The AFC North has plenty to be proud of coming off its stellar showing in 2011. No other division in the NFL boasted three winning teams last season, let alone the three playoff qualifiers produced by the AFC North: Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. The division's combined record of 37-27 was also the finest in the league, as was the 22-10 home mark put together by the Ravens (8-0), Steelers (7-1), Bengals (4-4) and Browns (3-5), tying with the AFC East for that honor.
But the success story is really nothing new. The AFC North is the only division in football to have multiple playoff teams in each of the past four seasons, and 2006 was the last time the division featured just one club with a winning record. Not only are the Ravens the lone NFL team to make the postseason four years running, but also they've managed at least one playoff win in each of those January runs, the longest such streak in the league since the Patriots hung up a win in five straight postseasons from 2003-2007.
Proving it has both strength and depth, the division has been won by three different teams the past three seasons, with the Ravens (2011), Steelers (2010) and Bengals (2009) taking turns at the top. And the AFC North's trademark is still defense, with Pittsburgh ranking first overall in points allowed last season (227), Baltimore (266) taking third place in that pivotal category, and surprising Cincinnati finishing a strong ninth (323).
With apologies to the last-place Browns, the pecking order isn't likely to change in 2012. Baltimore and Pittsburgh figure to again be formidable, while the youth-led Bengals try to prove last year was no fluke and perhaps even break their three-decade streak of having not qualified for the playoffs or posted a winning record in consecutive seasons since 1981-82. In Cleveland, they're just clinging to the hope that new ownership brings new possibilities of success.
What the Steelers do best: Stop the bleeding.
Have you ever noticed how Pittsburgh doesn't do losing streaks? The Steelers simply have no tolerance for them. Whatsoever.
The Steelers haven't dropped consecutive games at all in the past two seasons and in three of the past four, and their last losing streak came in 2009, when a five-game slide in November and early December wound up costing them the only non-playoff season in head coach Mike Tomlin's five years on the job. All told, the Steelers in the past five regular seasons have lost two in a row twice (2007 and 2009), and then endured that five-game skid in '09. That's it. The rest of the time, it was one and done on the losing front. It's an impressive and very handy skill to have, and it leads to being the playoff perennial that Pittsburgh has been for the past four decades or so.
What the Steelers have to improve: Their takeaway total.
Somehow the Steelers led the NFL last season in pass defense (171.9 yards per game), total defense (271.8) and scoring defense (14.2 ppg), and still didn't get enough impact from their defense. That's because Pittsburgh's 15 takeaways were the fewest in the league, with their 11 interceptions and four fumble recoveries paling compared to 2010's top-five totals of 21 interceptions and 14 fumble recoveries, and representing the lowest takeaway total ever posted by a Dick LeBeau coordinated defense.
The injuries that plagued outside linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley had plenty to do with the decreased takeaway total, but big-play safety Troy Polamalu saw his interception total drop from seven in 2010 to just two last season. Pittsburgh needs the big play to return to its defensive arsenal this year.
Which Steeler needs to step up: Keenan Lewis, cornerback
The time is now for Lewis, a fourth-year pro who looks almost certain to claim the vacant starting cornerback spot opposite veteran Ike Taylor. Pittsburgh has liked what it has seen of Lewis this summer, with few blown assignments and the ability to fight through an early-camp shoulder injury and quickly get back on the field. With both William Gay and Bryant McFadden departing this offseason, Lewis and second-year man Cortez Allen will be counted on heavily to improve the production at cornerback, the only real weak link on Pittsburgh's defensive roster.
Predicted record: 11-5.
To be sure, there are issues on offense to be wary of -- the impact of new coordinator Todd Haley, the health at running back and offensive line, and the youth on that offensive line -- but the Steelers simply know how to build a team and manage the rigors of the long NFL season. There might be some challenges early, with four of the first six games on the road, but Pittsburgh will be there in prime position when the schedule turns more favorable in December, just in time to wrap up the fourth AFC North title in Tomlin's six seasons.
What the Ravens do best: Keep themselves in the game.
With Baltimore's still-stout defense, you know you're going to get nine or 10 games a year where the opponent just can't do much damage against the Ravens. Including the playoffs, Baltimore gave up 16 points or fewer 10 times in 18 games, finishing third overall in points allowed (16.6 per game) for the second consecutive year.
The Ravens only had one true stinker on defense last season, a 34-14 loss at San Diego in Week 15, the only time Baltimore surrendered more than 27 points all year. That kind of consistency keeps the Ravens competitive week in and week out, and year in and year out. It's why Baltimore is in the playoff hunt each and every season, and has wracked up an impressive 44-20 record in the four-year John Harbaugh coaching era. Even without the services of the injured Terrell Suggs, the NFL's reigning Defensive Player of the Year, don't expect the Ravens defense to get old overnight and go into the free-fall some have long predicted.
What the Ravens need to improve: Threatening a defense with their passing game.
Stop me if you're heard this before, but the Ravens could use more vertical in their passing attack. Baltimore's 6.7 yards per pass last season ranked just 21st among 32 teams, and its 21 touchdown passes, 57.7 completion percentage and 81.7 passer rating were all middle-of-the-pack to bottom-third results. Quarterback Joe Flacco gets most of the scrutiny, of course, but don't overlook the play-it-safe approach of offensive coordinator Cam Cameron when it comes to the Ravens' lack of explosiveness in the passing game. I don't forsee Baltimore opening it up with guns a-blazing in 2012, but Flacco's motivation for a big year should be sky high with his contract set to expire after this season, and from all indications new quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell has been good for the QB's game.
Which Raven needs to step up: Paul Kruger, outside linebacker
Only Philadelphia and Minnesota (with 50) had more sacks than Baltimore's 48 last season, but losing Suggs to an offseason Achilles tear is a setback that removes a team-leading 14 of those from the defensive lineup. At least in theory. Kruger contributed a career-high 5.5 sacks last season in situational duty, and the Ravens are hopeful that he's ready for the spotlight role of creating as much havoc as possible from the weakside rush-linebacker slot. It's a lot to ask of a guy who has just one start in the first three seasons of his pro career, so Baltimore's noted "Next man up'' mantra will be fully on trial as the 2012 season unfolds.
Predicted record: 10-6.
When you win big in the NFL, what's your reward? The punitive step of receiving a first-place schedule the following year, and that can be a difficult hurdle to clear for any repeat-minded team. Baltimore finally got over the hump and beat Pittsburgh to claim the AFC North last season, but the Ravens' 12-4 finish earned them a tougher 2012 slate than the second-place Steelers, who also went 12-4. A step-back season should still be good enough to make the playoffs in Baltimore, but maybe by the more familiar wild-card route. Tough games against Houston, New England, the Giants, Denver, San Diego and Philadelphia dot the Ravens' schedule, and that's not even including the four challenges they face against division rivals Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.
What the Bengals do best: Make the most of what they have.
In coordinators Jay Gruden on offense and Mike Zimmer on defense, Cincinnati is fortunate to have two smart and creative coaches who see the glass as half full, and seem to consistently draw the best out of their players.
When conventional wisdom last year said the Bengals couldn't win by starting a rookie quarterback in Andy Dalton and a rookie receiver in A.J. Green -- especially coming off of the lockout -- Gruden paid it no mind and put the youngsters in the best possible position to thrive in 2011. Same for Zimmer, entering a year in which his defense watched top-flight cornerback Johnathan Joseph walk out the door to Houston in free agency. The resourceful Zimmer went back to work and got a very respectable season out of veteran cornerback Nate Clements, coaching the Bengals defense to a No. 7 finish and doing his share of the heavy lifting in Cincy's unexpected wild-card playoff run. The best coaches take good players and make them even better.
What the Bengals have to improve: Their downfield passing game.
Gruden has been focusing on Dalton taking more downfield shots this season, believing the Bengals missed out on some points and big plays in 2011 because they didn't get Green enough chances to use his athleticism to go up and get the ball, even if the receiver was well covered. While Dalton doesn't have the strongest arm in the NFL, Gruden believes he can be more accurate on Cincy's deep patterns with better footwork, and has harped on Dalton staying aggressive and ready to pull the trigger. Look for the Bengals to play it less safe with Dalton this season, asking him to stretch defenses and make some of those outside-the-numbers throws that often bedeviled him as a rookie.
Which Bengal needs to step up: Marvin Jones, receiver.
The fifth-round rookie out of Cal has stepped up so far in the preseason, even though he wasn't expected to be the guy to ease some of the playmaking burden from Green's shoulders in the passing game. But through three games in August, Jones has forced Cincinnati to consider finding ways to get him on the field. Jones has a team-best five catches for 111 yards and a touchdown in the preseason, with two catches of more than 40 yards and an impressive 18-yard punt return the other night against Green Bay. He's one of those training camp surprises that no one saw coming, but he might wind up claiming the team's wide-open No. 2 receiver role.
Predicted record: 8-8.
The Bengals are doing things the right way, and there's a lot to like about the direction they're heading as an organization. But they won't sneak up on anyone in the first half of the season like they did in 2011 (when they started 6-2), and their struggles to beat good teams last year was telling. The Bengals went 9-0 against non-playoff teams and 0-8 against teams in the postseason, meaning they were a classic overachiever that maximized their potential. Even though Cincinnati looks better on paper, that's usually a tough winning formula to repeat, and a slight step backwards is likely in order for Dalton and Co. in 2012.
What the Browns do best: Defend the pass.
You can call it a statistical quirk or a byproduct of the team's 30th-ranked rushing defense (why throw when you can run?), but the Browns fielded the second-best passing defense in the NFL last season, limiting teams to just 184.9 yards per game, trailing only AFC North rival Pittsburgh in that department. That's tough to do without much of a pass rush, and the Browns had just 32 sacks as a team in 2011, tied for 23rd in the league. The two cornerstones of Cleveland's pass coverage are easy to spot: Third-year veteran Joe Haden is a legitimate star at cornerback and his 2010 draft classmate, strong safety T.J. Ward, is a player the Browns have learned to count on in his first two seasons in the league. Since the start of the 2010 season, Haden has 37 passes defensed, tied for third most in the NFL over that span.
What the Browns need to improve: Their passing game.
The selection of 28-year-old Brandon Weeden in April's first round was the acknowledgment that Cleveland's passing game has to join the big leagues if the Browns ever hope to compete in the stacked AFC North. With second-year quarterback Colt McCoy running the show (13 starts), the Browns were anemic. Cleveland's passing game wound up completing just 56.1 percent (way low for a West Coast ball-control-style offense), with only 5.8 yards per attempt, and a 72.8 passer rating. That gets you beat in today's NFL. Weeden has yet to provide any answers at the position in the preseason, and gets closer to looking like a real Browns quarterback every week. His reaction to pressure in the pocket is particularly troubling. But Cleveland clearly wasn't going anywhere with McCoy either, so Mike Holmgren's roll of the dice was a move he felt compelled to make.
Which Brown needs to step up: Josh Gordon, receiver.
One of the few players to flash on offense for Cleveland this preseason has been Gordon, the former Baylor standout who was taken with a second-round supplemental pick in July. He and Weeden appear to have growing chemistry together, and Gordon's three catches for 50 yards in a Week 3 preseason loss to Philadelphia included a highlight-reel reception that beat Eagles cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha. As starved as the Browns are for offensive playmakers, Gordon has moved himself firmly into the first-team receiving picture, catching five passes for 88 yards the past two weeks. Weeden looks more comfortable throwing to Gordon than he does to second-year veteran Greg Little, the team's leading receiver in 2011.
Predicted record: 5-11.
If first-round rookie running back Trent Richardson returns healthy from summer arthroscopic knee surgery and is everything the Browns hoped he'd be, Cleveland at least has a chance to run the ball effectively and keep games close while Weeden and the passing game develop. But even if that scenario unfolds, the Browns are a long shot to avoid their fifth consecutive season of double-digit losses, and yet another last-place standing in the AFC North.