There may come a year when the teams from Ohio dominate the AFC North. 2012 won’t be it.
1. Baltimore Ravens
Last season I picked the Ravens to win the division because I believed Joe Flacco would finally settle in and take over the team. I was right… sort of. Flacco was his usual inconsistent self for most of the season before a fantastic effort in the AFC Championship game. So really, I was completely wrong and got lucky at the end. But still, why can’t the AFC Championship be Flacco’s turning point? The dude outplayed Tom Brady and would have carried the Ravens to the Superbowl had Lee Evans not dropped a touchdown he should have absolutely caught. Flacco kept Baltimore in that game and then marched them down the field with an opportunity to win and then tie the game with the season on the line. At this point, Ray Lewis and the defense need Flacco more than he needs them. The AFC Championship game wasn’t a fluke. Flacco will lead Baltimore to a second straight AFC North title.
DWC’s Take: Steelers – While I still don’t like them, I can’t pick against the Steelers. Though, I loved how they handled Mike Wallace and his attempts to get paid for being the 2nd best receiver on his team. Isaac Redman seems ready to fill Rashard Mendenhall’s shoes and that defense continues to bring chaos to most offenses they face. The Steelers probably would have made a run at the Superbowl last year if not for injuries. The only question mark I have is the offensive line. Roethlisberger needs to be healthy in order for this team to contend with the other top tier teams in the league.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers
I know very little about Isaac Redman, but if he can kick start the Pittsburgh running game that has virtually disappeared over the last two years the Steelers will once again be an unstoppable force. That’s not a shot against Ben Roethlisberger. Roethlisberger is flat out amazing. He takes four times the hits Michael Vick does and still never misses a snap. He’s also a superior quarterback. Regardless, the Steelers, and even Big Ben, need a little balance. An improved ground attack would also give the defense some extra time on the sidelines. While that may not seem like a big deal, remember it was the Steeler defense that tired down the stretch last season and ultimately cost Pittsburgh a shot at New England.
DWC’s Take: Ravens – I fear for the Ravens because I still don’t trust Joe Flacco. Having said that, I thought he played extremely well against the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. He had nothing to do with the missed field goal and game-winning touchdown drop. In fact, the throw could not have been more perfect. The Ravens and Steelers are nearly identical; great defense, good running game (Ravens slightly better), good passing game (Steelers slightly better), and well coached, but when comparing the two quarterbacks, Big Ben is superior to Flacco.
3. Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals had a nice year in 2011. Rookies stepped up, the team responded to the organization transitioning from guys like Chad Johnson and Carson Palmer to A.J. Green and Andy Dalton, and most importantly, the schedule broke the Bengals way. I know it’s lousy to discredit a team like that but it’s true. The young Bengals finished 9-7 in 2011. They didn’t beat a single playoff team. In seven games against playoff teams they finished… you guessed it… 0-7. 2012 won’t be so good to the Bengals. (Please note: I don’t hate the Bengals, but winning in the NFL takes time. 2011 was, for lack of a better term, a fluke.)
DWC’s Take: Bengals – I’m very interested to see how the Bengals play this year. Will Andy Dalton experience a sophomore slump? AJ Green is a complete stud, and I love any chance I get to watch him. Those two alone should give Bengal fans enough hope for a playoff run. And yet, the two teams above them are still too much at this point. The Bengals do flaunt a top-10 defense, but it’s not of the same caliber as their division brothers. And while I do like BenJarvus Green-Ellis as their running back, I’m not convinced he can carry the load because he was never asked to do it in New England. Regardless, I’m rooting for this team.
4. Cleveland Browns
One day the Cleveland Browns will figure things out. In the meantime, enjoy Brandon Weeden. I’m already a big fan. Even with Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck dominating the headlines, Weeden was my favorite college quarterback last year. (No, that doesn’t mean I would have taken him over RGIII or Luck.) I applaud Cleveland’s decision to give Weeden the starting job. I expect him to have a better rookie campaign than both Griffin III and Luck (at least statistically). On a more important note; Weeden was involved in one of my favorite tweets ever. Shortly after Weeden was drafted by the Browns, Steelers defensive standout LaMarr Woodley offered the following: “See u soon mr weeden!!!! lol” Good luck with that, Brandon.
DWC’s Take: Browns – Things still look rough in Cleveland. They face the 3rd hardest schedule in the league, play six games against the Bengals, Ravens, and Steelers, and carry the weight of a tortured city on their shoulders. Simply put, I have very little hope for the Browns this season. However, I think they have the building blocks to compete in the future, especially if Brandon Weeden and Trent Richardson meet expectations. Though they may struggle this season, their presumed growth and experience cannot be understated.
For those keeping score, last season’s AFC North predictions:
Me: BAL, PITT, CLE, CINC
DWC: PITT, BAL, CLE, CINC
Actual Results: BAL, PITT, CINC, CLE
Score: DWC 0, Me 1, Fail 2