The second of eight divisional looks ahead at the upcoming NFL season.-----BALTIMORE RAVENS (12-4, t-1st in AFC North, in 2011)
The good: Terrell Suggs' injury is a huge blow to the NFL's third-best defense from 2011 in terms of points allowed per game (16.6), but between Haloti Ngata, Ed Reed and the aging-but-still-effective Ray Lewis, it's not as if the Ravens are devoid of impact defenders. ... Ray Rice is the rare running back I would've given a long-term, big-money deal. He's dynamic and great, and he should continue to carry this offense. ... Cornerback, at which the depth chart includes Lardarius Webb, Cary Williams and Jimmy Smith, might quietly have become Baltimore's best defensive position — and it's not as if they're exactly terrible elsewhere.
The bad: I wouldn't necessarily label the Ravens as "bad" anywhere, but they have their share of iffy areas. It starts at quarterback, where I continue to feel Joe Flacco is what has kept, and will probably continue to keep, the Ravens from true greatness. ... Three of the Ravens' offensive linemen are pretty big names, but Bryan McKinnie and Michael Oher have been so inconsistent of late that I wonder if the line will be a major problem. ... The departures of Cory Redding and Jarret Johnson, along with the loss of Suggs for potentially the season, might not relegate the Ravens to a below-average front seven, but their depth certainly isn't what it was.
The verdict: The Ravens' question marks — Flacco being the primary example — aren't concerning enough for me to consider leaving them out of the playoffs. This remains, in my book, the most complete team in the AFC. The finish: 11-5, 1st in AFC North
CINCINNATI BENGALS (9-7, 3rd in AFC North, in 2011)
The good: A.J. Green could leap into the Calvin Johnson/Larry Fitzgerald stratosphere of elite receiver this season. I was enamored with what he showed as a rookie, playing with a rookie QB (Andy Dalton), and think it was just scratching the surface. ... For a 4-3 team that had nobody with more than 7.5 sacks last season, the Bengals have some talent and depth on their defensive line. 2011 sack leader Geno Adkins and Domata Peko are one of the best tackle tandems anywhere, and Carlos Dunlap is the biggest pass-rushing talent among a deep pool of ends. ... Cincinnati also has nice depth at cornerback. Terence Newman's Cowboys career didn't end well, but it's a good sign that Yahoo lists him and top draft pick Dre Kirkpatrick as the backups at the position.
The bad: Other than Green, there's very little here in the way of difference-making skill-position talent for young QB Andy Dalton. The cupboard is almost completely bare at No. 2 receiver and beyond, and BenJarvus Green-Ellis is hardly an upgrade over anyone, even Cedric Benson, at No. 1 tailback. ... That depth the Bengals have at corner? It doesn't apply in the rest of the secondary. One of their starting safeties is projected to be Taylor Mays, who made a whole 10 tackles, with no sacks, interceptions or fumble recoveries, in 10 games with the Bengals last season. ... A likely passable, or better, offensive line could be in trouble due to an injury suffered by likely starting LG Travelle Wharton.
The verdict: I'm not as sold on some on Dalton's impending stardom, but he was certainly effective enough as a rookie to think quarterback won't be the Bengals' Achilles' Heel. They're good enough elsewhere to return to the playoffs. The finish: 10-6, t-2nd in AFC North
CLEVELAND BROWNS (4-12, 4th in AFC North, in 2011)
The good: LT Joe Thomas is the best player on this team, and has been for years. Argue that Jake Long, or someone else, has moved past him for the title of best in the business if you will, but Thomas remains one of the most dominant blockers in the league. ... The No. 5 defense in the NFL in 2011 in points allowed (19.2) has a Thomas-like anchor in MLB D'Qwell Jackson, who recorded an eye-popping 158 tackles and made 3.5 sacks last season. ... Trent Richardson's ability to start the season healthy following left knee surgery is questionable, as was the Browns' decision to trade up and draft him No. 3 overall in the first place (I hated the move), but by all accounts, he could very quickly become one of the very few true difference-making RBs in the game.
The bad: Cleveland's WRs have been awful for some time, and that's not changing, as Mohamed Massaquoi and Greg Little are again slated to start there. Poor Brandon Weeden and Colt McCoy; they seemed almost doomed to failure with so little in the way of reliable targets. ... Maybe the whole drafting a 28 year old and expecting him to step in and play like he's in his prime thing will work with Weeden. I kinda like his chances of being a decent NFL player. But I also expect him to play like the rookie he is this season in spite of his age. ... You can look long and hard at the Browns' defensive line, or their secondary, for a big-time impact player, and I'm not sure you'll ever find one. I'd expect this to regress back to a middle-of-the-pack defense, and maybe further.
The verdict: Mike Holmgren inherited the likes of Thomas and Jackson when he was hired as Browns president in December 2009. Who exactly has he hit a home run with since then? This remains one of the least talented rosters in the NFL. The finish: 5-11, 4th in AFC North
PITTSBURGH STEELERS (12-4, t-1st in AFC North, in 2011)
The good: The Steelers allowed an NFL-low 14.2 points per game in 2011. The continued presence of safeties Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark, OLBs James Harrison (who's coming off arthroscopic surgery) and LaMarr Woodley and coordinator Dick LeBeau, among others, means they're unlikely to fall far from their perch. ... Ben Roethlisberger has a torn rotator cuff. It seems like he's always bothered by something, but it also seems like he always plays, and he always plays at a high level. ... Mike Wallace might be holding out, but the word is that he'll show up in time to start the season. Assuming he does, Roethlisberger will have Wallace, Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and TE Heath Miller to target.
The bad: Six of the Steelers' starting defenders are over 30. This is an old defense, and it looked the part at times last season, particularly when the Steelers were losing to Tim Tebow and the Broncos in a playoff game. I don't expect collapse, but I do expect a drop-off. ... Rashard Mendenhall or no Rashard Mendenhall, this doesn't strike me as a scary running game. Whoever gets most of the carries will be running behind a line that, while it has been upgraded, is coming off a poor season and is rife with inexperience. ... Cornerback, where veteran Ike Taylor will be flanked by the likes of Keenan Lewis, Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown, is an uncharacteristically weak singular position for a Steelers defense.
The verdict: Between the defensive aging and the fact that the offensive line isn't exactly a proven commodity, I have some doubts that the Steelers will continue to dominate. If the AFC was as deep and loaded as it was a few years ago, I might even pick them to miss the playoffs. Not this year, however. The finish: 10-6, t-2nd in AFC North