1. Pittsburgh Steelers
2011 Record: 12-4, 2nd place AFC North
Head Coach: Mike Tomlin (6th season Pittsburgh, 60-28 career)
Key Additions: TE Leonard Pope, G David DeCastro, ILB Brandon Johnson
Key Losses: QB Dennis Dixon, RB Mewelde Moore, WR Hines Ward, G Chris Kemoeatu, DE/DT Aaron Smith, ILB James Farrior
2012 Outlook: After a slow start, many people, including that idiot Warren Sapp were declaring the Steelers old and finished. Despite the naysayers and an inconsistent offensive line and running game, the Steelers went 10-2 in their final 12 games to reach the playoffs as a Wild Card at 12-4. But then they ran into Tebowmania in the playoffs and were upset by the Broncos. This season, they start new on offense as longtime offensive coordinator Bruce Arians is in Indianapolis and in his place is Todd Haley. They also will see a change at running back. Rashard Mendenhall tore his ACL in the regular season finale and it is not clear how much time he will miss in 2012. He will be replaced by Isaac Redman. Redman played very well against Denver and the Steelers aren’t too concerned as Mendenhall struggled most of last season. Roethlisberger had an up and down season, throwing just 21 touchdown passes. The Steelers are hopeful that under Haley’s offense Roethlisberger can increase that total. It would help his cause if the Steelers could get his number one receiver, Mike Wallace into camp. Wallace got off to a strong start but his play tailed off a bit as the season wound down. The Steelers aren’t a team that typically caves into holdouts, so Wallace will probably have to sign his franchise tender at some point if he is looking to play this year. Second receiver, Antonio Brown had a very solid year but the Steelers aren’t sure how he would respond to being the main guy if Wallace continues to hold out. Longtime receiver Hines Ward retired, but the Steelers won’t notice his absence much, he had become injury prone and was a shell of his former self. Heath Miller continues to be one of the most dependable TEs in the league, and is a great safety valve for Roethlisberger when he is avoiding pressure. The Steelers are lucky to have Roethlisberger as his large frame and ability to evade pressure have made a pretty bad offensive line not look nearly as terrible as it could. They used their first round pick on G David DeCastro and their second round pick on tackle Mike Adams. They are hoping some youth can improve the line. With an improved line Roethlisberger could be incredibly effective as he would be given time to throw the ball for a change. The Steelers defense faced their fair share of criticism last year on defense, and while some of that may have been hyperbole; they did struggle to pressure the quarterback. A lot of their defensive players were aging so they said goodbye to Aaron Smith and James Farrior. They are hoping that Brett Keisel and Casey Hampton can avoid the injury bug this year. James Harrison is starting to get up there in age and has had a hell of a time adjusting to the NFL’s new rules about safety. The Steelers secondary is strong with Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark at safety and William Gay and Ike Taylor at the corner positions. Shaun Suisham is back despite his struggles in 2011, but he will be on a short leash. Jeremy Kapinos is good enough for government work at punter. The Steelers have some question marks but they have excellent coached, especially head coach Mike Tomlin. It also helps that they get to play the Browns and Bengals four times. I expect them to do just enough to win another division crown.
2. Baltimore Ravens
2011 Record: 12-4, AFC North Champs
Head Coach: John Harbaugh (5th season Baltimore, 49-24 career)
Key Additions: WR/KR Jacoby Jones, G Bobbie Williams, DT Ryan McBean, CB Corey Graham, DE/OLB Courtney Upshaw
Key Losses: WR Lee Evans, G Ben Grubbs, DE/DT Cory Redding, DE/OLB Jarrett Johnson, CB Chris Carr, SS Tom Zbikowski
2012 Outlook: The Baltimore Ravens were a Lee Evans reception, and then perhaps a Billy Cundiff kick from reaching the Super Bowl for the first time since 2000. Despite getting older their defense continues to excel, while the offense is good enough to make the team championship contenders. QB Joe Flacco likes to think of himself as being better than he is. You can’t take away that in his four seasons he has led the Ravens to the playoffs each year. However, a lot of that has been because of a strong running game, led by Ray Rice. Rice signed a contract extension this off-season and should continue to provide great relief to Flacco not only through running the ball, but also as a pass catcher, as Rice led the team in catches last year. That can be looked at in a negative light though as outside of Anquan Boldin the Ravens have a ton of question marks at receiver. Even Boldin saw his numbers dip last season and he is starting to get older. Torrey Smith had a pretty good rookie year, including his memorable game winning catch at Pittsburgh. However, like most rookies he could be very inconsistent so the Ravens need him to become more reliable this season. At tight end, Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson are serviceable but nothing special. The offensive line is filled with question marks. Starting left guard Ben Grubbs left for New Orleans, and left tackle Bryant McKinnie is always a question mark when it comes to his weight and commitment to the game. Michael Oher struggled in his switch to right tackle in 2011, so the Ravens have to count on him doing better in 2012 with some more familiarity at the position. The biggest storyline for the Ravens this season will be how much the absence of Terrell Suggs will affect the defense. Of course, anytime you lose the Defensive Player of the Year it isn’t a good thing, but the Ravens have to try to avoid letting it completely cripple them. They drafted Courtney Upshaw out of Alabama and there will be high expectations on him, even as a rookie. Old reliables, and I do mean old, Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are back for another season. They haven’t shown any real signs of slowing down yet but it is something to watch. One of the most awe inspiring players to watch in football is Haloti Ngata. He is a dominant, monster of a man. The Ravens are strong in the secondary, with Jimmy Smith and Ladarius Webb making a strong duo at corner. Billy Cundiff is still on the team despite his huge miss last year against New England. He is in a battle with rookie Justin Tucker. Sam Koch returns as the punter. I thought last year would start the decline of the Ravens but they had a very strong season. They are another excellently coached team. I think their win total will decline a bit because of the absence of Suggs, but expect them make it to the playoffs for a fifth straight season.
3. Cincinnati Bengals
2011 Record: 9-7, 3rd place AFC North
Head Coach: Marvin Lewis (10th season Cincinnati, 69-77-1 career)
Key Additions: RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis, G Travelle Wharton, CB Jason Allen, CB Terence Newman, CB Dre Kirkpatrick
Key Losses: RB Cedric Benson, WR Jerome Simpson, WR Andre Caldwell, G Bobbie Williams, DE Frostee Rucker, OLB Keith Rivers, CB Kelly Jennings, S Chris Crocker
2012 Outlook: The Cincinnati Bengals squeaked into the playoffs last season with a rookie quarterback, Andy Dalton, and a rookie wide receiver, A.J. Green carrying them there. It also helped that all nine of their wins came against teams with losing records, helping them overcome going 0-4 against Pittsburgh and Baltimore. Coach Marvin Lewis has never been able to string together back to back winning seasons, and many expect the Bengals to revert back to their typical loser ways. Dalton was a nice surprise last season, as he had hardly any time to prepare in training camp because of the lockout, but still threw 20 touchdowns to just 13 interceptions, and coming just two yards shy of 4,000 yards passing. The running game had a new face. Cedric Benson was allowed to walk, and replaced with former Patriots back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, “the law firm”. Green-Ellis never had consistent touches in New England, and it remains to be seen if his success was simply a product of being part of a juggernaut offense. Green was tremendous in his rookie season. He and Dalton developed an instant chemistry and it has to excite Bengals fans to have it appear their team hit on those crucial draft picks. Tight end Jermaine Gresham has shown flashes of his potential, but hasn’t lived up to the hype bestowed upon him coming out of college. The rest of the receiving corps is a bunch of unknowns and never beens, as Jerome Simpson and Andrew Caldwell are both gone. Dalton’s season was helped tremendously by the effective play of his offensive line. Another pick that it appears the Bengals hit on was Andre Smith who has really started to blossom. The Bengals also have a talented defense. It may not be filled with tons of big names but a guy like Geno Atkins has provided them with consistent quarterback pressure and top notch play. The linebackers are led by Ray Maualuga, and Manny Lawson. Cornerback Leon Hall looks ready to get back from his torn Achilles and resume his place as a premier corner. The Bengals also added cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick out of Alabama. Mike Nugent and Kevin Huber are back as the kicker and punter. Nugent had a very strong season last year and made the Bengals look smart to move on from their former franchise player Shayne Graham. I don’t have a ton of confidence in Marvin Lewis as a head coach and have too often seen him teams struggle in years following a winning season. I don’t think the Bengals will suffer a complete collapse, but I do think they will have a losing season.
4. Cleveland Browns
2011 Record: 4-12, last place AFC North
Head Coach: Pat Shurmur (2nd season Cleveland, 4-12 career)
Key Additions: RB Trent Richardson, QB Brandon Weeden, DE Frostee Rucker
Key Losses: RB Peyton Hillis, OT Tony Pashos, G Eric Steinbach, S Mike Adams
2012 Outlook: The Cleveland Browns are consistently awful. They have a new owner and it appears after this season another new era and new regime will start in Cleveland. A new era has started at quarterback as Brandon Weeden has been named the starter. Many people are already assuming that Weeden will be like Chris Weinke. Weinke was an older, successful college quarterback that was saddled with a bad team and struggled mightily as a pro. It won’t help Weeden’s cause that the Browns don’t have a ton of weapons for him to use. They did try to provide him some support at the running back position by drafting Trent Richardson. However, in typical Browns fashion Richardson is already dealing with injuries and having his durability questioned. Greg Little is the Browns number one receiver, but would be most teams number two and on some teams number three receiver. Mohammed Massaquoi is their number two receiver and again is a player that isn’t anything special. Cleveland has some hope at offensive line where they have the highly talented and productive Joe Thomas and Alex Mack. The rest of the lineman are average at best and will have a lot of pressure on them to get better and provide Richardson with holes to run through and time for Weeden to throw. The Browns defense is alright, terrible against the run last season but one of the best teams in the league against the pass. Now some of that was because teams knew how bad they were stopping the run so they didn’t try to pass much. They added Frostee Rucker from Cincinnati in hopes of improving their pass rush. One of their starting linebackers, Scott Fujita, will miss the first three games of the season due to his bounty related suspension. Cornerback Joe Haden is one of the best in the league but is facing the possibility of a four game suspension. This is going to be a very long year for the Browns and I expect them to finish with the worst record in the league. They have hardly any stars on offense, which will put a ton of pressure on their defense. Maybe someday things will get better for Cleveland, but those days appear far away right now.