offense will be able to mask some of the issues the Steelers have on defense if it builds on its strong second half of the 2013 season.

Why they might disappoint: The defense could get worse before it gets better if younger players don’t emerge in the secondary and Worilds signs elsewhere.

Overall state of the franchise: The Steelers are facing a lot of uncertainty, but a 6-2 finish and the way the offense has come together point to them returning to postseason play in 2014 after missing the playoffs in consecutive seasons.

Baltimore Ravens

2013 record: 8-8, 3-3

Key free agents: TE Dennis Pitta, LB Daryl Smith

Biggest question: Did the Ravens suffer through the dreaded Super Bowl hangover or are they in decline?

Biggest reason for hope: Joe Flacco is a franchise quarterback, and there is still plenty of talent on both sides of the ball.

Why they might disappoint: The Ravens, like the Steelers, are clearly in transition on defense. Two cornerstones of that defense -- outside linebacker Terrell Suggs and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata -- no longer dominate on a consistent basis.

Overall state of the franchise: Ozzie Newsome and John Harbaugh are as good as any general manager-coach tandem in the NFL, and they have to be given the benefit of the doubt even though the Ravens slipped this season.

Cleveland Browns

2013 record: 4-12, 2-4

Key free agents: C Alex Mack, S T.J. Ward

Biggest question: Will a new coach and a quarterback finally stabilize an organization that has floundered, often spectacularly, since the NFL returned to Cleveland in 1999?

Biggest reason for hope: There are some pieces in place, most notably wide receiver Josh Gordon, cornerback Joe Haden and left tackle Joe Thomas, and the Browns have a pair of first-round picks, including the fourth overall selection.

Why they may disappoint: Tim Couch, Brady Quinn and Brandon Weeden are the quarterbacks the Browns have drafted in the first round since 1999. Why should Browns fans think they will get it right in this draft?

Overall state of the franchise: The Browns dumped coach Rob Chudzinski after just one season, and unless they find the right replacement and, oh yeah, a quarterback in the draft, the Browns will continue to bottom feed in the AFC North.
ESPN.com is continuing to reveal its list of the top 100 NFL players. Here are the players from the division that landed in spots 31-40 for offense and defense:

OFFENSE

40. Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens quarterback: He's never thrown for over 4,000 yards or 25 touchdowns. But, since 2008, Flacco has won 63 games (including playoffs), which is six more than anyone else in the league.

DEFENSE

33. Troy Polamalu, Pittsburgh Steelers safety: Injuries have forced him to miss 22 games over the past four seasons. He does, however, look like his old self this preseason.

34. Joe Haden, Cleveland Browns cornerback: He's the highest-ranked cornerback in the AFC North, and he deserves to be. He has broken up 37 passes in his first two seasons and has held his own against some of the best receivers in the NFL, from Larry Fitzgerald to Brandon Marshall. His biggest challenge has been A.J. Green.

35. LaMarr Woodley, Steelers linebacker: He looked like the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in the first half of the 2011 season. But a hamstring injury derailed him. Woodley has four sacks in the past 13 games that he's played.

Here's a review of the AFC North players who have already made the ESPN.com list:

OFFENSE

53. Marshal Yanda, Ravens guard

54. Maurkice Pouncey, Steelers center

63. Torrey Smith, Ravens wide receiver

84. Trent Richardson, Browns running back

90. Andrew Whitworth, Cincinnati Bengals offensive tackle

91. Heath Miller, Steelers tight end

95. Antonio Brown, Steelers wide receiver

DEFENSE

50. Lardarius Webb, Ravens cornerback

54. Ryan Clark, Steelers safety

62. Lawrence Timmons, Steelers linebacker

66. Michael Johnson, Bengals defensive end

69. Paul Kruger, Browns linebacker

83. Ike Taylor, Steelers cornerback

84. Leon Hall, Bengals cornerback

89. Carlos Dunlap, Bengals defensive end

99. James Harrison, Bengals linebacker

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