The AFC North is always good for some intense defensive battles that usually are not too interesting and involve awkward field-goaly scores like 6 and 12. However, it usually boasts at least two playoff teams, and the division looks competitive going into 2012 as well. The Steelers and Ravens look to battle for first place while the Bengals hope to capitalize on a surprise playoff berth in 2011 with even more success in 2012. The Browns have some new pieces, but remain the Cleveland Browns.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers
Line: 10 wins – Expectation: Over
This is essentially a toss-up with the Ravens, but the loss of Terrell Suggs gives the advantage to the Steelers. After suffering a painful defeat at the hands of Tim Tebow to end their 2011 season, the Steelers will be out for revenge in 2012, meeting the Broncos in Week 1. The Steelers always seem to have problems with injuries, and the offensive line must protect Ben Roethlisberger if they want a chance to succeed.
The Steelers will be without Rashard Mendenhall for most of the season due to a torn ACL, though Mike Wallace finally ended his lengthy holdout. He will probably get off to a slow start due to skipping training camp, especially with a new offensive coordinator. As mentioned, Big Ben needs to remain healthy, and the Steelers drafted some offensive linemen in the hopes that they can avoid serious injury to their QB. Antonio Brown looks like a star in the making, and will have a starting role with the retirement of Hines Ward.
The defense was maligned in 2011, an unusual occurrence for the Steelers. They are an older unit, and need to stay healthy. This is especially true for Troy Polamalu, who has had concussion issues in the past. They need James Harrison to stay out of trouble and not have any chats with Roger Goodell. The secondary is still extremely strong, and that alone will guarantee success given that the NFL is a passing league.
They have an easy schedule to begin the season, but the second half has some tricky matchups with health remaining the main factor. 10 wins is a very fair line and seems like the most likely total for this team. With the Ravens being hurt by losing Terrell Suggs, and the cake early schedule for the Steelers, I’ll say they win over 10 games, if forced to make a choice.
2. Baltimore Ravens
Line: 10 wins – Expectation: Over
The Ravens were a dropped TD pass away from making the Super Bowl in 2011, and look to get over that hump in 2012. Much of the same personnel remains, and Joe Flacco has another year of experience to draw on. Flacco is heavily criticized, with many saying that the Ravens win in spite of him. Regardless, he has performed in the playoffs, and as Donovan McNabb knows, if you go to enough conference championship games, eventually you get the chance to lose in the Super Bowl.
Flacco does not have many weapons outside of Ray Rice, but luckily Rice is so talented that he does not need many other options. Torrey Smith looks like he has potential to be a star wideout, and Anquan Boldin is his usual boring, effective self. Flacco could use another receiver/tight end to step up and help move the chains.
The defense suffered a huge blow when Terrell Suggs was lost for the season. This is a unit that is aging quickly, and who knows how effective some of these players can continue to be year after year. However, they have one of the best secondaries in football, and with Ray Lewis and Haloti Ngata lurking in the Front 7, they have a formidable run defense as well. They lack depth and need to stay healthy, but the defense should lead this team to many victories, even without Suggs.
Unlike the Steelers, the Ravens have an extremely difficult schedule, with their only breaks being divisional opponents, and the Redskins and Raiders, both of which could be tricky opponents. That being said, this team always has naysayers and they answer the call. If Pittsburgh has injury issues (always likely), that could pave the way to a comfortable AFC North title for Baltimore. Flacco seems to be improving, and the 10 win line seems perfect. Again, if I had to choose, it would be over. At least one of the Steelers or Ravens will win over 10 games.
3. Cincinnati Bengals
Line: 8.5 wins – Expectation: Under
The Bengals were the surprise playoff team from the AFC, winning 9 games and coming up just short against the Texans in their wild-card matchup. Andy Dalton performed quite well with new WR A.J. Green. However, the Bengals did not beat anyone that was decent, going 0-4 against the Steelers and Ravens. They did not beat a playoff team last year, and look like a product of an easy schedule.
Dalton performed decently in 2011, but has become a bit overrated. A.J. Green looks like top receiver and certainly helps Dalton look better. They swapped out Cedric Benson for Ben-Jarvus Green-Ellis, and it will be interesting to see how he performs outside of New England.
Lost in the shuffle of admiring rookies was the stout play of the Cincinnati defense. They played well against the run and pass, and return most starters. They drafted Dre Kirkpatrick, who should make an immediate impact, especially with the return of Leon Hall uncertain. If the Bengals want any chance of repeat success, this unit will have to be at least as solid as it was in 2011.
The Bengals have a cake schedule to begin the season, and they must start fast. They need to capitalize on their 3rd place schedule before dealing with an extremely difficult back half of the season. They will not be able to walk to 9 wins this year and sneak into the playoffs. Expect regression from the Bengals, who may be lucky to win 7 games.
4. Cleveland Browns
Line: 5.5 wins – Expectation: Over
The Browns were left out of the QB frenzy that occurred in the NFL Draft this season, opting for Brandon Weeden, the least desired of the early QB prospects. He cannot be much worse Colt McCoy, but Browns fans may secretly root for losses to get Matt Barkley in 2013. They did draft Trent Richardson at 4th overall, and he is one of the best HB prospects to come out in a while. Overall, it would be hard for the Browns to do worse than they did in 2011.
As mentioned, the offense has some new parts. Weeden will be the starting QB, although he has not looked great in preseason. Richardson should be a beast, but teams may gear up for him, knowing the Browns cannot move the ball aerially. Weeden will have no offensive weapons, but the Browns offensive line has some talent, so he shouldn’t get killed out there.
The defense is not the glaring eyesore that the offense is. Joe Haden and D’Qwell Jackson are great talents and they have a decent supporting cast. Those two have had trouble staying on the field, and it is imperative that they remain healthy. The offense does not look potent enough to lead this team to many victories, so this unit needs to be at its best.
The line for Browns is tough, as is any line under 6. The NFL can be quite random year to year, and although the Browns are generally the NFL’s punching bag, maybe they can put something together this year. Richardson is going to be a beast, and maybe that opens up the field for Weeden to make this offense decent. It sounds like I’m a hopeful Browns fan (I am not), but this is solely a gut pick. Around 6-7 wins seems feasible for this team, especially if it prevents them from getting a franchise QB in 2013.
I have imbibed the NFC North Kool-Aid. This is the most talented division in football, and it seems inevitable they will have two playoff representatives, if not three. The Packers remain a Super Bowl threat after only losing twice last year. The Lions won’t be shellshocked by success this year. The Bears were cruising to the playoffs in 2011 until an untimely Jay Cutler injury derailed any hopes of that. The Vikings probably will not be competitive given the talent this division has, but they are always a pesky foe. The fact that this division gets the AFC South and NFC West this year means that nobody should be surprised if both wild-card teams come from the NFC North.
1. Detroit Lions
Line: 9.5 wins – Expectation: Over
With their first playoff appearance in a generation, the Lions got thoroughly trounced by Drew Brees and the Saints. With a year of success under their belt, Detroit should be more prepared for a playoff berth this time around. Much depends on the health of Stafford, who was excellent in his first season not cut short by injury. The Lions need to cut back on penalties and stupid mistakes that every young team is prone to falling victim to.
The Lions offense was unstoppable in 2011, as Matthew Stafford showed why he was a #1 pick. He needs to remain healthy, and the Lions offensive line has improved and protected him well in 2011. The running game remains a question mark, as they have many oft-injured runners. Jahvid Best had concussion problems and never returned. They had to resort to returning Kevin Smith who exceed expectations by playing more than 6 quarters, but he too fell victim to injury. Mikel LeShoure missed all of last year with an injury, so it will be interesting to see if one of these three can claim the starting role with consistency. Also they have Calvin Johnson; he’s OK.
The defense was porous for most of the season. They have a talented and deep defensive line, but even that could not help the pathetic Lions secondary. They did not do much to address it, but health was an issue for this defense last year, and they should improve after an offseason of rest. Resigning Stephen Tulloch was big for a team that needed him back badly.
As with all the NFC North teams, playing the AFC South and NFC West is quite the luxury. Besides their divisional battles with the Bears and Packers, the Lions do not have any overly difficult matches. There are too many terrible teams in those divisions to think the Lions cannot reach double digit wins in 2012. Only an injury to Megatron or Stafford would derail that.
2. Green Bay Packers
Line: 12 wins – Expectation: Over
With the best QB in the league and tremendous offensive support, the Packers will look to blow through the NFL (mostly) again in 2012. Green Bay will again be in contention for a first-round bye (assuming health), and hope to avoid a repeat of their playoff debacle against the New York Giants. This is still the most dangerous team in football.
Not much needs to be said about Aaron Rodgers. He releases the ball quickly, he has a cannon, he is mobile, accurate, etc. He has excellent receivers in Greg Jennings and the emerging Jordy Nelson. With Cedric Benson, the Packers have a chance of establishing some sort of running game in 2012. The offensive line remains intact and performed ably in 2011. This offense is a juggernaut, and can put up points at will.
The defense is going to be the source of any downfall, as it was in 2011. They have some individual players who are solid, but the unit was completely dreadful last year. The secondary suffered many injuries, and should improve with health in 2012. However, the loss of Desmond Bishop will hurt the Packers, leaving Clay Matthews as the only talent in the linebacker trio.
Facing the AFC South is quite a gift. The Packers will have to go to Houston and New York (Giants), but other than that, there are not too many roadblocks. A line of 12 wins is extremely high, but with this cakewalk schedule, the Packers should not have a problem getting to 13-14 wins, assuming Aaron Rodgers remains intact.
3. Chicago Bears
Line: 9.5 wins – Expectation: Over
After starting 7-3 start, the Bears finally realized how important Jay Cutler is to them when they completely tanked after his injury in the second half of the season. They could only muster one more victory after Cutler went down, as Caleb Hanie was pathetic in relief. The Bears generally are disrespected as people think Cutler awful, but the way this team fell apart without him in 2011 could open some eyes.
Cutler has a new receiving core which is much improved. He is reunited with Brandon Marshall, and the Bears drafted Alshon Jeffery. Adding Michael Bush will lessen the load for an overworked Matt Forte, and also provides injury insurance. The oft maligned offensive line is still an issue, and they need to protect their QB in 2012.
The actual health of Brian Urlacher will be critical to the success of the Bears. He is having knee issues, which does not bode well for a player who tore ligaments only 9 months ago. He is the leader of this defense, and any lingering effects will certainly damage Chicago’s title hopes. Otherwise, the defense remains intact and should be a fearsome unit as it was in 2012.
Like the aforementioned teams, the Bears schedule is quite easy due to favorable divisional scheduling matchups. Most of their difficult contests come in the early part of the season, so they must be careful not to fall behind the Lions and Packers to the point of an insurmountable deficit. Assuming Cutler remains in one piece, the Bears should also cruise to double digit wins as they were set to do in 2011.
4. Minnesota Vikings u6
Line: 6 wins – Expectation: Under
The Vikings are by far the worst team in a very talented division. After Brett Favre had his magical season and finally disappeared, the Vikings remain without an adequate QB. Christian Ponder showed signs of potential in 2011, but looks far from being the long-term solution. The Vikings have quite an uphill battle with its divisional foes all bound for success in 2012 and beyond. Minnesota still has some projects to work on and cannot simply rely on Adrian Peterson for everything.
Peterson is the big story coming into 2012, as he tore his ACL late in the 2011 season. He claims he is fully recovered, but puts himself at a risk to re-injure himself, especially in a season where it does not seem likely that the Vikings will compete. Drafting Matt Kalil will certainly shore up the pass protections, which was lacking in 2011. Toby Gerhart proved to be a serviceable fill-in for Peterson, and should get his share of carries to limit Peterson’s workload.
With a questionable offense, the Vikings defense is the only reason they stay in most games. The secondary is extremely young, and newly-drafted safety Harrison Smith looks highly talented. They have talent in the front 7 with Jared Allen, Chad Greenway, and Kevin Williams.
The Vikings benefit from the easy division schedule, but they would be lucky to win 1-2 games within their own division. There is a chance Peterson re-injures himself, which would render the season dead. Their defense can take them only so far, especially in a division with much higher-powered offenses. In a different situation, more than 6 wins would be feasible, but the Vikings do not seem likely to surpass that number in the NFC North.
Ath-Lists does not promote gambling. These lines and opinions are for entertainment only.
cover photo Lake Fong/ Pittsburgh Post-Gazette