NFL 2012 Season Preview: AFC North

We are under the one month window before the 2012 NFL season, which has all of our writers here at The Waiver Wire gearing up for another year of debates, poorly made bets and trash-talking. This year, we’ve decided to break down the season-to-be division by division. We will preview all eight divisions and pick our division winners, likely wild cards for both the AFC and NFC, and even which teams will be lining up for the Matt Barkley 2013 Draft Sweepstakes. 

The AFC North provides the NFL with some of its best and most storied rivalries. It’s also a division that puts an emphasis on defense, and first-class defense at that. It boasts two of the league’s most successful teams from the last decade, a team clearly on the rise and one looking to rebuild after a strong 2012 draft class. Waiver Wire veterans Greg Kaplan and Mike Aurigemma try to handicap the division race…

Previous NFL Season Previews: AFC East

1. Baltimore Ravens 

GK: The AFC North is very top-heavy, with both the Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers garnering all of the attention heading into the season. Both teams played to a 12-4 record last year, but the Ravens held the tiebreak. Even with that, heading into this year, there are about as many people who say the Ravens will repeat as division champs as there are those who think the Steelers will rise to the top. Both teams put an emphasis on defense and a successful running game, though the Steelers have the edge at the quarterback position with Big Ben.

However, I’m going with the Ravens as AFC North champs for two main reasons. The first, this team was an impressive 6-0 against division opponents last year, which included a surprisingly strong Cincinnati Bengals group. They blew out the Steelers in Week 1, then backed that up with a gutsy win in Pittsburgh by a field goal during their Week 9 showdown. And Joe Flacco is much better than the game-manager perception he plays under, even if he isn’t the elite level quarterback he thinks he is. He completed 57.6% of his passes, averaged over 200 yards per game, and had a modest 20 TD vs. 12 INT ratio last season, all while #1 wide-out Anquan Boldin had what many would consider a down season. You can make the case that a return to form for Boldin (if possible) and the continued development of Torrey Smith, Flacco could see a spike in his numbers, all during what will be a contract year.

The second reason, and most obvious reason to me, is Ray Rice. Not just Ray Rice, but the fact that the Steelers will be without Rashard Mendenhall at the beginning of the season, if not longer. Rice has been one of the best, if not the best all-around running back the NFL has had to offer over the last few seasons. He led the Ravens at yards from scrimmage with distance, combining his 1,364 yards on the ground with his 704 yards in receiving and totaled 15 TDs. He’s a one-man wrecking crew, and without a doubt the biggest difference maker the Ravens have to offer.

I’m not too worried at all about the Terrell Suggs injury. The Ravens find defensive playmakers from all corners of the country and have a very successful system that can rotate any number of players in and out of the starting line-up, all while putting up top of the league defensive numbers. That isn’t meant to underscore the importance of Suggs to the Ravens D. He was their MVP last season. However, I’d easily say that losing Suggs is more replaceable than losing either Flacco or Rice. That, and the difference between the Ravens losing Suggs and the Steelers losing Mendenhall is night and day. The Ravens should repeat as AFC North champions.

MA:  The Ravens are a team that could be even better than this past year if Flacco can show some signs of progression.  He has definitely hurt this team at times with his inability to become one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL, but there is definitely room for improvement in his game.

While a team like the Steelers could have so many question marks, especially on the offensive side of the ball, it is the opposite with the Ravens.  Rice will continue to be a solid running back in this league and is an extremely versatile back that can catch the ball out of the backfield as well.  Boldin will still be that go-to target when you need to move the chains and the development of Torrey Smith as Greg mentioned will be critical to this team.

This team could be scary once again as they always have a knack for big plays on the defensive side of the ball that can just swing the momentum of the game.  Let’s also not forget that they were a missed chip shot away from having a chance to be in last year’s Super Bowl.

Season Projection: 11-5

2. Pittsburgh Steelers

MA:  Injuries have been the Achilles heel for the Pittsburgh Steelers over the past few years and this year is not starting off great either.  They will already be without their starting running back in Rashard Mendenhall for a good portion of the season.  This now means that Isaac Redman will get his shot to shine as the premier back for the Steelers.  One other key loss for this team came not from an injury, but a messy contract situation with star receiver Mike Wallace.  If this situation drags on, which it looks like it will we could see this team relying heavily on Isaac Redman at the beginning of the year.  Still, someone will have to step up at the receiver position to replace the production of Mike Wallace and the recently retired Hines Ward and many are looking at Emmanuel Sanders to step up and be that guy along with the always reliable Heath Miller at the tight end position.

The Steelers have always been a ground and pound team, but we saw a change in that this past season as Ben Roethlisberger attempted a career high 512 pass attempts.  This is clearly something that they want to change not just because they need more balance, but also for health concerns at the quarterback position.  There is no doubt that Roethlisberger is a gamer and can play through pain, but do you really want him at 60 percent come playoff time again?  Well the Steelers went out of their way to make sure they could do a better job keeping Big Ben upright this coming season as they spent two early selections on linemen David DeCastro and Mike Adams.  Both players have the potential to be key contributors this coming season and I am sure many Steeler fans are wishing that they live up to that potential.

Although Pittsburgh has been a monster on the defensive side of the ball for many years, there are definitely some question marks there as well.  They were still stellar against the run allowing 3.9 yard per carry- good for sixth best among the league- but they struggled at creating consistent pressure as they only had 35 sacks last season.  That said, the Steelers still gave up the least amount of points in the NFL last season, but there is some definite room for improvement.  They were dead last in the entire league in takeaways for the 2011 season with only 15 compared to the 35 they had the previous year.  This will be critical for this team as a short field could really help an offense that will be playing without its star running back and as of now big play maker on the outside in Mike Wallace.

This will be an important year for the Steelers as they are coming off a disappointing playoff loss to the Broncos.  They could continue to spiral downward if they have some of the same injuries and weaknesses of last year.  More likely though to me is that they continue to show everyone why they are a great franchise and will be right there with Baltimore throughout the season only to come up a little bit short in the end.

GK: Again, as Mike has stated and I stated previously, there is no question that the Pittsburgh Steelers are going to be near the top of the defensive rankings in the NFL. However, the injuries they have already sustained on offense, plus the situation with their best offensive weapon for Roethlisberger being unhappy with his contract should scare the crap out of Steelers fans. Also, you can almost set your watch to the Steelers eventually losing a big piece of their offensive line to an injury this season. It happens so regularly that the team should be well equipped with capable back-ups at this point.

Just to reiterate. Issac Redman is no Rashard Mendenhall. Emmanuel Sanders is no Hines Ward. And a pissed off Mike Wallace is no happy Mike Wallace. Those three factors are the reason we’re favoring the Ravens to come away with the AFC North, but the Steelers will be in the mix for a playoff spot regardless.

Season Projection: 10-6

3. Cincinnati Bengals

GK: 2011 was without a doubt a special season for Bengals fans. Finishing 9-7 for the season and earning a playoff appearance blew up all of the pre-season expectations that probably had the Bengals finishing somewhere along the lines of 5-7 wins. However, the unexpected play of rookie quarterback Andy Dalton and his seemingly easy combination with fellow rookie receiver A.J. Green vaulted the Bengals to another level and was the driving factor to their strong showing.

However, with a rise in success comes a rise in expectations. We have to remember that regardless of the last year’s product, this is still an incredibly young team. The team tried desperately in the off-season to upgrade their poor secondary, which was one of the main culprits in their blowout first round loss to the Houston Texans in last year’s playoffs. The brought in former All-Pro cornerbacks Nate Clements and Terrence Newman to add the necessary veteran leadership, though both players are no longer performing at their previous career levels. They also spent their first round draft pick on Dre’ Kirkpatrick from Alabama to add youth and a level of dynamics to the vets. The team also imported defensive end Jamaal Anderson in an attempt to increase their pass rush and take pressure off of their defensive backs and added second round pick defensive tackle Devon Still from Penn State. How this unit meshes will determine how high the Bengals can climb.

The real story in Cincinnati will be Year 2 for both Dalton and Green, and their revamped offensive attack. Everybody is expecting both players to improve on their impressive rookie campaigns that saw Dalton throw for 3,398 yards, 20 TDs and a 80.4 QB rating and saw Green bring in 1,057 receiving yards and 7 TDs. Fair or unfair, in order for the Bengals to succeed at a higher level than last season, they will need more from both players, and more from their complimentary players around them. Cedric Benson is out at running back, and the Law Firm, BenJarvus Green-Ellis is in as the team’s #1 option. It’s safe to assume that Bernard Scott will see an expanded role as the back-up running back, and the team will look towards two of their tight ends, Jermaine Gresham and rookie Orson Charles to produce from the end. Cincinnati also spent a third round pick on Rutgers receiver Mohamed Sanu to try and deflect so much attention away from Green as a deep threat.

While replicating their 9-win season from a year ago is in play, it is hard to project the Bengals of surpassing that win total from a year ago. I think the league will be all the wiser, now having a full year of game footage on Dalton and Green. That, and the Bengals will have to do something this year that they didn’t have to one year ago, which is play with expectations.

MA:  The Bengals are definitely going in the right direction after getting rid of a lot of their headaches not only on the field, but mainly off of it.  As Greg pointed out there is a lot riding on the continued progress that Dalton and Green show this upcoming season.  I believe that Green will definitely continue to grow and become an amazing talent at the wide receiver position, which in turn will help with the development of Dalton.  There are clearly enough weapons on this team as I think Green-Ellis will be an improvement and steady force in the backfield for Cincinnati.  With Gresham helping to open things up as well as rookie receiver Mohamed Sanu I can see this Bengals offense taking a big step this coming year.

Now the problem with the Bengals might once again come from the defensive side of the field as Greg mentioned.  They did a great job bringing in some veteran leadership into that awful secondary from last year, but I still do not see it being enough.  In a division that is so dependent on defense the Bengals will continue to have a tough time competing with the Steelers and the Ravens until they fix things on that side of the ball.

Season Projection: 8-8

4. Cleveland Browns

MA: In an extremely talented division it will be difficult for the Cleveland Browns to come out and make any kind of noise.  The Browns were able to grab running back Trent Richardson in the draft to help bring some excitement to their offense, but in a division with some of the toughest run defenses in the league I am not sure that is the way to go.  There is also cause for concern amongst “The Dog Pound” in Cleveland as Richardson just underwent minor surgery on his knee.  Although it sounds like he will be back in a few weeks, surgery on a running backs knee this early in his career is never something you want to hear about.

The Browns will also have some flesh blood in at the quarterback position as Brandon Weeden will be there under center starting this season.  If there was ever a rookie poised and seasoned enough to contribute it should be Weeden who will be turning 29 this October.  Obviously he will not be going up against the Big 12 defenses that he had to face and instead will see the likes of Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu.  One of the things that Weeden will need will be some time to get comfortable in the pocket and offensive lineman Joe Thomas should be able to help with that.  There is some definite young talent on the offensive side of the ball with Richardson, Thomas, Weeden and wide receiver Greg Little, but will all of them pan out the way Mike Holmgren hopes is the question.

It does not get much better on the other side of the ball as the Browns already have some concerns there mainly with cornerback Joe Haden.  Haden might be facing a suspension for a failed drug test, which would really cripple the secondary.  One of the Browns biggest acquisitions this offseason came when they signed inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson, who had 158 tackles last season.  The only question with him is if he can stay on the field, which was a problem in both 2009 and 2010 for him as he only played six games in that span.  Cleveland will have to hope a lot of things go right for them mainly the situation with Haden if they want to avoid joining the Matt Barkley sweepstakes.

GK: Its not to say that the Cleveland Browns aren’t far from being a team that can compete with the best of them in the AFC. If they were in any other division, I think this is a team that could win 6+ games. The problem is the three teams that they share a division with are head and shoulders, flat out better than the Browns right now.

Mike mentioned it, and its worth saying it again, the fact that Trent Richardson has had knee surgery before the season started, regardless of how “minor” the team says it is, is a huge red flag. He’s supposed to be the team’s beacon of hope. The new face of the franchise. Being injured before playing in even his first pre-season game is such a sucker punch to the gut for Cleveland.

Also, what should we make of Brandon Weeden? He has to be good now. He doesn’t have time to go through a couple development seasons, being that he’ll turn 29 during the season. Should he fail this season, there is no reason for this team not to enter into the Matt Barkley sweepstakes to get the quarterback of the future. Even if Weeden has a solid season, short of great, and this team still doesn’t get over the 5-win barrier, wouldn’t the front office still be tempted to take a younger QB? I don’t know if the Browns could’ve waited and snagged Weeden in round two, but I just think evaluating his rookie season is going to be significantly different than any of the other rookies we’ve seen in the last five years.

Season Projection: 4-12