Welcome to the second of our eight division previews. Over the next four weeks, we will bring you extensive breakdowns for each division, and each team. Today, we”ll be looking at the AFC North, where a shake up could be on hand.
1. Cincinnati Bengals 11-5
Fresh New Face: BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Yes, Green-Ellis only had 667 yards while Cedric Benson ran 1067 for the Bengals last year, but Green-Ellis only averaged .2 yards less than Benson (Benson – 3.9 ypg, Green-Ellis – 3.7) and he does the most important thing as a running back: hold on to the ball. He carried the ball 181 times last season and didn’t fumble once. While he’ll most likely won’t break out for a 50 to 60 yard run, the Bengals can count on him at the goal line. Over the past two seasons, he’s ran for 24 touchdowns, but 18 of those came from inside the opponents 5 yard line.
Won’t Be Coming Back: WR Jerome Simpson. Simpson provided the highlight of the 2011 NFL season, flipping over a tackler and landed on his feet in the end zone. He wasn’t just a one highlight and done player. He was second for the Bengals in receiving yards with 725. He wouldn’t be a Bengal though if he didn’t have off the field issues, getting arrested for drugs and will miss the first three games for his current team, the Minnesota Vikings.
Season Prediction: The Bengals could easily win five out of their first six games, with their only challenge being on Week 1 against Baltimore. After that, they have Cleveland twice, Washington, Miami, and Jacksonville. They should do well against the erratic AFC West, but may have a challenge in the NFC East.
2. Baltimore Ravens 10-6
Fresh New Face: OLB Courtney Upshaw. With Terrell Suggs Achilles injury, looks like Upshaw may get some significant playing time in the upcoming season. He should’ve been a first round pick, but the defensive MVP of the BCS Championship slipped into the 2nd round and right into the Ravens’ lap. With a team known for its linebackers, it looks like the Ravens can add one more name to that list. However, Upshaw is currently in the dog house after failing to pass a conditioning test.
Probably Won’t Be Coming Back: Terrell Suggs. While the Ravens didn’t lose anyone significant to free agency, they did suffer a huge loss when Terrell Suggs tore his Achilles in the off-season. He will definitely miss the majority of the 2012 season, if not all of it. So how can the Ravens recover from this loss? The real answer is that they can’t. He led the Ravens with 14 sacks. Second of that list was Pernell McPhee with just 6. Also, 7 of the Ravens 21 forced fumbles were caused by Suggs. There’s no way the Ravens can replace a defensive MVP and maintain the same level of defense.
Season Prediction: With Suggs probably out for the entire season, the Ravens will have to rely on their offense. While Ray Rice will continue to stuff the stat sheets, it will have to be up to Joe Flacco to make up for Suggs’ loss. They also have a harder schedule than the Bengals, having to go up against the Patriots and and Texans.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers 9-7
Fresh New Face: OC Todd Haley. When the Steelers signed Todd Haley as their new Offensive Coordinator, rumors started that Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t too pleased with the hire. Haley is expected to have a run first mentality, which deters from former coordinator Bruce Arians’ pass heavy offense. Ben doesn’t seem to happy about the idea, but he should be. Roethlisberger takes a large amount of punishment for holding on the ball to long, and with him saying that he has a small tear in his rotator cuff, this change in offense may be necessary for Pittsburgh’s future success.
Won’t Be Coming Back: Hines Ward. I was tempted to put in Mike Wallace, who’s still holding out for a larger contract, but I’ll assume that he rejoins the team at some point. The same cannot be said for Steeler great Hines Ward, who’s retired and moved on to dance competitions and playing a football player in The Dark Knight Rises. All kidding aside, while his numbers were mediocre for him in his final year, it’s a significant loss in the leadership and toughness department. No wide receiver blocks like Hines Ward.
Season Prediction: The Steelers are a real wild card this year. They have a new offensive coordinator, an aging defense, and their best offensive player is holding out. James Harrison is a blow to head or a late hit away from a significant suspension. They still have one of the best safeties in the league in Troy Polamalu, but their success in the season will be based on how Roethlisberger handles the offensive system. That and preventing his slightly torn rotator cuff from becoming a full tear.
Fresh New Faces: Trent Richardson & Brandon Weedon. Browns’ fans better hope that Richardson is the next Jim Brown, because they have no other significant offensive or defensive weapons. Based on the Browns’ training camp, it looks like 28 year old rookie Branson Weeden will be their starter over the so-far mediocre Colt McCoy. These two rookies need all the help they can get if the Browns have any chance to be competitive.
Won’t Be Coming Back: Peyton Hillis. After a breakout 2010 season, Hillis followed that up with nagging injuries, including strep throat, which didn’t go over well with his former teammates as they saw it as a case of a player looking out for himself instead of the team.
Season Prediction: It will be another ugly season for the Browns. Their success boils down to two rookies, a situation no team wants to put themselves in, especially when all the other teams in their division made the playoffs last year. I think history is going to repeat itself.
That wraps up the AFC North. Agree or Disagree with my picks? Let me know in the comments.
Also, if you want to check out our preview of the AFC East, just click here!