Let’s be honest, there’s a lot of talent in this division and it looks like overall it will be stronger this year. The Steelers and Ravens represent the class of the division while the Cleveland Browns can only get better and the Bengals can’t get any worse.
Pittsburgh Steelers 2010: 12-4, AFC North Champions. Playoffs: Super Bowl Loss
Major Additions: Jerricho Cotchery (WR), Re-signing Chris Hoke (NT) and Ike Taylor.
Major Losses: Flozell Adams (OT) [Not really a lot of losses to work with here]
Biggest Game: Week 3 at Indianapolis (SNF)
Being a Pittsburgh Steelers player would be a great job if you can get it. All you have to do is play well, not get greedy and you will be taken care of. The team rarely gives up on its good players and will almost always build through the draft. The core of that roster has taken Pittsburgh to two Super Bowl appearances and one win in the last three seasons. In between appearances however the Steelers had a down year going 8-8 (I can hear Lions fans going “great down year”) and missing the playoffs. One big issue surrounding the team will be how the two big names on offense and defense respond to offseason controversy. Everyone knows and remembers what James Harrison said about his teammates and if he wants to go that way good for him, but I do wonder when the bullets are flying how many people have his back, the unit seems pretty tight so there is every chance all is forgiven. Ben Roethlisberger had a relatively quiet offseason but he did make the unfortunate decision to get married last month which will no doubt affect his play (I am of course kidding about that, good luck to the couple).
Statistics and history aren’t in favour of the Steelers this season with the team likely to struggle compared to last season. The schedule is going to be tough before the bye in week 11, however aside from the game against Sam Bradford & the Rams in week 16 the Steelers should be expected to win every game on the home stretch to at least give them a chance.
Better or Worse: As good as the roster, in particular the defense is, the defending AFC Champions will miss the playoffs at 8-8 this year.
2010: 12-4, Wild Card. Playoffs: Divisional Playoff Loss
Major Additions: Vonta Leach (FB), Bernard Pollard (S), Torrey Smith (WR)*, Jimmy Smith (CB)*
Major Losses: Todd Heap (TE), Willis McGahee (RB), Derrick Mason (WR), Kelly Gregg (DT), Marc Bulger (QB)
Biggest Game: Week 4 vs New York Jets (SNF)
The Ravens came oh so close to knocking the Steelers out of the playoffs last season leading 21-7 at halftime and looking like they were going to get on with it and post a comfortable victory. When the Ravens went up by 14 I texted my friend “That’s game Hendrix!” thinking it was well & truly over. Unfortunately the Ravens proceeded to fumble and throw the game away and wound up losing by 7. With an aging roster the Ravens made the decision to go younger and faster by cutting veterans such as Heap and Gregg. Working in the Ravens favour however is that most of the guys who they lost were either backups or losing their place in the starting lineup.
Better or Worse: The Ravens should post a slightly worse record in 2011 but only marginally. That minor drop off will still be good enough to claim the AFC North title and the second round of the playoffs again.
Biggest Game: Week 17 vs Pittsburgh
The Browns are starting to get the feel of a Houston/Arizona/Detroit team that will have every expert picking that “this will be their year to break through.” After some of their performances in 2010 it is easy to see why, they managed to run over the usually good Patriots in week 8 which was the highlight of their season. QB Colt McCoy who I was a big fan of going into the 2010 draft will go into the season as the unquestioned starter and will most likely turn into one of those players who never posts great stats but will get wins when he needs to. Running Back Peyton Hillis has the Madden curse to worry about but until he gets injured there is no reason to think the Browns won’t continue to rise in 2011
Better or Worse: The Browns will be much better in 2011 even with the new coach on the back of Peyton Hillis and a solid but not great defense. It won’t be enough for a playoff but it will be close to 8-8
Major Additions: A.J. Green (WR)*, Andy Dalton (QB)*,
Major Losses: Chad Ochocinco (WR), Carson Palmer (QB), Antwan Odom.
Biggest Game: Week 17 vs Baltimore
The Bengals were hoping that 2010 would be the year they finally put back to back winning seasons together. New signing Terrell Owens was brought in to take the pressure off Chad Ochocinco and to provide reality tv tragics like Bill Simmons more content to watch and write about. Anyway some bad stuff happened, the Bengals played a couple of games close and wound up with an angry (and retired ?) Carson Palmer, a traded Ochocinco, the 4th overall pick in the draft and two new centerpieces for the offense. The Bengals will be starting Dalton and Green all season and using this as a “welcome to the NFL” season for the two of them to learn from.
Better or Worse: Unfortunately for Bengals fans this year will be another tough one to endure. The best case scenario is is that the two big rookie picks to show some good signs for 2012 to help Marvin Lewis keep his job.