Wednesday, August 29, 2012

2012 NFL Preview: AFC North

A familiar sight for Steelers fans...likely to stay familiar
for another year.
With just a couple short weeks until the opening kickoff of the 2012 NFL season, it’s finally time to make my official predictions, knowing full well they will be shot to pieces faster than Carson Palmer can throw 10 INT’s. Still, gotta fill the time somehow, right?

In case you missed them, here are the divisions we’ve already previewed:

AFC West
NFC West
AFC South
NFC South

We head north today to catch up with a strong group of football teams…also, I’ll briefly mention the Browns.

AFC North

The division once again came down to Steelers vs. Ravens, as it pretty much always does. The Bengals, though, tried to get themselves in on that action, and are popular picks to accomplish that this year. The Browns? Well, they’re the Browns…and their “rookie” QB is the second oldest starter in the division.

Here are my predictions for 2012:

1. Baltimore Ravens: 13-3

Biggest Addition:  Courtney Upshaw – Granted, Baltimore had a quiet offseason, for the most part, but the selection of Upshaw certainly stands out now that Terrell Suggs is sidelined. Upshaw won’t “replace” Suggs in any way shape or form, but the Ravens will certainly need him to be a big part of a “replacement platoon” that holds the fort until Suggs can return. He showed big time ability at Alabama, and his skill set appears to be an ideal fit for the Ravens’ defensive scheme.

Biggest Loss:  Terrell Suggs – Let me reiterate that Suggs is completely irreplaceable. No combination of talented youngsters can replicate the dominance Suggs displayed last year, and the defense will simply not be the same until he returns. They’ll still be good, top ten even, but you just don’t lose a player like Terrell Suggs and not skip a few beats.

X-Factor:  Jimmy Smith – The Ravens bring back both starting CB’s, so why is Smith getting so much hype? Because he’s silly talented, that’s why. The franchise went out of their way to make sure they landed him in last year’s draft, and though his adjustment to the NFL was a bit slow, he showed very clearly, at times, exactly why they loved him so much. Smith has the size, athleticism, and ball skills to the next Chris McAlister if he works hard and keeps his head screwed on straight. If his breakout comes this year and he overtakes Cary Williams for the starting job opposite Lardarius Webb, the 2012 Ravens defense could be just as terrifying as the one that won the Super Bowl in 2000. 

Biggest Question:  Can the passing game produce more downfield plays? This has consistently been an area of concern for this team despite repeated efforts to address it. Of course, the efforts to this point have always involved bringing in a flashy new weapon for Joe Flacco. Anquan Boldin, Lee Evans, and Torrey Smith are the most recent examples of this. Yet, Flacco ended last season with a measly 6.7 Y/A. Wake up, everyone! The problem isn’t the weapons, it’s ‘Checkdown Joe!’ Everything else is in place with this team, and the only thing holding them back is offensive explosiveness. We’ll see if Flacco is capable of more.  

Forecast:  This isn’t going out on a limb or anything, but Baltimore is going to be really good. Even without Suggs, the defense has a ton of impact playmakers and should overwhelm most opponents this season. Offensively, they’re not the Patriots, but they have a strong running game and the ability to score points. For the Ravens, however, regular season success means little. Their goal is the Super Bowl, and to accomplish that they’ll need Flacco to play much better than he did last year. You know what, I’m gonna say he will, and by a lot. If he can get back to his 2010 form, the Ravens offense should be just fine, making them the most complete contender in the league.

2. Pittsburgh Steelers: 10-6

Biggest Addition:  David DeCastro – At least, it was going to be David DeCastro. RIP, Ben Roethlisberger’s body…

Biggest Loss:  Another year – Pittsburgh seemingly always has veteran teams, but for the first time in a while, they looked old last year. The defense, specifically, was visibly diminished, as guys made fewer big plays and stayed on the field less. Unfortunately for them, age cannot be rehabbed. Brett Keisel will be 34, James Harrison 34, Casey Hampton 35, Ike Taylor 32, Troy Polamalu 31, and Ryan Clark 33. We’ll see how much they have left in the tank, or if any “newer generation” guys are ready to step up.

X-Factor:  Cameron Heyward – Last year’s first round pick is one of those “newer generation” guys, and he has a huge opportunity this year. There wasn’t much playing time for him last year, but with the defensive line aging rapidly, the Steelers will rely on him more to help keep guys fresh and to create big plays. He showed a strong penchant for that at Ohio State, and his ability to play all across the line should help him stay on the field for extensive periods. He could be a breakout start this year.  

Biggest Question:  Can they keep Big Ben upright? With a stable of dynamic WR’s, a mediocre/injured group of RB’s, and a pass-happy new offensive coordinator, the identity of this Steelers team is bound to be pass-pass-pass-then pass some more. That’s only going to work if Roethlisberger is alive and not paralyzed. Adding DeCastro is huge, and the team already had a gem in Maurkice Pouncey, but the rest of the line is a question mark. Marcus Gilbert looked solid at the end of last season, but can he do it over a 16 game schedule? Mike Adams has shown potential, but is he ready to play LT in the NFL? How the Steelers season turns out will largely depend on the answers to these questions.  

Forecast:  Pittsburgh isn’t washed up, but the age concerns are very real. The defense, in particular, is older and it’s hard to imagine them putting together a Super Bowl run with so many question marks. But hey, if there’s one team I hate doubting, it’s the Pittsburgh Steelers. They always seem to have young stars in the wings to help them pull things together at the right time. And, of course, they still have Ben Roethlisberger and a trio of stud WR’s. Given that, I can’t see them collapsing. 

3. Cincinnati Bengals: 7-9

Biggest Addition:  Travelle Wharton/Kevin Zeitler – The guard combination of Nate Livings and Bobbie Williams was absolutely brutal last year, the evidence of which can be seen in their near-bottom of the league rankings in adjusted line yards and power success. Adding a solid veteran like Wharton and a promising rookie like Zeitler could pay big dividends for the offense.

Biggest Loss:  Jerome Simpson – I’ll never argue that Simpson was a great player or anything, but the Bengals might very well find themselves missing him. The Bengals’ current plan is to go with third-rounder Mohamed Sanu at the #2 WR slot, a plan that really strikes me as odd. This is a team with a young, developing QB and the expectation of competing for the division…and they’re going with a third rounder at one of the toughest positions for a rookie to transition? So I guess my point isn’t so much about missing Simpson, specifically, but about missing someone who can be a legit #2 WR.

X-Factor:  Jermaine Gresham – It’s not that Gresham was bad last year – 56 catches 596 yards 6 TD’s – it’s that so much more was expected from him. He wasn’t drafted to be a possession/red zone/security blanket type of TE, he was drafted to be a versatile, dynamic, Gronkowski-like TE. After all, that’s exactly what he was at Oklahoma. With a clear lack of depth beyond A.J. Green, the Bengals need Gresham to figure things out and be that #2 option.

Biggest Question:  Will the secondary hold up? The Bengals much-hyped defense was, in reality, remarkably average last season, finishing 17th in DVOA. Given what’s going on in the secondary, they might have a hard time maintaining that. Star CB Leon Hall suffered an Achilles injury last year, and goodness knows if he will be 100% at any point in 2012. Even worse, the Bengals appear poised to start Terrence Newman opposite him. You know, the same Terrence Newman who got cut from one of the league’s worst pass defenses. Trust me, Bengals fans; I’ve seen plenty of Terrence Newman. He’s done. Washed up. Add in the fact that they didn’t upgrade the safety position, and Cincy might have a hard time stopping people through the air.

Forecast:  I know I’m going to take heat for the prediction and that’s OK. Never at any point last year did I feel like the Bengals were one of the league’s best teams – in fact, I often felt they were frauds, an opinion backed up by their team DVOA of just 0.1% (17th). Facing a significantly more difficult schedule and facing the exact same issues as they did last year, I don’t see how they maintain the winning. 

4. Cleveland Browns: 4-12

Biggest Addition:  Brandon Weedon – I have no idea if he’s any good, but I do know that Colt McCoy isn’t the answer, so adding a first round QB who *could* be the face of the franchise going forward is a big deal. Yes, even bigger than adding Trent Richardson…because he’s a RB and you should never, EVER draft a RB that high in the draft.

Biggest Loss:  The chance to get Robert Griffin – This was the Browns big chance to land a true, bonafide franchise QB. With Griffin, the Browns could have totally re-energized their fan base. With Griffin, the Browns could have begun building something truly special, something with a future that screamed winning. Whatever happened in those negotiations, whether Holmgren cheaped out or what, the franchise totally whiffed on their biggest opportunity since the Tim Couch draft. 

X-Factor:  Greg Little – I love to poke fun at the Browns horribly undermanned WR corps, but it would be unfair to not mention Greg Little’s promising rookie campaign. Little showed solid poise and ability as a West Coast style receiver despite not playing football in 2010 due to eligibility issues. Now two years removed from that, he should start to really come into his own with the added polish of real game experience. It remains to be seen whether he can be a true #1, but he’s at least a viable target for Weedon to throw to.

Biggest Question:  How can anyone boil down their problems to one single question? No, seriously, that’s my question. Instead of trying, let’s just rattle off a list of questions…here goes: Is Weedon any good? How much development time does Weedon need? What’s the deal with Trent Richardson’s knee? Can Josh Gordon and Greg Little develop into a decent 1-2 punch? Do they have depth in the passing game? Will the right side of the line hold up? How will they stop the run without Phil Taylor and Chris Gocong? Other than Sheard, who will pressure the QB? (I’m exhausted…let’s move on)

Forecast:  Just look at that list of questions and ask yourself, does that sound like a winning team? The Browns won just 4 games last year despite the easiest schedule in the history of the NFL and I honestly fail to see how they improved a single bit. Weedon is as big a question mark as McCoy, the receivers are still awful, the line is still spotty, and the one impact guy they did bring in appears to have a nagging knee issue. Even the defense, considered a “strong point” was remarkably mediocre last year, ranking 22nd in DVOA. Basically, there are no strengths on this team, so I can’t give them more than 4 wins.


  1. Sorry man, but I know this prediction is wrong. Why, you ask? because with the exception of Cleveland, (I have them 3-13) we predicted exactly the same results for this division. Like, to the game same.

  2. If there's one thing you don't want to be caught doing, it's agreeing with me. Surefire way to look dumb.