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2011 NFL Preview – AFC North

We’re rolling from the soft NFC West to the rugged and violent AFC North. Is it possible a 3rd team joins the race for the division crown in 2011? Um, no. Sorry, Ohio.

Let’s be honest, the AFC North should be split into two subdivisions. Subdivision 1: The Contenders. Subdivision 2: Ohio football sucks. No? Fine then. Let’s move on.

1. Baltimore Ravens
It’s time for Joe Flacco to man up. Although Flacco has had success throughout his young NFL career, he’s struggled immensely against the Steelers. Unfortunately for him, Steeler games are typically the most important games of the season. In December 2010, Flacco fumbled away what looked like a Baltimore win. The loss ultimately cost the Ravens home field advantage in the playoffs. A month later, again against Pittsburgh, Flacco self-destructed (he wasn’t alone) in the 2nd half of the AFC Divisional Round as Baltimore surrendered a two-touchdown lead en route to a heartbreaking loss. It was Flacco’s two 3rd quarter turnovers that swung momentum and altered the game.

While I hate to make this all about Flacco, he is the key to Baltimore’s 2011 season. The Ravens can only go as far as Flacco takes them. In order to contend for a Super Bowl, Flacco must first exorcise his Steeler demons. His 2-6 record against Pittsburgh is discouraging. Remaining winless (0-5) against the hated division rival in the months of December and January is completely devastating.

Ray Lewis and Ed Reed aren’t getting any younger. 2011 may be their final shot at winning another title. Unlike in 2000, Baltimore needs its quarterback to lead them to the promise land. Obviously, I believe Flacco is up to the task. We’ll know in December if I was right

DWC’s Take: Steelers –Fresh off a Superbowl, the Pittsburgh Steelers return most of their roster while also adding solid veterans like Jericho Cotchery and Kevin Dockery. Another year, another fine football team out of Pittsburgh (pardon me while I go rinse out my mouth). On the other hand, there seems to be a growing trend of off field stupidity with this organization. The now departed Santonio Holmes (drug possession), Big Ben (just gross), Rashard Mendenhall (twitter idiocy), Hines Ward (DUI), and James Harrison (everything he does). One day, these boneheaded decisions will become too much to handle. Hopefully, Mike Tomlin (I really like him) can continue to work around them with class.

2. Pittsburgh Steelers
The defending AFC champions appear poised for another title run. I know I picked the Ravens, but that doesn’t mean I’m discounting the Steelers by any means. I simply like Flacco to make the proverbial leap this year. On top of that, the Steelers are aging, and injuries have become a growing problem as well. When Troy Polamalu was injured last season, the defense struggled immensely. Yes, injuries impact every team, but a crippling injury to Ben Roethlisberger or Polamalu or Maurkice Pouncey would prove devastating. Let’s not forget the offensive line is still a big question mark. As good as Roethlisberger is at creating something out of nothing, being hit and pressured for an entire season will take its toll. A healthy team equals another playoff run. Injuries and offensive line issues equal uncertainty.

DWC’s Take: Ravens – Like the Steelers, the Ravens always have a formidable defense with Ray Lewis and Ed Reed still serving as the anchors (even though we all know Haloti Ngata is the real anchor). The offense continues to make significant strides as well. Ray Rice is small, quick, and powerful, which fits perfectly with this division. Unfortunately, Joe Flacco scares me, but not as much as big situations scare Joe Flacco. I keep waiting for him to be (I can’t believe I am about to say this), Big Ben – Manage the game well, and then close the door when your team needs you to. Until Flacco figures it out, Baltimore will continue playing second fiddle in the division.

3. Cleveland Browns
The AFC North is a division of “haves” and “have-nots.” The Browns “have-not.” On a more positive note, Colt McCoy has been impressive in the preseason. A promising campaign by McCoy in 2011 should give Cleveland fans hope for the future as Mike Holmgren continues to build the franchise into a competitor. For now, though, there’s not much the Browns can do to compete with the division heavyweights. Another coaching change in the offseason certainly won’t help the Browns improve in 2011, especially considering the limited offseason workouts. Losing Peyton Hillis for the season will hurt, too. (He’s on the Madden cover. It’s happening. Just accept it now.)

DWC’s Take: Browns – Offensively, I like this team a lot more with Colt McCoy leading the way. He’s got that Texas swagger, which is half the battle when playing the toughest position in all of sports. If the Browns were smart, they’d have started him sooner instead of trying to breathe life back into the hallow shell that was Jake Delhomme. I also like the cast of receivers they placed around McCoy. They aren’t breathtaking, but they make plays. If the coaches can find a way to get Josh Cribbs involved, the offense opens up even more. Peyton Hillis should have another nice year (though not as good as 2010). The defense, on the other hand, won’t do much to stall the Ravens and Steelers.

4. Cincinnati Bengals
Unless Akron shocks college football, it’ll be a rough fall in Ohio. I understand the Bengals’ position in regards to Carson Palmer’s ultimatum (trade him or he retires). At the same time, Cincinnati wasn’t going anywhere with Palmer. Why not acquire some draft picks and work to rebuild the franchise? Oh yeah, that would make too much sense. Instead, the Bengals are dropping a rookie quarterback into the shark-invested waters of the AFC North.
For my own entertainment, I hope Palmer joins the team next week and forces Cincinnati’s hand. If Palmer shows, the Bengals will be forced to pay him, release him, or trade him.

DWC’s Take: Bengals – Is any franchise in worse shape right now than the Bengals? The worst part is, they are only two seasons removed from sitting atop this division. What happened? Unfortunately, I don’t have the time or energy to fully explain. Let’s just say, the fact that their former franchise QB prefers retirement instead of playing for Cincinnati is not a good sign. While the Bengals drafted well with Andy Dalton and AJ Green, I think a change is necessary. Until Marvin Lewis finally leaves and fresh blood is brought in, the cycle will continue in Cincinnati.

For those keeping score, last season’s AFC North predictions (this one is embarrassing):
Me: BAL, CINC, PITT, CLE
DWC: BAL, CINC, PITT, CLE
Actual Results: PITT, BAL, CLE, CINC

Score: DWC: 1, Me: 1, Fail: 1

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