The AFC North is a division which still uses the feudal system; the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers are lords of the realm, and the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns work the land and are covered in mud most of the time. Sure, the Bengals and Browns stage uprisings now and again (the Bengals won the division in '05 and swept it in '09), but for the most part, the Ravens and Steelers are comfortable in their castles.
Last year, the Steelers won the division (for the sixth time in the past 10 years) with a 12-4 record and eventually lost in Super Bowl XLV to the Green Bay Packers. The Ravens also went 12-4 and went to the playoffs. They lost to the Steelers in the divisional round by a score of 31-24. The Browns finished with a 5-11 record and one year removed from sweeping the division, the Bengals finished in the bottom of the barrel with a 4-12 record.
This year, things will likely play out the same way.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers (2010 record: 12-4)
12-4. I'm tempted to step out even further on the ledge and go 13-3, but two games against the Ravens + a road trip to Indianapolis + a week 9 home tilt agains New England make me think better. I must say though, this Steelers squad looks like it might be scary good. Sure the offensive line has some big question marks (but that's nothing new is it?) and the secondary will still give up its fair share of completions and yards through the air -- particularly against the league's top-tier quarterbacks. But provided James Harrison rounds back into form following two offseason back surgeries (he's looked out of sorts and a step slower and not quite as unfathomably strong so far this preseason), the defense will once again be one of the league's stingiest.
What I think:
The Steelers will be the team to beat again in 2011 in the AFC North. Even though the Ravens are sure to make the playoffs, the Steelers have the best shot at sweeping the division and, of all AFC North teams, winning the Super Bowl. They have all the pieces in place and even though their offensive line will get Ben Roethlisberger hit a few times and their defense isn't getting any younger, they're the best in the division at winning football games.
Record Prediction: 11-5, division winners
2. Baltimore Ravens (2010 record: 12-4)
With the Baltimore Ravens scheduled to play the NFC West, easily the weakest division in the NFL, as well as seeing both the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns twice, they could definitely be figured to sweep through all eight of those games. If they can win five of the other eight games, they should be able to reach a 13-3 season and with it, that elusive AFC North division title and what would most likely earn then a playoff bye and playoff home game for the first time in four consecutive trips to the post season.
What I Think:
13-3? Keep dreaming. This is a Ravens team that, despite going 12-4 in 2010, couldn't sweep the 4-12 Bengals last season. There's no question that the Ravens are going to be good. Rey Lewis is still one of the most productive linebackers in the NFL and the defense that surrounds him is top notch. Joe Flacco is the real deal and the addition of Lee Evans gives the offense a deep threat that will allow other receivers to get open underneath. However, I don't see the Ravens sweeping through the Bengals and Browns with ease. This team seems to drop winnable games every once in a while.
Record Prediction: 10-6, go to the playoffs as a wild card
3. Cleveland Browns (2010 record: 5-11)
It should definitely be an interesting year for the Cleveland Browns, who have installed new offensive and defensive systems under head coach Pat Shurmur. Offensively, Shurmur will guide the West Coast Offense, and defensively, Dick Jauron will guide the transition from the 3-4 defense to the 4-3 defense. Although it seems like the Browns are starting new, they have a lot of their core returning players returning, and Colt McCoy has looked much improved in his second season. I think a good record prediction for them is 7-9. They face a much softer schedule than they did a year ago, and even with their lack of receivers, Peyton Hillis proved to be the ultimate difference maker a year ago to control the tempo of games against teams who struggle versus the run.
What I Think:
With an easy schedule, 7-9 isn't a bad prediction for this team. Mike Holmgren, hired as the Browns president in 2010, has slowly but surely turned the team around and I can see them being successful in the future. Colt McCoy looked great during the preseason and as long as Peyton Hillis can stay healthy, and with the return of Montario Hardesty in the the backfield, the offense could cause trouble for a lot of defenses around the league.
Record Prediction: 8-8
Cincinnati Bengals (2010 Record: 4-12)
A realistic prognosticator would suggest something in the neighborhood of three to five wins, mostly as a result of the team's turnover in personnel. Then you examine the team's 2011 schedule, opening the season against teams with a first-year head coach in Cleveland, Denver and San Francisco. Four of the first five games are played against defenses that ranked 20th or worse last season and the first game they play against a team that sported a winning record in 2010 isn't until mid-October.
So on one hand, the basis of a roster turnover that's rebuilding with youth could promote the suggestion of a five-win season or worse. On the other hand, the ease of the schedule against team similarly rebuilding may generate surprise form more than six wins.
What I Think:
The Bengals have a ton of talent but the majority of that talent has little to no experience in the NFL. This will be a rebuilding year for the Bengals. Andy Dalton will take the reins of the offense as the first rookie quarterback to start the season opener since Greg Cook in 1969. Even though he'll be surrounded by talented receivers and Cedric Benson at running back, he is playing behind a less-than-stellar offensive line and, in a division where defenses love to hit the quarterback, that's not a good thing. I'm not thinking that the Bengals will go winless, though. If they show progress, especially on offense, from game one to game 16, they could win a few games.
Record Prediction: 6-10