The AFC North
By Ben Dieter
The AFC North has had the same two teams on top for quite some time now. The Pittsburg Steelers, and the Baltimore Ravens. Sure, the Bengals made the playoffs last season and are on the up, but the AFC North reminds me of the AL East in baseball. The two teams at the top are very hard to topple. Baltimore almost made the Super Bowl last season, and won the division. Will they repeat as division champs again?
1. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5): Ben Roethlisberger is a two time Super Bowl winner for a reason: he is a pretty good quarterback. The Steelers had another playoff season in 2011, but it ended surprisingly early to Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos. This season starts with Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos which promises to be entertaining. The Steelers offensive is not what I would call “high flying”, but they do get the job done on a regular basis. Holdout Mike Wallace is back, but he has not practiced much and may not be a big factor at the beginning of the season or worse, may get injured because of lack of a training camp.
Also, the Steelers have hired Todd Haley to help the offensive. I do not have a lot of faith in Haley, as he did not really do a stellar job as the head man in KC. That being said, if it ain’t broke, then don’t fix it. If he lets Big Ben do what he has done over the past few seasons, the Steelers should be able to win the division and get back to the playoffs. And what is there to say about their defense? It has been good, and will continue to be good. Pittsburgh has been fun to watch and again, I think that will continue. I look for the Steelers to beat the Bengals and Browns twice, and split with the Ravens to take the division.
Baltimore Ravens (10-6): This team won the division last season but I don’t think that it will sweep the division this season like in 2011. The Steelers are not going to get swept two years in a row by the Ravens, and for that reason alone I think the division will not go to the Ravens this season. The offensive with Flacco at quarterback, Ray Rice at running back and a pretty solid receiving core including Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin should be pretty good again this season. If they open up Flacco and really let him chuck the ball down the field this season, this offensive could be even better than I think they will be.
The Ravens have always been known for their defense, but this season I do not think it will be as good as we all have come to expect over the last 5 to 10 years. Ray Lewis, although great, is not getting any younger, and the loss of Terrell Suggs is not going to help things on the defensive side of the ball. I don’t believe it will be a big step back, but I do believe it will be a step back for the defensive this season. Also, they have a very tough schedule which includes the Patriots, Texans, Cowboys, Giants and Broncos just to name a few. I still think they will make the playoffs pretty easy, but as a wild card:.
3. Cincinnati Bengals (9-7): Andy Dalton was surprisingly good last season in leading the team to their first playoff appearance in a very long time, and the last time the Bengals had back to back playoff experiences was 5 years before Andy Dalton was born. His favorite target in 2011, Jerome Simpson (no relation to Jessica, Bart or O.J.) is not a Bengal anymore, but a Viking. He does have A.J. Green and rookie Dre Kirkpatrick who should be a pretty good pair for Dalton, and the pick of Ben Jarvis Green-Ellis should help the offensive as well. The defense is pretty good, but not good enough to stand up to the Steelers and Ravens. They play the NFC East and the AFC West, that’s one hard division (NFC East) and one easy division (AFC West), but in division is going to be tough, so I do not see them improving record wise on last season.
4. Cleveland Browns (4-12): The Browns have finally decided who their quarterback is going to be, and it is not Colt McCoy. In my humble opinion (and in full disclosure I am a UT fan) I don’t think Colt was the main problem last season. Instead they are starting 28 year old rookie Brandon Weedon. Weedon was a good college quarterback at Oklahoma State, but he had an offensive line at Oklahoma State.
In truth, the Browns O-line has been bad for a long time, but they have been drafting O-lineman early in drafts over the past few seasons, so what the Browns have now is a young offensive line protecting a rookie quarterback. They have a chance to have a good line in another season or two, but most likely not this season. I see the Browns offense struggling to score again this season and I see Weedon getting a whole lot of exercise running away from potential sackers. On the defensive side their supposed best player, corner back Joe Haden is reportedly going to miss 4 games for failing a drug test and has also been reported to have some serious attitude problems. Overall, I think it is going to be another ugly season for the Cleveland Browns and I think at some point you will see McCoy back with the starting job.
By Nathan Hague
It’s time for the NFC North, formerly known as the NFC Central and the Black and Blue Division because of how the bitter rivals used to beat up on each other. This year, it’s going to be one beating on the rest, and another getting beat up by everybody else. This division will go head-to-head with the NFC West and the AFC South, so between those two divisions, the North teams are guaranteed at least a couple wins, right? One more thing real quickly, isn’t it weird to think about Tampa Bay being in this division? Almost as weird as Arizona being in the NFC East and Atlanta being in the NFC West. Enough said, let’s begin.
1. Green Bay Packers (13-3): After being embarrassed by the Giants in the postseason, the Packers are going to be determined get back to the Super Bowl, and they have all the weapons to make that happen. Of course, it all starts with MVP Aaron Rodgers who threw for 4,643 yards and 45 touchdowns. The scary thing is he has a good chance of repeating that type of performance in 2012. He has the same weapons as last year but he’s got a veteran center in Jeff Saturday to give him more time. The team lost safety Nick Collins and tackle Chad Clifton and the defense has a few weak spots but if Rodgers plays like he’s capable of, they should have no problem winning 13 games and winning the division.
2. Detroit Lions (11-5): Calvin Johnson is arguably the best receiver in the league and he has made it a goal to finish every game with 100 receiving yards this season. That’s highly unlikely but Megatron and is coming of a season in which he finished with 96 catches for 1,681 yards and 16 touchdowns. So on average, he accomplished that goal. His quarterback, Matthew Stafford had an impressive 2011 season with over 5,000 yards and 41 touchdowns as he looks to add to his already-impressive resume. If he and Johnson stay together for their whole career, they’ll destroy the record books.
Unfortunately for Stafford and his Lions, they rely on his arm too much that they don’t have much of a passing game. Jahvid Best has been prone to concussions and will miss the first six games and Mikel Leshoure will miss the first two due to suspension so it looks like desperate times will call for desperate measures. Just how desperate are the Lions? Well, the lack of running game will likely mean more balls to Johnson.
Defensively, the team lost corners Kevin Barnes and Bill Bentley but replaced them with Eric Wright and Aaron Berry. Despite the odds being against them to win the division, the Lions have a great shot at sneaking back into the playoffs as a wild card.
3. Chicago Bears (8-8): This team could very easily finish second in the North. They had no big losses and they added several weapons including receiver Brandon Marshall and running back Michael Bush who will no doubt be more than insurance policy for the injury-plagued Matt Forte. He’ll get plenty of looks and will be a legit threat in the backfield. He’ll take pressure off quarterback Jay Cutler.
Veteran linebacker Brian Urlacher had knee procedure is questionable whether or not he’ll even return to the field in 2012. Either way, it’s an injury sure to hurt the Bears. If he does return, he won’t be 100 percent and his absence will leave a big hole to fill.
4. Minnesota Vikings (4-12): If there’s anything this Minnesota teams is good at, it’s putting pressure on the quarterback. Jared Allen’s 22 sack total was just a half a sack short of Michael Strahan’s single-season record he set in 2001. Unfortunately for the Vikings though, they don’t have a whole lot more to write home about. Their secondary is weak and so many question marks surround Christian Ponder who’s entering his second season. After going from two really old quarterbacks in Brett Favre and Donovan McNabb, the Vikings thought they’d take the opposite approach and go for someone really young.
Ponder doesn’t have a lot to work offensively. His best receiver, Percy Harvin has made it extremely clear he doesn’t want to be there. The Vikings brought in Jerome Simpson (no, not related to Ashley or Homer either) and if he meshes well, could be a threat to oposing secondaries. Stud running back Adrian Peterson plans on being there opening weekend after coming off knee surgery, but if the former Sooner does start week 1, he likely won’t be 100 percent, which means he the Vikings have their work cut out for them. As of right now, their ship is sinking and they need a miracle. If Ponder can be what they hope, they Vikings might finish third in the division. That’s a big “if” though.