Last time we checked out the AFC East. This time, we turn our attention to one of the more competitive divisions in the NFL, the AFC North. Three out of the fours teams in the division made the playoffs. Can the same thing happen in 2012?
Lets' ask some probing questions to find out!
5. Cleveland Browns (2011 Record: 4-12)
Question: Can QB Brandon Weeden succeed where QB Colt McCoy failed?
In April's NFL Draft, the Browns used their second 1st Round pick to get Oklahoma State University QB Brandon Weeden. Then in training camp, the team announced that Weeden would be the starter, usurping QB Colt McCoy from the position. Most believe that Weeden has the better arm strength and accuracy than McCoy. Not to mention that McCoy had an iffy year last season as the the starter. However, in his defense, the Browns offense was very questionable. Dealing with no top receiving target, the injured Peyton Hillis, and a poor running game, and having a swiss cheese O-Line, you can't blame Colt for having a poor season. Now going into this season, the Browns drafted Alabama RB Trent Richardson to solidify the running game and began to develop receivers Greg Little and Mohammed Massaquoi. But other than that, you basically have the same offense from last year, just a different QB. Maybe Weeden can succeed where McCoy failed, but more than likely he could face the same uphill battle.
6. Cincinnati Bengals (2011 Record: 9-7)
Question: Can QB Andy Dalton and WR A.J. Green replicate the same success they had in their rookie year?
It was no question that Panthers' Cam Newton was one of the more prolific rookie QBs last year. However many would have considered Cincinnati's Andy Dalton as a close number two. In 2011, Andy Dalton's stats were: 300 (58.1%), 3,398 yards, 20 TDs and 13 INT, all ranked second among rookie QBs. Then you have his number one target, fellow rookie WR A.J. Green. In 2011, Green led all rookie receivers with 65 catches and 1,057 yards, and was tied for second in receiving touchdowns with 7. They were able to propel the Bengals to a 9-7 record and a wildcard spot, surprising many who thought the Bengals would have an 'off-year'.
This year the backfield is more of a commitee than a single running back system. Also, defenders will hone more on A.J. Green as he's the main target on the team. In 2012, can we see lighting strike twice with the Dalton/Green combo? Or will they just be a quick flash in the pan and fall down to mediocrity?
7. Pittsburgh Steelers (2011 Record: 12-4)
Question: Will a 'rusty' offense doom the 2011 Steelers?
Aside from the bad 'metal pun', things look bleak for the Steelers going into the 2012 season. We start off with the occurring injuries to the Steelers backfield. RB Rashard Mendanhall will more than likely start the season on the PUP list as he recovers from another injury. Then his backup, Issac Redman is also injured and trying to recover. And then of course, you have the issue with Ben Roethlisberger's health. Rumors of him having an injured rotator cuff as well as receiving multiple concussions make his status very questionable. Not to mention he's been butting heads with new Steelers Offensive Coordinator Todd Haley over not just throwing the ball away and trying to be a 'hero,' risking further injury. However, WR Mike Wallace has provided some relief as he ended his holdout and signed his 1-year franchise tender of $2.7 million. Though the Steelers boast a rugged and tough defense, it'll be tough for them to not only stop the opposing offense but also pick up the slack from their offense as well.
8. Baltimore Ravens (2011 Record 12-4)
Question: Can QB Joe Flacco jump out from the middle of the pack into the upper-tier level of NFL QBs?
Some of the focus in Baltimore is on whether or not Ray Lewis and Ed Reed will stick around much longer. The bigger question is whether or not QB Joe Flacco will make that jump from being a 'middle of the pack' kind of guy to more of a upper-tier QB like an Eli Manning, an Aaron Rodgers, or Ben Roethlisberger. Flacco has the potential of doing so, but has not yet proven himself. Already he has shown that he's one of the more successful QBs from the 2008 NFL Draft, leading the Ravens to 4 playoff appearances, including 2 AFC Championship games (2008, 2011). He doesn't have the cannon of an arm or the flashy stats like other NFL quarterbacks. But what Flacco does is manage the game and commits very few turnovers, throwing no more than 12 interceptions in one season. He's like what Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger was at the beginning of their careers. Going into 2012, this will be Flacco's chance to show he's ready to make that leap. He's got the weapons on offense with receivers Torrey Smith and Anquan Bolden as well as one of the NFL's top offensive threats in Ray Rice. Now all that's left is winning the Lombardi.
That's it for the AFC North. Next time we head South and take at the now rebuilding AFC South Division.
-Ryan L. Fox
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