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AFC North 2011-2012 Predictions
The AFC North was once the AFC Central and featured more teams. As of 2002, the North has featured Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Cincinnati. In that time the Steelers have won the division five times and won the Super Bowl twice, one time as the wildcard, the other as the division winner. The Steelers also lead the NFL in championships as they now have won the Super Bowl six times in eight appearances. The Ravens have made the playoffs the past three seasons through the wildcard and have always managed to win their wildcard game. The Bengals have won the division twice since the North and Central became two different divisions, and in those two division wins came two wildcard losses. The Browns have mustered up one playoff appearance in the short history of the AFC North.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)
The Steelers have done well since hiring Mike Tomlin to be their head coach, in his time as the head coach he led the Steelers to a 43-21 record and two super bowl appearances. In the past four seasons the Steelers have managed to make the playoffs on top of their two Super Bowl appearances, and they also have had a winning record every year under Tomlin. A good portion of the team's success can also be attributed to the relentless pass rush they get from outside linebackers LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison. The Steelers defense has been dominant for the most part over the past few years, it will be interesting to see how the defense will do now considering how Aaron Rodgers exploited their weaknesses in the secondary by spreading them out. High powered offenses with multiple talented weapons, like Houston, New England, New Orleans and Green Bay could give the Steelers secondary problems.
Player to Watch - Troy Polamalu
Troy Polamalu may just be the single most important player to the Steelers team. That's a bold statement to make, but looking at his career, and noticing that the year he missed substantial time is the year they missed the playoffs speaks volumes. Polamalu makes up for the deficient cornerbacks and is a playmaker. The corners in Pittsburgh are by no means bad, but they are limited. They mostly are press coverage corners and can't cover their assignment deep down field well, however that is where Polamalu comes in handy. Last season, Polamalu recorded his career high in interceptions with seven and it is the second time he reached that plateau. Polamalu is extremely talented at reading the opposing quarterbacks eyes and because of that he is able to jump routes and usually protect his team from giving up the deep ball. When Polamalu is not in the game, things tend to go poorly for the Steelers when defending the pass, and since the league is becoming a quarterback driven league, that's not a good thing.
Player on the Rise - Mike Wallace
Last season Mike Wallace burst onto the stage with a big year. Frankly, Wallace needed to after the Steelers traded away top wide receiver Santonio Holmes. He led the league with seven games over one hundred yards receiving. He also reached his first Super Bowl, where he played well and had nine receptions for eighty-nine yards and a touchdown against the Green Bay Packers. Wallace played very well with Ben Roethlisberger and he emerged as one of the best deep threats in the league. Wallace frequently gets compared to DeSean Jackson of the Philadelphia Eagles, but Wallace might be slightly better due to his bigger frame and because of that he is less likely to get hurt. Wallace last season had more catches then Jackson, but to Jackson's credit he did miss some games.
2. Baltimore Ravens (9-7)
The Ravens last year had a very talented offense and obviously a great defense. The biggest flaw with their roster was the lack of team speed on both sides. The Ravens addressed the wide receiver spot by adding Lee Evans from the Buffallo Bills. Evans will become a nice target for Joe Flacco to showcase his arm strength as to often they Ravens offensive coordinator would hand cuff Flacco. The loss of Todd Heap will hurt them, but hopefully Ed Dickson or Dennis Pitta can produce just enough. They are also faster then Heap which could help Flacco in the passing game as well. The defense didn't add to much, but they did draft one of the top corner backs in the draft class in Jimmy Smith from Colorado. Jimmy Smith will fit nicely in Baltimore as he is a big corner at 6'2" and he is aggresive with the receiver that he is matched up with. The Ravens defense also are hoping to get some production from their top pick last season that sat all year due to a freak accident, Sergio Kindle. Kindle could be the guy that provides a pass rush opposite Terrell Suggs. The Ravens for the longest time have lacked a consistent pass rush from anyone outside of Suggs, and hopefully for their sake that changes this season.
Player to Watch - Joe Flacco
Flacco has been a great addition to the Ravens franchise since they drafted him and may be the best quarterback they have had since moving to Baltimore. Granted, that isn't saying to much. Flacco has an impressive record over three seasons at 32-16 and he is also 4-3 come playoff time. His biggest issue thus far has been beating the Steelers. He struggles against them, and his completion percentage drops a full seven points. He also has lost to them in the playoffs twice in his three seasons. Now, a good portion of those losses cannot be attributed to his play. Last season in the AFC Divisional game was not at all his fault, a fumble by Ray Rice late in the third quarter turned things around drastically for the Ravens which led to a heartbreaking loss. For Flacco to have more success not just against the Steelers but in order to go further and reach the Super Bowl he needs to be able to have control of the offense. To often in the past few years the Ravens offense has been to predictable. The wide receivers would often run comebacks, deep curls, button hooks and out routes. This predicatable has made things tough for them come playoff time against tougher defenses. If Cam Cameron, the offensive coordinator, lets Flacco air it out a bit then the Ravens will break out of their predictable shell and be a much tougher team to play.
Player on the Rise - Lee Evans
Evans will provide the offense with a deep threat that they have lacked ever since drafting Joe Flacco. Evans is a very talented receiever who hasn't played for much more than last place in Buffallo sadly. Over his career with average quarterbacks he has two 1,000+ yard seasons and averages 15.7 yards per catch, he also averages 847 yards per season while bringing in six touchdowns on average per season. Flacco already seems to enjoy having Evans around as the two have played well together in the pre-season thus far. In the most recent game against the Redskins, Flacco hit Evans deep with a beautiful throw where only Evans could catch it for a touchdown. The ball was thrown on his back shoulder on the sideline and led him in stride.
3. Cleveland Browns (7-9)
The Browns had a normal season by their recent standards but managed to shock the world by handling the New England Patriots. That was pretty much the highlight of their season, followed by punishing runs by Madden cover boy Peyton Hillis. The Browns finished second to last in offensive yards last season and didn't do much better in terms of actual scoring. The Browns have settled this season with the fact that Colt McCoy will be their quarterback, and that will atleast give them some stablitity. Last season they lost a good portion of their games by a small margin. The defense changed from a 3-4 scheme to a 4-3 with new and younger defensive ends. The Browns often had aging linebackers but with the players they have, the 4-3 scheme makes more sense when you take into consideration the personnel they have. Outside linebackers Chris Gocong and Scott Fujita now also go into their more natural positions as 4-3 outside linebackers.
Player to Watch - Peyton Hillis
Peyton Hillis is the biggest name in Cleveland right now due to the breakout year he had this past season. Hillis is also as I've mentioned, the Madden cover boy. I'm not one to believe in curses, but look at the history of the past ten or so cover boys for the famous game. Things don't look so good for Peyton. It's not just due to him being the Madden cover boy but also the fact that the Browns may have issues passing the ball in crucial situations and opposing defenses are much more likely to stack the box rather then playing the pass. Opposing defenses will prepare for Hillis, not Colt McCoy or Josh Cribbs.
Player on the Rise - Colt McCoy
McCoy has looked very good in pre-season, but let's leave it at that. It is just pre-season. McCoy doesn't have great arm strength which will cost him when the weather gets colder and when the wind picks up. He doesn't have great velocity on his ball but he is a winner. You cannot take that away from him. He has weaknesses but his strengths fit a west coast offense. The best comparison for him that I heard when he was drafted was that he is closest to Jeff Garcia. Jeff Garcia also enjoyed a good career in the few years he played. McCoy could benefit greatly by the front office doing him a favor and getting a top receiver but that isn't in the cards for now. The organization seems to like Greg Little, Cribbs, Brian Robiskie and Jordan Norwood.
4. Cincinnati Bengals (2-14)
What is there to say? It is quite possible that the Bengals go 0-16, but I am in quite the charitable mood. The Bengals traded away their all-time leading wide receiver Chad Ochocinco to the New England Patriots for a draft pick in the off-season. Carson Palmer also demanded a trade and has stood by his stance to retire if the Bengals do not trade him. Palmer remains retired even now. The Bengals saw this coming, and looked to the future by drafting quarterback and wide receiver in the first two rounds of this past draft. The Bengals drafted highly touted wide receiver from Georgia, A.J. Green and in the second round they drafted TCU's Andy Dalton. The Bengals figure that Dalton, Green, Jordan Shipley and Jermaine Gresham can be great contributors for them this season and in the future.
Player to Watch - Cedric Benson
Cedric Benson is the lone remaining veteran offensive player on the roster from last season. Benson is also quite possibly the most talented offensive weapon the Bengals have. The offensive line remains solid, so he shouldn't have any problems with seeing a hefty amount of carries. It could be difficult for him though, as teams will likely game plan to take him out of the game and force rookie Andy Dalton to win games. Verdict is still out on whether Dalton can be a starter right away, so things could be difficult for both the quarterback and the halfback. Benson should still have a productive season and be the leader of the team as it is filled on the offensive side of the ball with mostly rookies and second year players.
Player on the Rise - Carlos Dunlap
Dunlap was one of the top defensive ends coming into the draft in 2010, but due to character issues he fell out of the first round. Cincinnati gladly took him and led the team in sacks with 9.5. The Bengals went ahead and cut Antwan Odom in the off-season due to their belief that Dunlap can be an elite pass rusher for them off the edge. While Odom was disappointing with his performance he still was a solid player, and Dunlap's play last season made things easy on the front office. Dunlap has great size for a 4-3 end and looks to improve upon his great season. I'll leave it on this note, Dunlap is similar to another defensive end from Florida, Jevon Kearse. There's nothing wrong with that at all.
Who will win the AFC North?
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