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The Road To The Super Bowl, AFC North

   by Wayne Root - 08/07/2012



This is a continuing series of Conference Previews as the 2012 NFL Season is just one week away from the start of NFL Preseason 2012. As the season progresses, I will be updating these predictions- as upsets and "key" injuries can change the course of action in a nano-second. There have been some off-season trades and the chemistry and the locker-room antics will be closely monitored during the two-a-day practices in the heat of August. This early season guide will allow you to stay updated on last season's strengths and weakness, and what lies ahead for each team this season.

AFC NORTH:

This is a 2 tier Division with Baltimore and Pittsburgh at the top but with Cincinnati and Cleveland able to throw in a few upsets along the way to keep things interesting. Look for the winner to have 5 losses this season. This is the NFC's version of the Black and Blue Division where they still talk about pounding it out and strong defenses. Will Ray Rice finally step up, will Rashard Mendalhall stay healthy and what immediate impact will Trent Richardson make in Cleveland?
BALTIMORE--- finally figured out how to get out from the shadows of the Steelers in the playoffs last year. Baltimore won the AFC North and made it to the AFC Championship Game, arguably coming a play or two away from a spot in the Super Bowl. LB Ray Lewis and S Ed Reed aren't getting any younger, but this is still a defense that is nasty and has a lot of proven leaders. How will the losses of Terrell Suggs and Jarret Johnson hurt their defense? I look for Jimmy Smith to excel at the right cornerback position; he got his feet wet as a rookie last year, but now it's time for him to step up as a starter. QB Joe Flacco has taken some strides in the right direction, and RB Ray Rice is still one of the best backs in the league. The wide receiver position is one I would have liked to see them upgrade, but it seems like they are set heading into the season with Jacoby Jones in the slot. Baltimore has a great shot once again at making yet another run to the playoffs and towards the Super Bowl in 2012. Baltimore opens the season with the Bengals, Eagles and Patriots—three teams that have improved during the offseason. Closing out the season will be just as tough as the beginning of the season, as the Broncos and Giants roll into town for Weeks 15 and 16. The Ravens travel to Cincinnati in Week 17, which could prove to be a game that will decide the division winner.
PITTSBURGH---The question is whether they have the depth to stick around this year. Sure, the Steelers, just like the Ravens, are +135 favorites in the division, but a lot of that is based upon the names on the fronts of the uniforms, not the backs. The Steelers come into this season with one the most renovated offensive lines and one of the most unhappy wide receivers in Mike Wallace. Pittsburgh made a point of upgrading its weakest position, the offensive line. David DeCastro and Mike Adams were drafted in succession to protect the Steelers' $100 million investment. It's possible Big Ben won't have to run for his life on every single pass play. The once vaunted running game still doesn't have all that much in the way of depth either, and RB Rashard Mendenhall is coming off of an ACL injury that might keep him out of the fold for the start of this season. The defense looked old down the stretch, and the unit really didn't have what it took to go anywhere in the postseason. Still, it's all about getting there first, and we know that the men in black and gold are always contenders in the AFC North. Couple the offensive line additions with their current set of weapons, and things are looking pretty good in Pittsburgh. In Weeks 11, 12 and 13, the Steelers play three straight divisional games: Baltimore, Cleveland, then Baltimore again. They only play one divisional game during the first eight games of the season. With improved play up front, look for the Steelers to have a strong season.
CINCINNATI---has received plenty of love this offseason from multiple outlets and writers, but will the Bengals live up to all the hype? The Bengals really came out of nowhere last year from where we were sitting to make it to the postseason with basically an entirely new roster. QB Andy Dalton was never all that special, but he was a good game manager, a la Flacco in Baltimore, and second year OC Jay Gruden is quickly becoming one of the most coveted young coaches in the league. My biggest question will be the progression of Andy Dalton. He proved to have a Pro Bowl season, but at the end of his rookie year, he hit the rookie wall hard. Arizona, Baltimore and Houston comprised the worst stretch of the season. The Bengals feasted on an easy schedule in 2011, but the schedule-makers weren't as easy on them in 2012. Cincy plays good defense, but there is definitely a void of stars to watch out for. I have the Bengals starting the season at 5-3, but the stretch of Weeks 13 through 17 will be rough—three road games and two home games against top-notch teams like San Diego, Dallas, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Baltimore.Can the Bengals make it to the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time in 30 years?

CLEVELAND---In the end, the team that has a lot of growing to do is Cleveland. Understandably, with all of these great teams in the AFC North, the Browns are 33 to 1 underdogs to come out of this division on top for the first time since 1989. Gotta love Browns fans because they are passionate no matter what. Cleveland has dealt with some bad football for some time now, and even though I don't see things getting any better anytime soon, that doesn't mean it can't surprise one or two of us.The Browns are hitching their wagon to QB Brandon Weeden this year in all likelihood, signaling the end of the QB Colt McCoy era. Trent Richardson and Brandon Weeden will need to step in immediately and be effective. Richardson's chances of doing this are a lot better than Weeden's. Supplemental draftee Josh Gordon should see the field plenty, but the odds of him succeeding right away are low. He is a very raw player who lacks polish. The defense has to really pick it up this year, but it will have to do so without LB Scott Fujita for the first month of the year after he was implicated in the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal. It's not far-fetched to see the Browns start the season 0-8; it's hard to see a favorable matchup in that stretch. However, winnable games come against Cincinnati in Week 6 and Week 15 against Washington. Other than those two games, it's tough to envision many Ws. The week after the first Cincy game, they play Indianapolis, which looks favorable, but I'll take Luck at home over Weeden.

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WAR's PREDICTIONS:

The Ravens are going to figure out how to win this division once again this year. The Bengals are set for a drop out of the playoff race once again, and the Browns are going to be taking up the rear or third at best. The big question in our eyes is how Pittsburgh will fare. In the end, 9-7 or 10-6 is the likely record for the men from Steel Town, but will that be enough to get into the postseason? With the growth of some of the other teams in the rest of this conference, it isn't a lock at all to say the least.

1st-----Baltimore

2nd----Pittsburgh

3rd----Cincinnati

4th----Cleveland

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